[UPDATE BELOW] Red and white leaflets fluttered down from the spirals of the Guggenheim Museum today as artists and activists took over the space once more in a May Day action. Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) and their supporters are demanding improved conditions for workers at the Guggenheim's future Abu Dhabi satellite location, something reiterated on the red parachute they unfurled on the floor of the atrium.
— Occupy Theory (@occupytheory) May 1, 2015
The group's goal today was to schedule a meeting with the Guggenheim's board of directors to push forward their cause—particularly the issue of workers being forced to pay recruitment fees to work on the development at Saadiyat Island. Noah Fischer, from G.U.L.F. and Occupy Museums, said May Day events were helpful to "connect the dots" between local and foreign labor issues. "It's an opportunity to highlight migrant labor issues, and it's a symbolic day of labor struggle," he said. "We're bringing it home to the museum, because they're a player in the picture."
Andrew Ross, an NYU professor and part of G.U.L.F. and Gulf Labor, has been banned from entering the United Arab Emirates because of his involvement with the movement. He told us that today's action, the fifth inside the museum, was part of the group's escalating campaign. "Basically, it's been five years of inaction on the museum's part. Five years and nothing concrete has been done, except for the tarnishing of the museum's reputation," Andrew said.
After initial mic checks and singing—during which the guards dramatically tore up the parachute—hundreds of people in the museum looked down as 12 activists proceeded with a sit-in.
One organizer advised supporters that now was the time to leave if they did not wish to be arrested, and said the NYPD had officially asked the group to exit the premises. Cecelia Alamon, 25, an architecture student from Uruguay visiting the Guggenheim, said that at first she and her friend did not understand what was happening, but stayed to see it play out. "I thought it was effective. We didn't know what was happening to the workers until we saw this. So it was good for making people know their situation," Cecilia noted.
At 12.30 p.m., another demonstration began outside the Guggenheim, with drumming, chanting, and more banners unfurled. The crowds swelled as security stopped letting anyone inside, leaving a sea of activists and confused art-lovers outside the museum.
"Officer, where are we at now with this?" asked one harried staff member. Another expressed annoyance when "this happens." As more than an hour went by, the seated protesters expanded their circle. A pair passed a Clif bar between them.
When we went outside at 1.30 p.m., many members of the line were growing impatient. I spoke to Ron and Sharon Moorehead, on vacation from Seattle—the pair had been waiting since the initial door closure, and weren't happy about the protest's disruption.
"If I'd known this, I would've gone someplace else," said Ron. "We went up there and they said it was closed because there were too many people inside. But I see all these people coming out, and nobody's getting in."
Guggenheim staff had no official comment.
Update 5/02/15: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation provided us with the following statement:
We are disappointed that the actions of today’s demonstrators forced the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to close its doors and turn away thousands of members of the public.
We have met with representatives of the group behind today’s demonstration on several occasions and have tried to maintain open lines of communication. We share their concerns about worker welfare in the Gulf Region, but these kinds of disruptive activities run counter to our objective of building the cooperation and goodwill necessary to further change on an extremely complex geopolitical issue.
Despite erroneous reports to the contrary, construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not yet begun and a contractor has not yet been selected. In preparation for these milestones, the Guggenheim has been working with our partner, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), and other authorities and stakeholders inside and outside of the UAE to continue to advance progress on conditions for workers.
The Guggenheim seeks, as we have from the start, to advance meaningful and verifiable actions. This is evidenced by our continuing contributions to the TDIC Employment Practices Policy (EPP). Significant and documented progress has been made on a number of fronts, including worker accommodation, access to medical coverage, grievance procedures, and retention of passports.
We believe the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project presents an opportunity for a dynamic cultural exchange and to chart a more inclusive and expansive view of art history. These efforts at real action will take time to become a reality on the ground. We understand that this endeavor comes with great responsibility and we believe strongly in the transformative potential of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.