The Media Line Staff
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates David Rosenberg – A group of artists are threatening to boycott the planned Abu Dhabi branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum unless developers end what petitioners say is exploitation and abuse of construction workers building the $800 million cultural center.
An on-line petition had been signed by 135 artists as of late Thursday. They include Mona Hatoum, whose works have been displayed at the Centre Pompidou and the Tate; Yto Barrada, who is having a solo exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin next month; and Shirin Neshat, a visual artist who won the Silver Lion for best director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.
“These violations, which threaten to sully the Guggenheim’s reputation, present a serious, moral challenge to those who may be asked to work with the museum,” the petition states. “No one should be asked to exhibit or perform in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees.”
The petition comes at a time of growing Western concern about human rights and other violations in the Middle East amid turmoil that has brought down two leaders and threatens others. While Abu Dhabi and other Gulf oil states have been largely spared unrest, they score low for democratic and labor rights and may come under pressure as they build high-profile tie-ups with Western institutions.
Enriched by vast reserves of oil and gas, Abu Dhabi is turning itself into a business, cultural and tourism Mecca. Abu Dhabi still has six hotels opening in 2011, and the tiny emirate is home to three PGA-standard golf courses. Developments include a $5.7 billion aluminum plant; a new healthcare center with help from Johns Hopkins University; the Cleveland Clinic; and a host of energy projects.
As part of the plan, Saadiyat Island, 1,500 feet off the mainland coast, is being developed into a $27 billion leisure and tourism center, using the reputation of the world’s leading architects and cultural institutions to lend an outsized aura to the place. Besides the Guggenheim, which is being designed by Frank Gehry, Saadiyat will also be home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel; the Zayed National Museum, by Norman Foster; and a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid.
The 450,000-square-foot museum, situated on a peninsula overlooking the Gulf, will be bigger than the Guggenheim’s New York facility. Besides exhibit space, it will include centers for art technology and Arab culture, and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.
The artists’ boycott may create a special headache for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which plans to build its own collection of modern art from scratch. With the government’s backing, budgets should be generous but the refusal of artists to exhibit their works could set back efforts.
“Given the situation, we’re in a position as artists to make a difference because the building isn’t yet completed and the collection is in development,” Emily Jacir, a Ramallah, West Bank-based artist who signed the petition. If labor standards were met, she said she would be looking forward to being part of the Guggenheim “I’m really excited about this project.”
She conceded that artists were not in full control of the work once they have sold it, but said they could instruct their galleries not to sell to specific institutions.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based watchdog that is closely linked to the petition drive, said in a 2009 report that construction workers on Saadiyat Island labored under conditions of “severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor.”
Brought in from South Asia, the workers are forced to pay illegal recruiting fees to be hired, often under terms that are less lucrative than contracting agencies lead them to believe. Workers complained of low pay and poor healthcare. They cannot legally form unions, bargain collectively, or strike, HRW said.
The petitioners are asking the museum’s developers, who include the Guggenheim and the Abu Dhabi government’s Tourism Development and Investment Co. (TDIC), to honor the terms of their 2010 declaration of shared values. They also want developers to appoint an independent monitor, with free access to the construction site, to ensure standards are observed.
TDIC has sought to present itself as adhering to workers’ rights. Last week, it unveiled a 40-hectare (100-acre) workers’ village for the approximately 10,000 workers involved in Saadiyat Island’s construction. It said it planned to expand its independent monitoring of workers’ rights and name a monitor by May. Its website includes a channel dedicated exclusively to workers’ rights.
The artists aren’t the first to question human rights violations as Abu Dhabi and other oil-rich Gulf emirates pursue an ambitious policy of importing and developing world-class cultural, medical and education institutions. Last year, New York University agreed to improve labor conditions at the Saadiyat Island campus it is developing after coming under pressure from student groups.
The campaign began almost a year ago among artists gathered for a conference in Beirut, Jacir said. It started quietly in June 2010, with a letter and a series of meetings with the Guggenheim’s developers. Those led to the publication of an Employment Practices Policy and a TDIC/Guggenheim Statement of Shared Values last year.
The petitioners said they were not yet satisfied with the changes promised and finally this month decided to make their protest public.
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