Both news media and the art world were buzzing yesterday morning with the surprise news that the Marciano Art Foundation has closed suddenly after laying off its entire visitor services staff (the museum’s part-time docents, greeters, guards and others). The move came just days after those employees filed a petition to unionize with District Council 36 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
According to a November 4 story in Art News, “85 percent of the museum’s  visitor services associates have signed cards with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a major union representing employees at over a dozen museums nationwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”
The New York Times also reported, on November 1, that the Marciano workers “said in a statement that they want to create a union to address pay conditions at the museum, where the starting wage for associates is set at the Los Angeles minimum of $14.25 an hour.” The employees’ statement, quoted in the Times story, asserted that “The [Marciano] Foundation relies on a system of labor that has historically undervalued its workers, paying workers minimum wage without benefits or basic protections…”
According to the NYT, the MAF’s response to the unionization move was initially positive:
“The museum responded to the filing by saying in a statement that it highly values the work by the associates and looks forward to learning more about their requests. “As an organization,” the museum said, “we are supportive of all recommendations to improve the workplace experience and will give this careful attention as we begin our discussions.””
But then on Tuesday evening, according to the LA Times, the Foundation apparently shifted gears:
“A tersely worded email sent to employees at 6:13 p.m. Tuesday stated that attendance was low and that the museum would be closing its current exhibition effective Wednesday. “Effective Thursday, Nov. 7 we will be laying off all the Visitor Services Associates,” read the email. “You will be receiving your final pay via Direct Deposit on Thursday, Nov. 7.”
Then this notice was published on the MAF website:
“Marciano Art Foundation will be closing the current exhibition early on November 6 after a 5 month run. The foundation will remain closed to the public until further notice.”
“Low attendance,” however, didn’t ring true to the employees or their union contacts. According to the LA Times yesterday morning:
Eli Petzold, who works as a visitor services employee at the museum and serves as a member of the union’s organizing committee, said he was in shock by the news.
“I was caught totally off guard,” he said via telephoneTuesday. “This is illegal and we are going to make very clear that this is not OK to do.”
Lylwyn Esangga, an organizing director at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union working with the Marciano employees, said it would fight the move.
“This is an anti-union tactic and the workers at the Marciano are prepared to fight back,” she said.
The closure also raised alarms in the local art world. Rebecca Niederlander, an artist whose sculptures and other works have been shown widely throughout LA, California and beyond (including, locally, the Craft Contemporary and many area galleries), and who has curated exhibits at many other venues, said she was outraged at the Marciano closure. “What’s happened there is a travesty. It’s a travesty in every single respect for the creative community.”
Niederlander explained that visitor services staff at art museums are an important part of the larger creative community, and summarily cutting off their bid for a living wage hurts the very community that creates the artworks that philanthropists like the MAF’s owners collect. In fact, docents and greeters, said Niederlander, are “almost always [art] MFAs” and artists themselves, working at entry level jobs while trying to pay off their student loans, and get their foot in the door of the art world. Most of them, she said, hope to move up to positions as museum curators, community relations personnel and/or administrators. And just like exhibiting artists and others in the creative community, Niederlander said, these employees’ contributions are too often undervalued and undercompensated, making it difficult for them to survive, especially during LA’s current housing and affordability crisis. “I’m both horrified and not surprised,” Niederlander said of the MAF’s move to fire the staff and close the museum as the unionization efforts were getting underway.
Niederlander also noted that the Marciano’s closing comes on the heels of the shuttering of two other small museums, the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and the Main Museum. She said the Marciano may be the latest in a trend of new museums opening to much fanfare, but with too little thought about ongoing operations or funding to see them through the long haul. And Niederlander isn’t optimistic about the chances that the Marciano’s owners, Maurice and Paul Marciano, might relent, allow the staff to unionize, and re-open — especially in light of the fact that the Marciano brothers (who own the Guess clothing company) made their fortunes in the fast fashion industry, which isn’t generally known for its progressive labor policies. “I very much hope they will re-open, but I fear this is an excuse to close,” Niederlander said. “They have the money to stay in business. The question is, do they want to be real philanthropists or not?”
Of course, the bottom line for many of our neighborhood residents may be what happens to the beautiful landmark building if the museum doesn’t re-open. After remaining vacant for many years after the Masons left, neighbors were up in arms when the building was occasionally rented out as a party venue, with loud music, unruly crowds and parking that overwhelmed neighborhood streets. The relatively staid museum, which nicely refurbished the building and required visitor reservations to ensure the limited on-site parking could always accommodate its patrons, has been a largely neighborhood-compatible use, with no major local controversies in the two years it’s been open.
But whether or not the Marcianos would choose to keep the building, sell it, or rent it out to another tenant if the museum doesn’t re-open, remains to be seen. And if there are any lawsuits over the unionization activities, as several parties have hinted, the drama may take a while to play out.
It is worth noting, though, that the property is currently permitted for use as a museum, so any new owner or tenant would have to apply for a formal change of use and Conditional Use Permit before doing anything else with the building. The new use would also have to be one listed in the Park Mile Specific Plan, which dictates specific kinds of land uses allowed on that section of Wilshire Blvd. And all of that means that any quick changes in use or occupation are not likely, and definitely won’t happen without significant community review.
“I hope the museum decides to re-open. It was lovely having it here,” said Caroline Labiner Moser, a Windsor Square resident and president of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. “But if they don’t, we’d hope that a new institution would [also] be of a peaceful nature and that it would be compatible with the neighborhood.”
At this point, though, re-opening doesn’t seem likely…at least any time soon. In response to our own inquiries, the Buzz received this statement today from the MAF: “Due to low attendance the past few weeks Marciano Art Foundation will be closing the current exhibitions early on November 6 after a 5 month run. We have no present plans to reopen.”