The answer to that question is an uncomfortable one for the Guggenheim and the other museums erecting monumental new outposts in the United Arab Emirates, including the Louvre and the British Museum.
“I’ve seen the workers,” said San Diego artist Doris Bittar, who visited the UAE to participate in the Sharjah Biennial. “They work long hours in the scorching heat with little water, they aren’t cared for if they are sick, they can’t quit and they can’t leave, their passports are confiscated,” she said. “Some of them die.”
And the pay — “if they get paid; most of them are in debt,” she said — is next to nothing. “Is this the future of art?” Bittar asked. “That it’s going to be on the backs of migrant workers?”
Bittar is already tired of the past and present of art being built largely on the backs of artists, who are often expected to give their work away for the honor and exposure of having it in a museum. In solidarity with the plight of migrant workers in the Emirates, Bittar joined hundreds of other artists in the Gulf Labor Coalition, which is protesting the Guggenheim and other museums’ behavior.
Now she’s bringing the fight and the issue of migrant workers home with “Labor-Migrant-Gulf” at the Southwestern College Art Gallery in Chula Vista California.
The collaborative exhibit encompasses works by more than 100 artists from San Diego and beyond, ranging from high-profile names like Eleanor Antin and Sam Durant to students and less established artists.
Many of them have created small pieces that Bittar combined into two large boteh (also known as paisley) designs, while others have their work exhibited more conventionally.
If the provocative exhibition is certain to raise awareness of the situation of migrant workers in the UAE and elsewhere, including the San Diego border region, Bittar hopes the act of doing something together also will be beneficial for the artists, who typically are more comfortable working in solitude.
“My experience with any kind of collective activity is something comes out of it,” Bittar said. “No one individual is important in this; it’s the collective strength in us as artists, and not just in San Diego.
“We’re linking arms with other artists in Chicago and Toronto, Tijuana and other parts of Mexico, Berlin, Paris, Milan. … I think it’s just the beginning.”
The new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be designed by Frank Gehry, and at 450,000 square feet, it will be the largest of several Guggenheim museums.
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