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Guggenheim’s Armstrong Does it Right in Abu Dhabi: Construction Workers’ Rights Agreement


Left to Right in Abu Dhabi: Lee Tabler, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company; Richard Armstrong, director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; architect Frank Gehry; Juan Ignacio Vidarte, Guggenheim’s chief officer for global strategies and director, Guggenheim Bilbao; Frederick Henry, Guggenheim trustee

When I interviewed Richard Armstrong in February 2009, shortly after he became director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, he assured me that he was sensitive to the concerns repeatedly expressed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and others about the exploitation of migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates, which encompass Abu Dhabi.

Armstrong then told me:

We’re keen on making certain that everyone is treated justly. We want to be vigilant in that direction.

He later followed up with a detailed letter to HRW, assuring the watchdog group that he took their concerns with the utmost seriousness.

And now this just in, proving that this wasn’t just lip service—a detailed Employment Practices Policy, publicly released by the Guggenheim and Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which oversees the development of cultural facilities on Saadiyat Island. The jointly issued six-page summary of the guidelines sets forth the “rights and benefits that will be guaranteed to all employees, as well as policies and procedures that have been put in place” in connection with the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Included are stipulations about living accommodations, working hours, payment of wages, and regular monitoring of conditions affecting health and safety.

A letter accompanying the summary of the EPP, signed by both Armstrong and Lee Tabler, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s TDIC, affirms that “both parties are deeply committed to safeguarding the rights and welfare of employees at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum site.”

I had been planning to write a satirical CultureGrrl post about the Googleheim. (YouTube is a subsidiary of Google.) But now Richard has utterly disarmed me.

Wait a minute! Looking back at my 2009 two-part Q&A with Richard has gotten me to wonder: Now that he’s made good on his human rights pledge, as well as his plans to oversee the restoration of the plantings within the New York building (as intended by Frank Lloyd Wright), the installation of seating on the ramps, and a completely reimagined museum restaurant, is Armstrong now poised to follow up on a more startling comment that he made to me back then, after I asked whether he envisioned any additional international satellite museums?

Here’s what he told me:

If you’re meant to have a global network, there’s not deep connection to Asia at present. If one were truly putting together a pearl necklace across the globe, you’d say there’s a large part of the world that’s not being addressed at present.

This is a guy who seemed to have strode into the rotunda knowing a lot about what he wanted to accomplish, and he’s been working his way down the checklist ever since. I expect a new Global Guggenheim announcement any day now!

an ArtsJournal blog