The hushed murmur of ambling museumgoers at the Guggenheim on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was rudely interrupted on Friday with chants and a round red banner bursting across the lobby: “Meet Workers’ Demands Now!”
As guards scrambled to snatch the sign up, the flash mob sat down and pinned it to the floor, declaring, “We are here, in solidarity with all workers. Happy May Day!”
The “indefinite occupation” of the art museum—which dissipated after some tug-of-war with security personnel and then moved into a protest with other groups outside—was the latest salvo in a series of escalating protests led by the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF). Representing the writers, artists, and scholars of the Gulf Labor Coalition, they’re pressing the demands of migrant workers contracted to work at a forthcoming Guggenheim site in Abu Dhabi.
The protesters are challenging the corporate link between the Guggenheim effect (complete with Gehry architecture) and United Arab Emirates’ global branding campaign via a tourist idyll known as Saadiyat Island. This oasis of soft power, which also features controversial branches of the Louvre and New York University alongside other luxury attractions, is fueled by masses of impoverished migrant labor trafficked into the region from South Asia.
Though the Guggenheim has promised to provide some labor protections, Gulf Labor is pushing core labor demands on behalf of workers who have been or will be contracted for the development in partnership with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company: “uniform and enforceable human rights protections,” a living wage, compensation for workers indebted by predatory recruitment fees and relocation costs, and, ultimately, a transparent accountability process for employers and labor representation for workers.