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Dismissive Missive: Could Peer Pressure Put an End to Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi Misadventure?

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation thus far has resisted the demands of rowdy demonstrators decrying its continued involvement in Abu Dhabi, where workers rights violations have persisted, notwithstanding the Guggenheim’s efforts to encourage reform.

Protest inside the Guggenheim Museum on Feb. 22, 2014

Protest inside the Guggenheim Museum, Feb. 22, 2014

But now the Guggenheim finds itself confronted by critics who it can’t so easily dismiss: Major museum officials (including Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of the Metropolitan Museum’s department of modern and contemporary art) have violated the unwritten code of collegiality by addressing a strongly worded letter to the Guggenheim (as well as other major institutions, including the Louvre and New York University), asking it to “work with the concerned authorities” to lift prohibitions on travel in the United Arab Emirates by artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad.

The barred artists have been involved with Gulf Labor Coalition, the artist-initiated activist group that has strongly protested the Guggenheim’s plans to open a satellite facility on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, in light of serious and seemingly intractable workers’ rights violations on other major capital projects there.

As is happens, MoMA is about to give Raad his “first comprehensive American survey” (Oct. 12-Jan. 31). Its organizer, Eva Respini, chief curator if the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, (and former photography curator at MoMA) signed onto the admonitory letter, as did the ICA’s director, Jill Medvedow.

That letter asserts:

Denying artists visas, stopping and deporting them after years of their work in the region, creates a chilling precedent and makes it difficult for arts and academic institutions in the UAE, and those working with the UAE to claim regional dialogue [emphasis added] and artistic freedom.

In its initial response to the letter, as quoted by Colin Moynihan in the NY Times, the Guggenheim seemed unmoved and continued to “claim regional dialogue”:

We have made inquiries on behalf of Gulf Labor Coalition members whose travel has been restricted, but the Guggenheim has no role in or jurisdiction over immigration or visa policy in the United Arab Emirates. We are convinced that our presence in the Gulf region has benefit, especially at this time when leading global thinkers are advocating greater engagement across cultures and geographies.

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

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

Saying that it has “no role in or jurisdiction over immigration or visa policy in the United Arab Emirates” is a cop-out. While the Guggenheim has no legal “jurisdiction,” it could nevertheless do more than merely “making inquiries.” It could exert considerable influence, saying that it would not continue to collaborate on a major museum project with a regime that appears to be hostile to artistic freedom. While violations of workers rights should be of the utmost concern to the Guggenheim, the shabby treatment of artists who “have a long history of vital and sustained engagement with the UAE,” in the words of the protest letter, would seem to run directly counter to the museum’s core mission.

Others among the June 1 letter’s more than 60 signatories are Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, London; Anne Pasternak, incoming director of the Brooklyn Museum; Kathy Halbreich, MoMA’s deputy director; and Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern.

If the protesters’ views don’t carry much weight with Guggenheim officials, the opinions of their distinguished colleagues should.

an ArtsJournal blog