May Day Mayhem

Gulf Labor Coalition calls for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi boycott

The skylight of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 2015, Gulf labor activists occupied the rotunda in support of migrant laborers in the United Arab Emirates. (Micaela Parente/Unsplash)

Although the news that the Abu Dhabi offshoot of the Guggenheim was alive and well only broke a couple of weeks ago, labor activists are proactively calling for an artists’ boycott until the Guggenheim Foundation addresses their concerns over working conditions in the Gulf state.

The Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC), a collective of artists and labor activists, has been agitating for more equitable conditions for migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates since 2010. The group has sparred with the Guggenheim Foundation over its Abu Dhabi location several times, precipitating an occupation of the Guggenheim Museum on May Day in 2015 and the projection of shaming messages onto the building’s spiral in 2016.

The GLC brought the Guggenheim Foundation to the negotiating table in 2015, but the foundation’s Board of Trustees announced in April of 2016 that it would be walking away from any further discussions with the GLC, citing the group’s “shifting goals.” With progress on the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi slowed, or even stopped, the furor temporarily died down.

Now that the project is actively moving forward again, the GLC has released an open letter to the Guggenheim, and any artists who would work with the museum.



“We were inspired by the struggle for worker rights taking place by students and faculty around the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and asked ourselves what we as art practitioners could do to address potential labor abuses for the Guggenheim Museum’s planned Abu Dhabi branch.

“What we asked was, in our eyes, quite modest. Before we agree to participate or include our works in such a collection, can you please ensure that workers are not abused and are paid fairly, that they are not indebted by recruitment fees, that they are given decent housing and living conditions, and that they have the right to address grievances or abuses individually or collectively? We also asked for an independent external monitor to be in place so that we have at least a modicum of objectivity in assuring these conditions are met. Only the last of these requests was met, and not in a satisfactory way.”

The full statement can be read here.

When pressed for comment, Guggenheim officials only told Hyperallergic the following:

“Recent coverage of an updated timeline for the construction and opening of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was erroneous and was corrected by multiple media outlets several days ago. There is no construction on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, no contractor has been selected, and no timeline has been set.”

It’s unclear what exactly the Guggenheim officials are referring to. Their statement said that construction work was not ongoing, but the earlier Euronews interview with Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum, did not say that construction was already happening, but that it would be starting “soon.” While that article originally claimed a 2022 opening date, that was quickly amended. The officials did not apparently correct Armstrong’s assertion that the Guggenheim Foundation is still actively pursuing the Abu Dhabi project.

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