Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor: Statement from Gulf Labor Coalition

This is a statement issued by the Gulf Labor Coalition

Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor


On April 13, 2016, Guggenheim Board of Trustees unilaterally severed negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). In a conference call, the Guggenheim[1] informed GLC that they will no longer meet with us, nor listen to our proposals about the living and working conditions of the workers who are and will be building museums in Abu Dhabi.

On April 17, 2016, Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Museum, sent an email to artists, art critics, curators, and museum directors all over the world describing GLC as a group that “continues to shift its demands,” is “continuing to spread mistruths,” and uses “deliberate falsehoods.”[2] He insisted that no work had begun on the Abu Dhabi site, a recurring claim that GLC has already challenged.[3]

Since the announcement of the artist boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2011, GLC has published research reports, analyzed each Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) monitoring report, invited NGOs and labor organizations (e.g., ILO, HRW, ITUC) to join discussions, and initiated multiple meetings with Guggenheim.[4] In response to all this work by GLC, statements made by the museum made it clear that the Guggenheim was never serious about dialogue with artist groups towards fair labor standards

GLC & NGO Coalition’s Meeting with Guggenheim (Feb 2016)

GLC spent the first half of 2015 requesting a meeting with the Trustees, to no avail. Only after a May Day occupation of the Guggenheim New York, and the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, did they finally agree to meet with GLC. We had meetings with Guggenheim on June 3 (attendees included, for the first time after many requests, Guggenheim Board Chairman William Mack and President Jennifer Blei Stockman) and September 15, 2015 (attendees included Board member Stephen Robert). We then requested a “summit” level meeting between GLC, Guggenheim, and several organizations with global expertise capable of helping Guggenheim meet international labor and rights standards. We were told the earliest a meeting could happen was six months later in February 2016. As a gesture of good faith, GLC volunteered a moratorium on public actions while negotiations were ongoing.

GLC assembled an NGO coalition for the February meeting. These organizations bring expertise in labor, migration, human rights, and construction in the Gulf. Their members were: Fiona Murie (Building and Woodworkers’ International), Jill Wells (Engineers Against Poverty), Sarah Leah Whitson (Human Rights Watch), Jeffrey Vogt (International Trade Union Confederation), Shilkha Silliman Bhattacharjee (Society for Labor and Development). The Guggenheim team was led by Richard Armstrong and Trustee John Calicchio.
GLC’s Follow-up Proposal (Feb 2016)

A significant aspect of the meeting was the NGO coalition’s view that what was transpiring in the Gulf would fall under the umbrella of “Human Trafficking” or “Forced Labor.” At the end of what appeared to us as a productive three-hour meeting, we sent a letter to the Board with two concrete proposals:

1) To initiate, as of April 1, 2016, a meeting every two weeks between GLC, our NGO partners, and representatives from the Guggenheim Museum, the Board of Trustees, and TDIC.

2) At these meetings, propose revisions to TDIC’s EPP in 5 areas: i) Living Wages; ii) Recruitment Debt; iii) Worker Representation; iv) Accountability for Sub-Contracting Tiers; v)        Enforcement of existing and future provisions; and vi) Robust Monitoring.

Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations (Apr 2016)
Finally on April 13th we were told that the museum leaders feel that the museum has always conducted themselves in “a spirit of goodwill,” in stark contrast to GLC’s“antagonistic” conduct with “demands [that] are simply escalating.”[5]. The museum staff then proceeded to tell us that our proposals are ones that lie “outside of their reach,” as they are “matters of state.” This is in spite of the fact that the core demands (Living Wages, Recruitment Debts, Worker Representation) were consistently included in multiple letters to the Guggenheim since 2011.

Even though we left the February meeting feeling optimistic, and followed up with a letter with specific proposals, we were informed on the April 13 call that “the tenor of the last meeting was not productive,” nor is the “general pattern of your behavior.” The upshot, in their view, is that meetings have begun “to generate unrealistic expectations.” Consequently, the Guggenheim “does not wish to have any more in-person meetings with GLC.” This was followed by Richard Armstrong’s email sent to curators, critics, and artists on April 17, which called us a group that uses “deliberate falsehoods.” Armstrong’s latest email matches accusations he also made against GLC in August 2015, when he sent an email to GLC describing us as people who “distort the facts and peddle mistruths” and use “deliberate falsehoods”[6].

The GLC negotiation team regrets that Guggenheim has broken off negotiations in a hostile manner. Despite our show of good faith by maintaining a moratorium on protests for a year, and despite Guggenheim’s own public statements about constructive dialogue, the museum has rescinded and closed the path to working with rights organizations, ready to help create workable frameworks for guaranteeing workers’ rights.
GLC’s Track Record
GLC has a long history of thinking creatively about how to advance the dialogue with the Guggenheim and TDIC to produce results. In 2011, we introduced the Guggenheim to the Institute for Human Rights in Business and suggested they take IHRB’s consultative advice, but the museum demurred. In 2014, GLC urged Guggenheim to invite International Labor Organization (ILO) to join Guggenheim and TDIC for negotiations. Again, Guggenheim did not respond. To date, the Guggenheim has not responded to invitations from ITUC and Human Rights Watch to discuss measures for protecting labor rights.

GLC and allied groups G.U.L.F., Taxi Worker’s Alliance, S.a.L.E. Docks, Fair Labor Coalition, WBYA, and others carried out protests that were reported by the global press. What was not reported are the research, fact finding trips, and meetings to find solutions. Our members have carried out several fact-finding missions to the Saadiyat labor camps. In addition, we prepared analysis of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)’s reports on labor conditions on Saadiyat, and made these reports public. No corresponding public analysis of PwC reports was forthcoming from Guggenheim or TDIC.

In addition to these reports, we held an average of two annual meetings with Guggenheim since 2011. These were attended by various Guggenheim staff, including Richard Armstrong, Sarah Austrian, Hanan Worrell, Reem Fadda, Suzanne Cotter, and Nancy Spector. Some meetings were also attended by TDIC members Bassem Terkawi and Rita Aoun Abdo. Unfortunately, the departure of multiple staff (Cotter, Spector, Terkawi) hampered consistent dialogue.

Guggenheim’s Record
The Guggenheim is pursuing a self-destructive path, putting institutional hubris, and PR needs, before any pursuit of migrant labor rights. Guggenheim agreed to meetings with GLC only to stave off negative press following UAE travel bans on three GLC members, and the May occupations of the Guggenheim in NY and Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. Now that the press has moved on, Guggenheim feels free to break off communication with GLC without any consequences. This is institutional power that treats the labor force building museums, and the artists’ involved in museums, as disposable and replaceable.

Many of our signatories have long-standing working relationships with the Guggenheim Museum. We are saddened to see a once prominent New York institution destroy their global reputation, and goodwill among artists, due to a refusal to take legal and ethical responsibilities for a building that carries its name. The Guggenheim is following the same path NYU took in silencing its’ critics, until a New York Times story on worker abuse forced the university to offer a belated mea culpa and begin the process of paying reparations to workers. Faced with a concrete and optimistic path forward, the Guggenheim chooses to focus on distracting issues like our “antagonistic” tone, avoiding the more relevant facts on the ground: the bodies, lives, and dreams of thousands of workers who are accumulating massive recruitment debts, being cheated on wages, exploited by corrupt contractors and subcontractors, denied any meaningful collective representation, and forced to live out of sight and under watch.
On behalf of the Gulf Labor Coalition (organizing committee):
Amin Husain, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Ayreen Anastas, Doris Bittar, Doug Ashford, Eric Baudelaire, Gregory Sholette, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Haig Aivazian, Hans Haacke, Joseph Rauch, Kristina Bogos, Mariam Ghani, Michael Rakowitz, Naeem Mohaiemen, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Nitasha Dhillon, Noah Fischer, Paula Chakravartty, Rene Gabri, Sam Durant, Shaina Anand, Tania Bruguera, Walid Raad.
[1] Represented by Juan Ignacia Vidarte (Deputy Director and Chief Officer for Global Strategies), Tina Vaz (Deputy Director, Global Communications), and Hanan Sayyed Worrell (Guggenheim senior representative in Abu Dhabi).

[2] Email from Richard Armstrong: (“Objet: Update on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi / Date: 17 avril 2016 17:32:18 UTC+2)


[4] See list of 2010-2016 activities in Appendix.

[5] Conference call with Guggenheim, April 13, 2016.

[6] Email from Richard Armstrong to Andrew Ross on behalf of GLC, August 12, 2015

2 thoughts on “Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor: Statement from Gulf Labor Coalition”

  1. Most companies working in Gulf countries are notorious for their ‘inhuman’ attitudes towards the labour employed and the working conditions they provide to the employees, specially the immigrants from poor countries like India and Bangladesh. The workers live in constant tension and uncertainty. The Gulf governments as well as the poor country governments seldom take steps to improve the pathetic situation.


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