Into the dead zone between the sputtering-out of summer shows and the ignition of the new season comes the story of Maurice and Paul Marciano, co-founders of the stonewashed blue jeans empire Guess, and the private art museum they are founding in Los Angeles.
It is a private museum not only because it is, for now, entirely funded by the Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation, but also because you, the public, are not allowed inside.
Actually, Maurice and Paul are half of the original quartet of Marciano brothers who started Guess. One of the four, Armand, resigned while on medical leave in 2003, and the other, Georges, cashed out in 1993 and is now bankrupt after a stillborn self-financed gubernatorial campaign and a defamation suit by former employees, which he lost to the tune of $370 million.
In the 1990s, Guess was in the headlines for its labor practices, with critical reports on sweatshops, union busting, and outsourcing. In 1992, the company signed a self-policing agreement with the Department of Labor “pledging to monitor all the factories that make its garments,” according to a 1997 story in The New York Times.
Skeptics, however, remained. In an essay titled “The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop: Garment Industry Monitoring in Los Angeles” (published in the book Corporate Responsibility and Labour Rights: Codes of Conduct in the Global Economy, Routledge, 2002), British lawyer Laura Dubinsky writes:
The monitoring programme at Guess was a disaster. The intended beneficiaries of the scheme, the workers, enjoyed no material improvement in their working conditions and were threatened and penalized when they dared to speak out. According to a former high-level Guess compliance officer interviewed by Edna Bonacich, prices paid by Guess to contractors for garments fell while the monitoring programme was being implemented (unpublished interview, Bonacich, 1995). Most disturbingly, the lessons of Guess have not been learnt. The monitoring model that underlay the Guess scheme is being replicated on a far larger scale, generally in the form of increasing numbers of self-policing corporate codes of conduct and more specifically in the form of recent US government-sponsored initiatives such as the Fair Labor Association.
Sweatshops or no, Guess has maintained an astounding record of growth over the past ten years. A sampling of headlines from the Los Angeles Times over a one-year period suggests there are some very capable corporate hands at the helm: “Strong sales give Guess a profit boost” (January 19, 2007); “Guess’ net income climbs 77%” (February 15, 2007); “Guess posts 72% jump in profit” (June 6, 2007); “Guess earnings beat forecasts” (December 5, 2007).
The story about the Marcianos’ private museum, “A Bigger Closet for Their Art,” which was published on Monday in The New York Times, tells us that the brothers, after “several years of frenzied buying, […] have run out of space to display their growing art collections.”
(The New York paper, in this instance, was a little slow on the uptake: Roger Vincent of the Los Angeles Times reported last month on the brothers’ purchase of the museum’s future home, a former Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard designed by California artist Millard Sheets.)
Space will not be an issue with the new building, which, as described in Vincent’s Los Angeles Times piece, published July 24, 2013, is huge: a 90,000 square-foot behemoth that “traverses a full block of Wilshire.” A post that appeared the next day by Adrian Glick Kudler in Curbed LA mentions “a 1,500-seat dining room, a 3,000-seat auditorium, and [quoting the architect, Millard Sheets], ‘a very fine library.’ Sheets said ‘The temple is like a city.’”
As for public access, the Monday Times story tells us:
But who will be able to visit the Marciano museum, and when, remains unclear. At least initially, Maurice Marciano said, it will not be open to the public daily, which would require a sizable staff. Instead, he said, the museum might be open by appointment.
Which doesn’t make it much of a museum. There is a jarring disconnect between the enormity of the space and the trickle of people who will be initially allowed in.
(While you could make a comparison with the famously inaccessible Barnes Foundation, formerly in Merion, Pennsylvania, it is important to remember that its founder, Albert Barnes, intended it to be a school, not a museum.)
What those happy few will see when they slip through the temple doors is a bit of a mystery. The New York Times article mentions “luminaries like Sterling Ruby and Carroll Dunham” among the 1,000 pieces in the collection, along with many current Los Angeles artists.
It also reveals that “Maurice Marciano’s interest in art was revived when he toured a Takashi Murakami show at the [Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art] in 2008.” Given its origin story, there is reason to wonder how noteworthy this enormous collection will be.
But even more disconcerting than a reawakening to contemporary art via Murakami is the impetus behind the museum. If accurately reported, this project got moving not out a sense of civic pride or a democratic impulse to share a private collection with a wider public, but from the desire to buy a large space and fill it with stuff.
Maurice had his Murakami moment almost twenty years after the brothers started buying art. Again from Monday’s Times:
Maurice and Paul began collecting art around 1990. They started with Impressionist pieces but soon moved to the contemporary art market and sold the older works.
“If we had collected only Impressionists, today we would have only a few pieces, instead of hundreds of pieces,” Maurice Marciano said.
While Guess was being slammed in the court of public opinion for labor abuses, the Marcianos were off on their first art-shopping sprees. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize the incongruity of the situation or to ponder the relationship between the obscene aesthetics of much recent high-end art and the obscene profits it takes to buy it.
The Marciano brothers’ support of local artists has been lauded by such prominent insiders as Jeffrey Deitch and Paul Schimmel, the former director and former chief curator, respectively, of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Schimmel describes the brothers in Monday’s article as “real patrons. I think they see their role as more civic and comprehensive now.”
But does it make sense to describe buying local art as a civic role after Guess moved 40% of its production from Southern California to Mexico? Laura Dubinsky writes in “The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop” that “Richard Reinis, head of the Compliance Alliance, suggested that the move [which was made in 1997] was a response to pressures to comply with labour laws […] Guess simply stated that it was moving to remain competitive.”
The support of art and artists is invariably a public relations plus. Alice Walton of the Wal-Mart dynasty, whose company is the fiercest competitor in the race to the bottom, received glowing notices in The New York Times for her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
It is stunning to realize, however, that although the Marcianos are able to afford a 1,000-piece art collection and an $8 million building to put it in, they don’t even come close to players like Walton.
If public records are to believed, Guess employment agreements that took effect in 2007 and continued to 2012 (with automatic one-year extensions unless countermanded in writing by the company) guarantee Maurice a $1 million base salary along with “an annual incentive bonus opportunity based […] on the achievement of performance criteria” that “will equal at least 140% of base salary” but “not exceed 225% of base salary.” These sums are accompanied by stock options, lifetime medical benefits and the usual executive perks.
Paul’s contract is the same as Maurice’s, except that “his annual incentive bonus opportunity will have a target value equal to at least 200% of base salary, a threshold value equal to one-half of the target bonus and a maximum value not to exceed 300% of base salary,” among other increases.
Compare those numbers, sizable though they are, to Walton’s net worth (according to the Forbes 2013 list of the world’s top billionaires) of $26.3 billion. Walton is number 16 on the list; the Marcianos fail to make the cut.
In an article called “Some Filthy Facts about the Rich” in Nation of Change — published, coincidentally, on the same day as the New York Times story — Paul Buchheit writes:
India just approved a program to spend $4 billion a year to feed 800 million people. Half of Indian children under 5 are malnourished.
In 2012, three members of the Walton family each made over $4 billion just from stocks and other investments. So did Charles Koch, and David Koch, and Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg, and Jeff Bezos.
While Buchheit doesn’t believe that “any one of these individuals” has an obligation “to feed the world. The disgrace is in the fact that our unregulated capitalist system allows such outrageous extremes to exist.”
The distortions of the system are manifest in the slick, fetishized, outsourced art that caters to it. Whether the Marciano museum is bloated with such specimens or enlivened by eclectic emerging and local art remains to be seen.
But whether or not the museum ever opens to the public, it has already made its mark as a metaphor — a private art palace built on the skewed economics of globalization by and for the privileged few. Happy Labor Day.