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Richard Armstrong Does It Right: Guggenheim’s Letter to Human Rights Watch on Abu Dhabi

Richard Armstrong (second from left) on his first Abu Dhabi sojourn as the Guggenheim’s director

Having repeatedly been brushed off whenever I had asked Guggenheim Foundation spokespersons about Human Rights Watch’s revelations regarding construction worker abuse in Abu Dhabi (where the museum intends to build a major outpost), I was astounded by the arrival in my inbox late yesterday of a detailed letter that the museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, had just dispatched to HRW, responding seriously to its new 80-page report.

The Guggenheim sent the letter to me in response to my post yesterday about the continued HRW allegations that “thousands of South Asian migrant workers building a US$27 billion
island development [where the new Guggenheim is to be located] in the United Arab Emirates face severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor.”

When I had interviewed the Guggenheim’s new director back in February, I had gotten the feeling that he was genuinely concerned about these issues, not just paying them lip service. At that time, Armstrong told me:

We have the [previous] report from the Human Rights Watch and we’re keen on making certain that everyone is treated justly. We want to be vigilant in that direction.

And now he has shown that he means it.

Here is a reproduction of the entire letter to HRW, signed by Armstrong, in which he makes some of the same points contained in a statement that the Guggenheim had sent to me last week (which I quoted in yesterday’s post). The letter to HRW adds that, under its agreement with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the company is required to hire a general contractor “of international standing,” and to comply with existing United Arab Emirate laws that address issues of working conditions.

The Guggenheim’s letter to HRW further states:

We share Human Rights Watch’s concerns about enforcement of these laws but are encouraged by TDIC’s formation of an in-house department of Employment Practices. We hope to meet with the department well in advance of the start of the museum’s construction to urge them to develop and implement a proactive plan to monitor and address the conditions of workers who are involved in the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. We believe that it is in the mutual interest of TDIC and the Guggenheim to address issues actively before construction begins [scheduled for later this year]….

While we may not be able to solve every issue, we can have a dramatic and lasting impact if we engage in a long-term dialogue about a broad range of critical matters, including the conditions of workers.

I was impressed by the letter, even more impressed that Armstrong also sent copies to two top officials of TDIC. It remains to be seen, though, whether the Guggenheim really does have the power to alter longstanding labor practices.

If it doesn’t, is Armstrong prepared to pick up his Kandinskys and go home?

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