Artists generally like to have their works displayed in major museums. So when 130 artists, curators and academics signed a letter last month asking that their works not be shown by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi until conditions improved for workers building the facility, it drew widespread attention to the cause.
But the protesters may be getting ahead of themselves in several respects.
Although the co-organizer of the petition, Cooper Union professor and artist Walid Raad, has work in the Guggenheim collection, as do prominent signers Shirin Neshat and Martha Rosler, the vast majority (more than 80 percent) of petitioners do not–nor, say insiders, is their work likely to be on the museum’s must-have list anytime soon. As one dealer noted, “Few artists were burning bridges here.”
The protest has been a public-relations embarrassment for the museum and for the art community, which has largely embraced aggressive plans by the Abu Dhabi Tourism, Development and Investment Company to build a cultural center that would include the new Guggenheim. Art dealer Larry Gagosian has spoken at TDIC events and last year loaned his private collection to the entity for view in Abu Dhabi. Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, an Islamic art scholar, was in neighboring Dubai at an art fair when the petition was released and was visibly upset by it, according to sources who were present. (So far, none of the artists who signed the petition, many of them from the region, have requested that their art be banned from sale at the TDIC’s annual art fair.)
Meanwhile, construction of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi remains far from a sure thing. In the past decade, the Guggenheim has announced plans for branches in Taiwan, Rio de Janeiro, Guadalajara and Hong Kong, all of which remain unbuilt. When the Abu Dhabi satellite was announced in July 2006, it was expected to open in 2011. That date has been pushed back to 2013.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World, the largest indoor amusement park in the world, which was announced around the same time, is now open for business.