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Global Guggenheim Updates: Abu Dhabi (workers’ rights), Bilbao (renewal), Helsinki (finalists’ show)

Will the Guggenheim’s Middle East plans be affected by last week’s NY Times revelations about yet another report detailing widespread violations of workers’ rights guidelines in Abu Dhabi? (This latest chapter concerns New York University’s new campus there.)

Image of photo of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi model, shown at Philadelphia Museum's recent Frank Gehry show Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Image of photo showing Guggenheim Abu Dhabi models, seen at Philadelphia Museum’s recent Frank Gehry show
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although its announced completion date remains 2017, there is still “no construction underway” on the Guggenheim’s project, Tina Vaz, its director of communications for global initiatives, told me today.

She added:

We cannot comment on the specifics of the report. We do note with interest the announcement of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s research initiative to develop greater understanding of the complex, intergovernmental issue of recruitment fees….We are continuing to work with our partners in Abu Dhabi to develop the curatorial vision, collection and exhibition program for the future museum.

Describing the findings of a 72-page report commissioned from Nardello & Co. by NYU and Tamkeen, a subsidiary of an Abu Dhabi government agency, the NY Times’ Stephanie Saul wrote:

About one-third of the migrant construction workers employed at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi—or about 10,000 people—were excluded from the protections of the university’s labor guidelines ensuring fair wages, hours and living conditions….

[NYU] said it was taken by surprise by the findings on how many workers at the campus, which opened last year on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island [also the site of the planned Guggenheim], had not been protected, and it added that it would repay any shortchanged workers [emphasis added].

For the Guggenheim, this should (again) raise the question as to whether these persistent problems can ever be satisfactorily resolved, notwithstanding the best of intentions on the parts of American institutions. The last thing the Guggenheim needs is to be on the hook for the compensation of shortchanged workers.

Here’s what the Nardello report had to say on the subject of “good faith efforts”:

Collectively, the allegations in media articles and NGO reports called into question whether the Labor Guidelines were a good faith effort to improve worker conditions or merely an exercise in public relations to address criticisms of labor conditions in the UAE and NYU’s decision to establish a campus there….

A careful analysis of the facts…showed that NYU and its government partners intended to improve conditions for workers on the Main Campus Project and made a real effort to implement the Labor Guidelines.

In a statement issued in February, in response to this Human Rights Watch report, the Guggenheim described the progress that has been made in protecting workers, but also forthrightly acknowledged:

Areas for improvement remain. The complex issue of recruitment, in particular, will require action on several fronts, including international cooperation among countries of both origin and destination.

Although the well-meaning Guggenheim gets an “A” for effort, good intentions may not be enough to solve this problem. As I suggested at the end of this post, experience shows that Abu Dhabi’s workers’ rights challenges may prove to be intractable, which would put the Guggenheim (if it green-lights construction) in the uncomfortable—arguably untenable—position of being a passive party to practices that would be unacceptable in the U.S.

On a more positive note, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997, has extended its relationship with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF) for another 20 years. Under the new agreement, the Bilbao museum will continue to pay the Guggenheim an annual fee (now to be $2.4 million), but will get more bang for its bucks.

Juan Ignacio Vidarte (who has astutely directed the Bilbao museum from its founding) told me this in January:

This renewal [will] simultaneously strengthen the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s operational autonomy [emphasis added] and reinforce its collaboration with SRGF, branching out into new areas and projects that will create added value for both parties.

By way of example, the agreement includes new initiatives, such as the presentation in Bilbao of an exhibition of key works from the SRGF Permanent Collection for a period of six months every two years; a new curator based in New York dedicated to Bilbao; the opportunity for Basque students to participate every year in the Guggenheim Museum internship program; or a program that will enable young Basque artists to have an in-depth experience and gain extensive knowledge of New York as a creative center.

The Guggenheim needs to be able to allude to this success story as it continues to try to persuade Finnish government officials to green-light a new Guggenheim Helsinki. An exhibition devoted to the six finalists in the architectural competition for that project will run Apr. 25-May 16 at the Kunsthalle Helsinki, with the winner will be announced in June.

But there is at yet no assurance that the project will actually go forward.

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