It began with a unionization plan and ended with the indefinite closure of one of L.A.'s newest art spaces.
Just one day after laying off nearly six dozen employees who were attempting to unionize, the Marciano Art Foundation announced in a statement to The Times on Wednesday that it has “no present plans to reopen.”
This marks a surprising conclusion to a chain of events that have occurred at breakneck speed.
On Friday evening, the foundation’s visitor services associates — gallery attendants and docents for the museum — announced they were unionizing with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) over issues related to scheduling, job security and wages. The associates earned $14.25 an hour, the minimum wage in the city of Los Angeles for organizations with more than 26 employees. But as part of their jobs, they were expected to have an intimate knowledge of art and art history.
“United by this belief in the dignity of our work, we’re coming together in one voice,” stated the Marciano Art Foundation Union in a letter they presented to management at the time, “so that we can effectively advocate for changes that will make the foundation a more sustainable and equitable institution for all of its employees.”
Initially, it seemed as though the foundation was willing to work with the budding union. In a statement issued Friday, the museum said it was “supportive of all recommendations to improve the workplace experience and will give this careful attention as we begin our discussions.”
But that was short-lived. At 6:13 p.m. on Tuesday, museum management sent a tersely worded email to employees stating that attendance was low and that the museum would prematurely close its current exhibition.
“Effective Thursday, Nov. 7 we will be laying off all the Visitor Services Associates,” read the email. “You will be receiving your final pay via Direct Deposit on Thursday, Nov. 7.”
The museum later issued a short statement to The Times to explain the decision: “Due to low attendance the past few weeks Marciano Art Foundation will be closing the current exhibition early on Nov. 6 after a five-month run. The foundation will remain closed to the public until further notice.”
A similar announcement soon appeared on the museum’s website.
On Wednesday, when The Times asked if there were plans to reopen, the museum responded with a one-line statement: “We have no present plans to reopen.”
Eli Petzold, a visitor services associate who is part of the union’s organizing committee, believes that the closure is intended to put an end to the employees’ labor campaign.
“They are illegally shuttering a workplace in response to a union drive,” he said via telephone. (The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with the right to organize.)
Spencer Longo, another organizer who also worked in visitor services, notes that since the foundation didn’t charge admission, attendance numbers wouldn’t affect the bottom line.
“They’ve had slow periods plenty of times since they’ve opened,” he said. “We were at 9% attendance and then on Thursday or Friday it had gone up to 45%. They will have shows, like the one for Ai Weiwei, that drew 100%. But then it will go back down.”
Longo said associates had access to attendance figures since they were given records of all the day’s reservations in advance of each shift.
Lylwyn Esangga, an organizing director at AFSCME, said the layoffs were an “anti-union tactic.”
“The workers at the Marciano are prepared to fight back,” she said.
Founded by art collectors and Guess blue jeans magnates Paul and Maurice Marciano, the Marciano Art Foundation opened to much fanfare in the former Scottish Rite old Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard in May 2017.
The museum showcased works from the Marciano brothers’ collection along with rotating exhibitions devoted to internationally famous artists, including Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, L.A. painter Jim Shaw and the Berlin-based Donna Huanca, whose current installation was scheduled to remain open until Dec. 1.
As recently as this weekend, there was no indication that the museum might shut down.
On Saturday, an afternoon talk featuring independent curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Huanca drew a large audience.
“The talk was completely full,” said Fajardo-Hill, estimating that there were roughly 200 people in attendance. “Everything seemed completely normal.”
It is unclear whether the Marciano brothers plan to continue operating a foundation or what will become of the building. The statement issued Wednesday was open-ended enough to allow for a possible reopening in the future. That, however, would require hiring a new crop of visitor services associates.