LOS ANGELES — A group of about 50 visitor services associates gathered outside the Marciano Art Foundation at 10:30am on Friday, the same as they would on a regular workday in anticipation of clocking in. Today, however, they had assembled to protest the foundation’s recent announcement that it would be laying off all of its 70 associates and shuttering its doors to the public. These developments came only days after a group of employees made public their decision to unionize.
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“We’re here because of the gross and illegal actions the Marcianos have taken in response to our fully legal, totally right and moral decision to unionize,” the floor lead and union organizer Spencer Longo told the assembled crowd of workers, union representatives, and supporters, all dressed in black despite the punishing Los Angeles sun. “Their response was to shut down the Marciano and lie to the public about why they’re doing it, hoping that everybody forgets about it when they try to reopen again in the future.” An official statement from the Marciano Foundation said “low attendance” was behind their decision.
Lylwyn Esangga, an organizing director at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told Hyperallergic that they had three goals with today’s action: “one, to reinstate the workers; two, that the workers be recognized with the union; and three, that they have workplace protection.”
In addition to today’s protest action, the laid-off workers in conjunction with AFSCME filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Marciano Art Foundation with the National Labor Relations Board last night.
Two representatives for local politicians were present at the protest to offer their support. “It’s not about being nice, it’s about really demanding what you want, and taking a stand because ultimately what these folks fail to see is that happy, well paid, safe workers give way to a healthy workplace and customers that are happy,” said Ron Rubine, a representative for LA City Councilman John Lee. “We got your back.”
“The assembly member expresses his dissatisfaction and disappointment with the Marciano family for shutting these doors,” Josh Kirby, District Director for Assembly Member Richard Bloom, told the crowd. “Visitor services workers are the faces of the museum. Without them, there is no museum. They make it significant to us.”
After these initial remarks, the workers moved to the gate on the building’s side entrance, where they asked to be let in to begin their workday. “Let us in!” the crowd chanted, followed by “The artists united, will never be divided!” and “We’ll be back!” Two guards on the other side of the gate had little reaction.
“We want to see that Alex Israel! We wanna see that Richard Prince!” shouted one of the protesters, referencing new works that had been recently hung, implying that the foundation had no intention of closing until this past weekend. “Justice for Donna Huanca! Justice for Anna Uddenberg! Let the ladies show their work!” they shouted. With the Marciano Foundation’s sudden closing, its two current solo shows by Huanca and Uddenberg were also cut short by a month.
One of the issues that spurred workers to form a union was their low salary — Los Angeles’s minimum wage, $14.25/hour for employers with more than 26 employees — despite the high amount of knowledge they were expected to have about the work on view.
“Part of our job is we have to do the research, understand who the artists are, where they come from, what their work is all about,” Betsy-Ann Toffler, 78, told Hyperallergic. “We want to be paid for our experience and education. Most of us have MAs or MFAs.”
Toffler says she was in the midst of researching Jack Pierson, another one of the foundation’s newly hung artists, when she received the email Tuesday night informing her that she would be laid off.
She cites the museum administration’s lack of openness and communication as another reason for the push to unionize. “The administration has been totally unapproachable,” she said. “Had they been approachable, perhaps it never would have come to this degree but, the museum is just run by one individual, Maurice [Marciano], and it runs on his whim, so the only way we could have gotten what we wanted was to unionize.”
The Marciano was formed two years ago by brother Maurice and Paul Marciano, the founders of Guess Jeans, to house their art collection. According to the most recent IRS 990 form from 2017, the brothers are the only board members, with Maurice listed as director and president, and Paul as director.
Despite the frustrations the workers faced, many of them say they loved the job and want to go back to work. “I love the people I work with so much, and to have the community ripped away from us so suddenly is really traumatic,” floor lead Judy Leroy told Hyperallergic. “I treat them like family. I was hoping they would treat us like family. They didn’t.”
The Marciano Foundation has not responded to further requests for comment.