‘Let us in!’ Marciano Art Foundation staffers show up for work at locked museum to protest layoffs

Workers who had tried to unionize chanted and carried signs in front of the closed museum Friday.

“We’re here to work! We want to work!” shouted Eli Petzold as he stood before the locked gates of the Marciano Art Foundation. He was quickly joined by a crowd of almost four dozen people who chanted, “Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!”

Petzold and his colleagues, former docents and visitor services workers at the museum, staged a small but vigorous protest in response to the Marciano Art Foundation’s abrupt decision this week to lay off nearly six dozen workers in the wake of a unionization attempt. This was followed by an announcement on Wednesday that the foundation would close indefinitely.

Several dozen of the laid-off employees, along with supporters (including workers from other museums), showed up at the locked Marciano on Friday morning, some bearing pickets that read “Shame” and “Union Now.”

“It is one minute to 11 and this museum should be opening to the public,” Petzold shouted as the crowd continued to chant, “Let us in!”

Somebody yelled, “We want to see the Alex Israel!” — a reference the Los Angeles painter, whose work was on view inside the Marciano, which has been shut since Thursday.

Betsy-Ann Toffler, a former visitor services associate at the Marciano Art Foundation is interviewed by a television reporter during a protest in front of the museum.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

It is the first public action staged by the workers, who had been attempting to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees when they were laid off en masse via email.

The museum, which was free to the public, attributed the decision to low attendance. The union’s organizers, however, say it’s a union-busting move intended to prevent its workers — many of whom make minimum wage — from organizing. On Thursday, the union filed a charge of unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board.

A representative for the museum did not return a request for comment on Friday.

As workers walked a picket line in 80-degree heat, an organizer with a bullhorn led a chant of “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Marciano has got to go!” Catrina Mendoza, a former visitor services associate at the protest, said she was in “disbelief” when she got the news of the layoffs. “They couldn’t face us,” she said. “They are being cowards. No one has reached out.”

The quick shuttering of the Marciano Art Foundation puts a dramatic wrinkle in a wave of museum unionization efforts and raises questions about tax-exempt private collections.

The museum, opened in 2017, was founded by blue jeans magnates Paul and Maurice Marciano, of Guess jeans, and largely showcased work from their personal collection. Neither has made a public statement on the layoffs or the shutdown.

At least two artists represented in their collection, however, have made statements in support of the workers.

Installation artist Sadie Barnette, who has a one-woman show on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, posted a statement to social media saying that she stood with the Marciano Art Foundation’s workers.

“In a moment where ‘the wealth gap’ is actually a part of the public discourse, the Marciano Art Foundation had an opportunity to take a tiny step in the right direction by supporting the workers,” she wrote on her Instagram stories, “but instead took an unabashedly anti-union stance by firing employees.”

Los Angeles conceptual artist Frances Stark also issued a public statement of support.

“Is the closing a sham?” she wrote. “Why would the museum go out like this? What’s really going on?”

Laid off workers and their supporters picket the Marciano Art Foundation with support from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

The unionization and subsequent shutdown has raised issues about pay equity in the art industry, where there are broad pay disparities between museum management and entry-level staff.

Earlier this year, a group of museum workers called Art + Museum Transparency launched a crowdsourced spreadsheet in which museum workers anonymously shared salary information. It revealed entry-level positions at many museums that hover in the $30,000-a-year range — positions that frequently require advanced degrees. For workers in visitor services, the wages are generally in the vicinity of minimum wage.

Workers at the Marciano Art Foundation announced a unionization drive on Friday. On Tuesday, the museum announced it was laying them off.

The picket line at the Marciano Art Foundation on Friday was the first public protest staged by its former workers. But it it appears that it will not be the last.

“We have other actions in the works,” said Izzy Johnson, a docent who serves on the union’s organizing committee. “This has been an amazing. ... People have really shown support.”