4 March 2014



Protestors at the Guggenheim (source)

I saw this news item the other day on Huffington Post, it's a bit old--from January--but it is an interesting case. Protestors--Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF)--converged on the Guggenheim Museum in New York to draw attention to the working conditions of labourers building the new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.

The new Guggenheim is being built in the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island, along with the Louvre. The Guggenheim's website states that the museum will be: "Designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, the 450,000-square-foot museum will house its own major modern and contemporary art collection and present special exhibitions that will include works from the Guggenheim Foundation’s extensive collection. The museum, the largest Guggenheim in the world, will have global art, exhibitions, and education programs with particular focus on Middle Eastern contemporary art."Clearly a very important cultural institution.

The Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island (source)
GULF hung a manifesto stating "Is this the future of art?" on the wall next to the introductory text for the Italian Futurist exhibit that was on display at the time. The concerns of the protestors were with the conditions in which labourers are working to build the museum. It should be noted that the majority of construction workers concerned are foreign and some of the practices involved in recruiting and housing are being called into question. Additionally the protestors were concerned with the working conditions being imposed on workers.

GULF manifesto in the Guggenheim (source)

One of the concerns that was identified on Occupy Museums about the Guggenheim was their inability or unwillingness to discuss the issues raised by protestors. According to Occupy Museums, the Guggenheim has repeatedly deflected or diverted discussions regarding protestors' concerns.

The issue this raises for me is the seeming subservience of rights and/or safety to "art and culture." Now, admittedly, it is not culture perpetrating these situations, but rather the institution--the Guggenheim. Culture, however, used to--and I would argue still does--represent a certain "morality." How does this mesh with accusations of abuse? How do we reconcile this cultural morality with realities of working conditions?

The Guggenheim (source)
This to me is an example of culture taking precedence over other human rights concerns. Another recent event that raised this issue for me was the film Monuments Men, and more broadly the monuments men themselves. One of my biggest concerns with the film was that it was never demonstrated or explained why the art needed to be saved. It felt as though the audience was simply expected to recognize that, since these items are art, of course they need to be saved. Right.

I did some reading on cultural property in conflict zones last semester and a recurring theme, particularly in introductions and introductory paragraphs, was the assertion of cultural property and cultural heritage as a human right. I cannot help but ask in this situation would the money, people, resources not be better spent on medical aid for instance? Furthermore, who is to say which right supersedes the other?

Of course if we consider the museum a business rather than culture then we might be able to see this from a different perspective. These actions, then, simply fall into line with common (awful) business practices. When we want to view it as a "cultural" institution the issue becomes more problematic for me. What are your thoughts?

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