This story was updated on August 3, 2020 to include a statement from @MAF_Union, the employees union at MAF, in response to our earlier query for a comment.
This week the art world is buzzing with news of the settlement the Marciano Art Foundation reached with former employees who had sued for lost wages when MAF abruptly closed four days after employees tried to unionize last year.
According to former Visitor Services Associate Spencer Longo, the foundation agreed to pay 70 employees a total of $205,000 for just over ten weeks of work they were denied when the Marciano Brothers, owners of the museum, failed to give the required 60-day notice before shutting down the workplace. In addition, MAF will pay $70,000 in legal fees to American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), District Council 36, the trade union that represented the employees in the suit. Employees had voted overwhelmingly to join the union just before they were all fired. Also as part of the settlement, the former employees agreed to drop a second lawsuit alleging unfair labor practices.
“We are confident that further litigation would have demonstrated that the Marcianos’ conduct was unlawful and motivated, at least in part, by illegal, anti-union animus,” Daniel B. Rojas, one of the workers’ lawyers, told the New York Times. “The reality of our legal system is that the ultrawealthy can drag the process out to the detriment of parties with lesser means.”
“While we are grateful to close this chapter without a prolonged legal battle, the fate of many museum employees in the time of COVID has shown that the Marciano’s blatant disregard for their workers in deciding to fire us rather than engage in negotiations is the norm rather than the exception to the rule,” responded @MAF_Union to our Instagram message.
“We see it as a win for the employees at MAF,” Longo, an artist, told the Buzz. “But unfortunately, all of the stuff that was happening at the Marciano is not unique to them.”
Longo said he hoped the employees’ success against the exploitive practices at MAF would help continue the conversation and help protect employees in other “vanity” museums, where some founders operate the organizations as marketing venues to add value to their own collections, often with tax breaks and generous civic support.
The settlement is relatively small compared to the investment the Marciano’s have tied up in the museum, but Longo hopes it will give others pause and stimulate a “more thoughtful critique of these institutions.”
He told the Buzz the former employees were grateful for all the support they received from various groups in the art world. He added that he was proud of the community that was created among the employees and the fact that everyone stuck together, applying pressure and raising awareness of the exploitive practices of the Marcianos.
According to former employees, MAF was a very shoestring operation, without much thought given to creating a sustainable cultural institution.
“They were business people,” said Longo. “We didn’t get a chance to work together. They chose to shut it down completely.”
As reported in the LA Times:
“A statement issued by the organizing committee of the Marciano Art Foundation Union said that the episode highlighted the state of museum-labor relations: “Their knee-jerk decision to lay us off instead of working with us provided a grim foretaste of boardroom decisions at museums nationwide that have stripped countless workers of their jobs, benefits and sense of belonging in the museum field.””
So far, there is no news on what might happen to the building, as the Marcianos’ have made no effort to re-open. As we have previously reported, 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.