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“Satellite Museums” Panel: My Interchange with Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong on Abu Dhabi Human-Rights Concerns

Richard Armstrong, director, Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation

Richard Armstrong, director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

This afternoon I attended an illuminating panel about “Satellite Museums” at the Guggenheim Museum, presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, was a panelist, along with two Parisian heavyweights—the director of the Centre Pompidou and the managing director of the Louvre.

In the Q&A portion of the program, Armstrong and I had this telling exchange, which I share with you in haste (and probably with typos) as I prepare to attend another panel this evening:

ROSENBAUM: What is the current status of the Helsinki project? And in Abu Dhabi, to what extent have you satisfied yourself that [workers'] conditions there are appropriate?

ARMSTRONG: In Helsinki we’ve been given permission by the city to have a one-year competition for an architectural project. So it’s Step One in a possibly long-term relationship. I think shortly there will be some announcements about how the procedure and the open competition will go forward. Thirteen or 14 months from now there will be a conclusion to that aspect of a possible relationship.

We’re not satisfied, of course [emphasize added] with the current situation in UAE [United Arab Emirates]. But I must say that our partners at TDIC [Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company] are not satisfied either. So together we’ve made as many improvements to the law, which I think is already, defensibly, the best one in the region. The workers that are today constructing the Louvre Abu Dhabi are housed in a model facility which I visited again a month ago.

The question of confiscation of passports I think particularly in the last PWC [PricewaterhouseCoopers, the independent monitor] report showed tremendous improvement and many fewer people suffered from that kind of restriction.

The big issue goes on to be about recruitment fees [sizable amounts charged to workers by agents who recruit the project’s migrant workers in other countries]. That’s a very complex foreign policy question between governments. So to the degree that we can influence that positively, we are trying on a daily basis.

ROSENBAUM: You mentioned that you “are not satisfied.” Will you not proceed unless you get to the point where you are satisfied?

ARMSTRONG: I’m not sure I would say it that way.

ROSENBAUM: How would you say it?

ARMSTRONG: I’d say that we have faith that there will be progress.

As I wrote here, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report (which you can read in full here indicated that working conditions and labor practices on Saadiyat Island (where construction of the Louvre’s satellite facility has already begun) have improved but still have a long way to go. As PwC put it: “While improvement has taken place in 2013, efforts are still required to enhance compliance.”

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