SANTA MONICA — Last night in Santa Monica, a couple of blocks from the ocean, two white vans pulled up at Wally’s Wine & Spirits on Wilshire Boulevard at around 6:15pm. A few dozen people clad in black spilled out of the oversized van’s sliding doors, armed with posters and flyers. The multigenerational group were the former visitor service associates of the Marciano Art Foundation, which abruptly shuttered in early November two days after employees had announced a union effort with AFSCME District Council 36. The museum said “low attendance” was behind its decision. Usually prepped to dole out exhibition information to museum art-goers, last night the workers had a 400-dollar a plate dinner to protest and pedestrians to inform.
Wally’s, a Los Angeles wine institution, might not seem the most intuitive of places to protest arts labor issues, but the restaurant chain has a clear path to the Marciano brothers of Guess denim jeans. In 2013, Wine & Spirits’ original owner, Steve Wallace, sold the space to the Marcianos and longtime sommelier Christian Navarro. On this particular night the owners were hosting the aforementioned high-dollar dinner, and the Marciano workers made an uninvited appearance to hand out flyers to passersby and patrons alike. The flyers, which outlines the workers’ plights and needs, states: “We demand that the Foundation be Reopened, that we are Reinstated and that our union is Recognized.”
In early November, a group of about 50 visitor services associates protested outside the closed museum. In that protest, organizer Eli Petzold said, “the mission was very clear; we were basically screaming at a building.” For them, the action last night represents a new level of engagement — one they deemed necessary, because, Petzold said, “If we have to go where the Marcianos are, then we will, because they haven’t been willing to dialogue with us.” Last week, the group protested outside the arts nonprofit LAXART, where Olivia Marciano, the foundation’s artistic director, is a member of the Board of Directors.
Chrissy Samples, another black-clad protester who identified herself as a “friend” of the visitor service associates, considers this a larger issue worth protesting. “A large collection of art is now going to be vaulted in storage and we want the public to be connected to art,” she said. “I’m also disturbed that this is a highly illegal action and they’re not responding.”
“It’s clear they were not planning to shut down immediately,” said another former visitor associate, Izzy Johnson, about the Marciano Art Foundation’s sudden plan to close. “They were planning stuff for Frieze and collecting children’s drawings that were going to be used in a show premiering in February.”
Over the course of the night, the protesters handed out flyers and carried their signs. Some patrons and pedestrians were willing to stop and talk, expressing their sympathy for the protesters’ concerns, some even having prior knowledge of what had happened. Others grabbed the flyer quickly before going on their way, while a minority gave the protesters resentful looks before averting their eyes. Johnson said, “I think it was an important action, if nothing more than for the fact that it’s putting this issue on people’s radar who are not otherwise connected to the art world.”
In an ironic twist, the skills they developed as visitor service associates at the Marciano Art Foundation may now have helped them in their protests against the foundation’s actions. Petzold explained, “We’re good at communicating nuanced information to strangers efficiently and respectfully.” According to Petzold, the evening closed with relatively little fanfare. In a text message the next morning, he shared an anecdote that felt particular to a Los Angeles protest, “We drove the vans down Wilshire to the bluffs and ate sandwiches overlooking the PCH and the evening ocean.”