As a forum for spirited discourse, the Walker Art Center’s Artist Op-Eds series addresses current, and at times contentious, issues through the voices of today’s artists. To facilitate conversation, we welcome responses from parties involved with these issues. Here, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, responds to Naeem Mohaiemen’s December 7, 2016 opinion piece, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign,” which addresses, in part, plans for the Guggenheim’s museum in Abu Dhabi.
“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign” misrepresents the Guggenheim Foundation’s engagement on the issue of workers’ welfare related to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and is an exercise in self-congratulation and manufactured history.
Since we began the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project in 2007 safeguarding the welfare of the workers who will build the future museum has been a top priority and a focus of considerable engagement with our partners in the UAE—most specifically the Tourism Development & Investment Company. During that time, TDIC has advanced measurable progress on a number of fronts, including the development of its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), which outlines workers’ welfare requirements on its projects, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, for which construction is not yet underway. The EPP, which was endorsed by the Guggenheim and to which we contributed recommendations for its most recent revision in 2015, has been noted by Human Rights Watch as providing “more labor protections than anywhere else in the Gulf.” Annual independent monitoring reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers continue to show improvements among those who are working under the EPP on current TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island, including workers’ accommodations, passport retention, and access to medical insurance. At the same time, the government of Abu Dhabi has taken additional measures to strengthen protections for workers at the national level, including decrees enacted earlier this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.
Despite this progress, the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) has pursued a campaign of direct action against the Guggenheim since 2010 in the media and in our museums in New York and Venice. For six years Guggenheim senior leadership engaged in good faith with GLC to seek common ground on an issue of shared importance. During the course of that engagement GLC repeatedly shifted its demands on the Guggenheim beyond those within the direct influence of a single arts institution and which require involvement at the highest levels of government—namely the issues of recruitment fees, living wage, and the right to organize—while capitalizing on our name and spreading mistruths about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project. Earlier this year, we reached the conclusion that these direct discussions were no longer productive and decided to end them.
Contrary to the authors’ claims, GLC did not introduce the Guggenheim to the topic of workers’ welfare or to the International Labor Organization, one of a number of labor-related groups with which we have engaged over nine years. Neither did media coverage of GLC’s direct actions against the museum yield reforms to the EPP or the appointment of an independent monitor, both of which were the result of commitment and effort on the part of TDIC and its leadership.
Perhaps the most revealing statement by the authors is the assertion that “we have every advantage over the museum.” When your approach is opportunistic rationalization of your own behavior and your cause one of self-righteousness, that well may be the case. In the meantime, the Guggenheim remains committed to workers’ welfare on the future museum and to the principles that have guided us since our founding—the value of an international worldview, a commitment to the art and artists of our time, and an abiding faith in the transformative power of art.