LOS ANGELES — Last Friday, November 1, visitor services employees at the Marciano Art Foundation (MAF) announced plans to unionize, filing paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board. The museum followed up with a statement in the New York Times, greeting announcement with what seemed a willingness to negotiate, saying: “As an organization, we are supportive of all recommendations to improve the workplace experience and will give this careful attention as we begin our discussions.”
But suddenly, on Tuesday evening, the MAF laid off all 70 of its visitor services associates via email, “effective tomorrow,” citing low attendance.
The institution continued, “If you were scheduled for work tomorrow you will be paid for the day,” telling employees their final pay would be sent via direct deposit on Thursday, November 7.
A followup comment provided by the MAF to Hyperallegic on Wednesday, November 6, reads: “Due to low attendance the past few weeks 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.”
Yesterday, the institution announced it would be closing for good, telling the Los Angeles Times that it had “no present plans to reopen.”
Since the Marciano’s announcement that it would not be reopening, the union organizers held two meetings where they decided to hold an action at the MAF on the morning of Friday, November 8. “We’re going back to work!” reads a comment on the latest post of their newly launched instagram maf_union. “Join us in solidarity tomorrow, Friday the 8th from 10:30am-12:30pm at the Marciano Art Foundation (4357 Wilshire Blvd). We will be meeting on the side of the building facing Wilshire, construction allowing. Art workers won’t be bullied into silence. Wear all black (MAF uniforms). See you there!”
The MAF was founded in 2017 by the Marciano brothers, Paul and Maurice, who also founded Guess clothing brand in 1981. Located on Wilshire Boulevard, the MAF was opened to house the Marciano’s collection of approximately 1,500 artworks. It also staged temporary solo exhibitions of work by Jim Shaw, Olafur Eliasson, Ai Weiwei, and until this week, Bolivian-American artist Donna Huanca. Her performance-based installation Obsidian Ladder was curated by Olivia Marciano, Maurice’s daughter and the Foundation’s artistic director. That exhibition and a solo presentation by sculptor Anna Uddenberg were supposed to run through December 1.
Of the closure, Javier Peres, whose Berlin gallery represents Huanca told Hyperallergic via email, “While we are not involved with and cannot comment on MAF’s internal matters, it’s sad and distressing for everyone when a museum/gallery has to close, especially for those who have been laid off.”
Eli Petzold, a member of the union organizing committee and a visitor services associate, tells Hyperallergic that the museum’s emphasis on empowerment is at odds with the Foundation’s recent actions. “I want to emphasize that the Foundation’s goals are to engage with socio-political issues facing our time.” he says. “The Donna Huanca show specifically had a social justice bent to it, reorienting the traditional male gaze. They were trying to signal they were aware of social justice, but [their actions] fly in the face of that.”
According to artist Spencer Longo, another member of the organizing committee and a floor lead at the MAF, the movement to unionize began last February in response to issues including low wages, lack of benefits, and last-minute schedule changes. When he started 15 months ago, his salary was $13.50/hour, then raised to $14.25 earlier this year to match Los Angeles’s new minimum wage. Despite being paid minimum wage, Longo says visitor services associates are expected to have significant knowledge of the artwork on view, essentially fulfilling both gallery attendant and educational roles.
“This was a job that was really good for skilled communicators,” says Petzold. “We loved our job. We felt we were shaping visitors’ experiences, as the heart and soul of the institution.”
Despite a contract giving them at least two days of work a week, Longo says visitor service associates’ schedules were often changed with little notice. “The Marcianos have changed everyone’s schedules overnight,” he recalls. “They closed the museum for a month because it was slow. When they make these decisions, we feel it the most.”
In response to these issues, employees began the push to unionize, filing last week with the National Labor Relations Board. In order to do so, 30% of viable employees must submit pledge cards to the Board. Sixty of the 70 Visitor Services Associates signed on.
According to Longo, the union would force the MAF, which is a non-profit entity entitled to tax exemptions, to be held accountable to its employees. “The very existence of the Marciano jacks up rents,” he says. “It’s a tax haven but doesn’t pay back to the city. They’re not paying taxes, and not paying people a living wage.”
Nonprofits are supposed to have a governing board, however, the Marciano has none listed on its website, nor does it have any curatorial staff listed. The Foundation’s longtime director Jamie Manné departed in March.
As for the decision to close due to “low attendance,” union organizers see this as an excuse to get out of negotiating with the union, and therefore illegal. “There were a lot of things in motion showing they had plans to keep the museum open,” says Petzold, citing a table set up in the lobby collecting children’s drawing for an artist’s upcoming exhibition scheduled to open in February.
“The day after our union announcement was the busiest day since Ai Weiwei. It was a zoo,” he recalls, noting that Huanca’s recent talk was also overbooked. He adds that they recently rehung the third-floor galleries and opened a new room featuring work by the artist Alex Israel.
“Their decision to close is not valid,” he continues. “It’s illegal to close during a union organization.”
Lylwyn Esangga, an organizing director at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — the country’s largest trade union of public employees — has been working with the Marciano employees and says the workers are planning legal action in response to the firings and closure.
“In our opinion, this is an anti-union action,” she tells Hyperallergic. “We’re going to pursue unfair labor practice, because of the fact that we filed and their unwillingness to go through the election process. This is a way of canning the whole idea by getting rid of everyone.”