Saturday night at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, art lovers experienced an intervention action designed to highlight the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates. A franchise of the New York’s Guggenheim, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, is under construction on the man-made resort island, along with Louvre-branded museums and a NYU-affiliated university.

The awareness event was the first staged by a coalition of artists, academics, and activists, including Occupy Museums, Gulf Labor, and various NYU-related groups, working to ensure that the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island do not exploit workers. The group, calling themselves G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) have a second event scheduled for Wednesday, February 26, 5:15pm EST, at NYU’s Global Center for Academic & Spiritual Life (GCASL), which is located at 238 Thompson Street, Room 369, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. (But really surprise is your friend with these things, you don’t want to get frisked for your posters and bugles and turned away at the door!)

During the 20 minute intervention, held on the museum’s pay-what-you-wish admission evening, as a baritone bugle sounded, demonstrators unfurled Mylar banners, chanted slogans, passed out leaflets and engaged museum patrons in conversation, much to the distress of museum guards who tried to remove banners and herd the demonstrators outside. Guards also denied entrance to the line of several hundred people waiting outside. The Guggenheim’s pay-what you-wish evenings are popular events, as the museum normally charges $22 per person.

Andrew Ross, a NYU professor of sociology, who is involved in the Gulf Labor coalition and the NYU Fair Labor coalition told Hyperallergenic:

This is a new phase of the campaign, we’re moving beyond talk to action, and bringing it home obviously to the Guggenheim. There are so many more people involved in this action that were not involved in Gulf Labor until this point. We’re widening the circle of participation, and that will have an impact…

We’re trying to make a connection with chains of debt that are transnational, and in the various locations we’re looking at, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, NYU, and the art world, there’s an enormous accumulation of debt in each of these places, and the money is getting extracted by the transnational creditor class. And artists are more and more [in debt], and in order to practice art, you’re required to take on a big debt burden … so there’s a connection across many continents. Another art world is possible, one that’s more principled and ethical, and that looks out for the human and labor rights of all. Artists should not be asked to exhibit in museums that have been built on the back of abused workers … that’s what it boils down to. When you’re acquired by a museum that does that, that’s unfair. Your complicity is being bought along with the artwork.

At NYU, tuition costs $,1251 per credit plus a non-refundable registration fee of $64.00 per unit. A year’s tuition at  California Institute for the Arts is $41,700.  Students attending Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) can expect to pay over $42,000 a year. Currently student loan rates are 7.9%. Math is hard, but basically, you’re fucked.

As seen on the video above, shot by Hyperallergenic’s Hrag Vartanian, while some museum goers are engaged and curious, others are confused, commenting that

maybe this is a performance piece.

which in fact it was. The staging in the midst of the Guggenheim’s Italian Futurism exhibition, a backdrop which created a subtle artistic tension though it was simply coincidental timing; the intervention organizers planned their action for the discounted admission night. (After World War I, Futurism founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti sought to make Futurism the official state of art in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. He failed, and despite its founder’s attempts to cozy up to Il Duce, Futurism found adherents on the left and in the anti-Fascist movements. Futurism embraced planes, trains and automobiles, youth culture, speed and power). The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building with interior ramps made for a bold display of banners, though the acoustics were a little off.

Artist min Husain, who helped lead the chants, told Hyperallergenic:

I think it was well-received by the people in the museum. One person told me that they didn’t know that was happening, so public education is really important.

According to the Guardian, the conditions for laborers building the complex of five-star hotels and museums on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, including a new Louvre and the world’s largest Guggenheim, are:

a shame to the West…labour abuses were a systemic problem in the UAE, with migrant workers suffering “extreme exploitation”, including unpaid wages and excessively long working hours.

According to the Guardian, at the NYU construction site workers

live in squalid conditions, with 10 men to a room, no free healthcare and some trapped because they have to pay back huge recruitment fees.

Laborers at the Louvre construction site

work for nine months to a year just to pay back their recruitment fees. One worker who went on strike over poor wages was kept in his camp unpaid for three months and then sent back to Pakistan with 19 others.

In December, 2013 the European council held a meeting

to discuss the growing concern about migrant workers’ rights in the UAE and its neighbour, Qatar. The chair of the European parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, said migrant workers in the UAE, including those on Saadiyat Island, were exploited “on a daily basis”.


HT: Hyperallergenic