What really led to the abrupt closure of the Marciano Art Foundation?

The Marciano Art Foundation was housed in the former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple designed by Millard Sheets in 1961. Photo by Yoshiro Makino, courtesy of the design firm wHY.

The Marciano Art Foundation permanently and abruptly closed a few months ago after the staff tried unionizing. 

It was open for two and a half years, and deemed “one of the most important spaces for contemporary art in the whole country” by Jeffery Dietch, former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 

The Marciano was the pet project of Guess Jeans co-founders Maurice and Paul Marciano. The brothers say low attendance did the museum in. But former employees point to labor problems. 

So what exactly happened at the Marciano? Stacy Perman covered this story for the LA Times. 

Seventy part-time workers were laid off the day before the announcement came that the foundation would be closing. They had tried unionizing. What was the work environment for them? 

Perman says they didn't get benefits, were making minimum wage (about $14.25), didn’t have room for advancement, and had to take on extra responsibilities. “There's this model now … where security guards, people on the floor, engage with visitors. So they have to have a certain skill set and knowledge above and beyond.” 

Perman adds that they complained about scheduling: They’d submit request two months early, then those requests would be upended; their hours would be cut; the museum closed on short notice for installations and workers wouldn’t be paid. 

But shutting down to not deal with the union drive is illegal. Is the foundation facing a federal investigation?

Perman says the organizing workers filed a lawsuit with the National Labor Relations Board, and Maurice and Paul Marciano recently denied all charges of labor violations. It’s an ongoing legal issue now. 

In 2018, Paul Marciano was accused of sexual harassment by Kate Upton, followed by others. Did that figure into the museum's closing? 

Perman explains: “What happened at the museum is it was in the run-up to the big Ai Weiwei exhibition that ran in September. So there were questions. 

I was told that Maurice, who actually really is the driving force more than his brother in this enterprise, it was suggested to him that he might want to take off his brother's name on the invitations. But he declined to do so.

They were in discussions with a female artist who proposed an installation that had to do with MeToo. He wasn't interested because it had uncomfortable ramifications, I was told. So that became an issue. And then people working inside were kind of left in the dark.” 

What were the motives for shutting down?

Perman says the brothers never mentioned unionization, but cited low attendance (even though admission was free). 

She explains that this is a private museum run by a foundation, but it didn’t have several internal structures that other enduring cultural institutions do.

“There was no board outside of the Marciano brothers and one of their daughters. I mean, that wasn’t even really a formal board per say. There was no chief curator. There was no endowment that we know of. … Before they closed, they just began to realize that opening and running an institution of the scale was not only complex, but very costly.”

The museum was a way for the Marcianos to show off their personal art. 

“In order to set up these private museums, there has to be some kind of public benefit. So there has to be access to the public or educational programs. In exchange, they get considerable tax exemptions for the art, for housing the art, for maintaining the art, for acquiring works for the foundation,” Perman says. 

She says the Marcianos didn’t set up their foundation in those ways to take advantage of tax breaks. She gives an example: “They wanted the flexibility to have the art in their homes, or in the foundation, or wherever they wanted it. So they didn't donate the art per say. They loaned the art.”

She notes the foundation owns the building that housed the art -- the refurbished Masonic right temple. 

“So whatever tax exemptions they would get belong to the museum, and any art that they specifically purchased or acquired for the museum. And this is all an open question now because they've shut it. The building doesn't represent a public benefit. It's not open to the public. And they've not indicated what they will or will not do with the building going forward,” Perman explains. 

More: KCRW’s Press Play: Marciano Art Foundation and the value of ‘art labor’

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson