The Marciano brothers put their art treasure trove on display
Ask Angeleno-by-way-of-Marseille-and-Algeria Maurice Marciano why in the world he would take on a project like his new Marciano Art Foundation—you know, creating a major institution; buying a behemoth, 110,000-square-foot Masonic building on Wilshire Boulevard; demolishing most of the inside, including a 2,200-plus-seat theater, to bring the building up to code—and he laughs. “Ignorance!” he finally manages to squeeze out between guffaws. When the co-founder of Guess and his brother Paul first decided to share the art collection they’ve amassed over the past 12 years with the community where they made their millions, they initially intended to buy a building of modest size, say 30,000 square feet, in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District.
Fast-forward three years later, and he’s taken on an overlooked piece of local history—ripping out the majority of the interiors and inviting artists such as Mark Bradford and Takashi Murakami into the space for inspiration. Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch shot footage after camping inside the cavernous interior. Analia Saban made work from one of the chairs she found there.
Architect Kulapat Yantrasast completely reimagined the space, originally designed by the late California artist and architectural desiger Millard Sheets. A grand gallery fills the main floor, where the theater once stood, and a former ballroom and meeting rooms have become airy upstairs galleries. Yet there are still hints of the past: an exterior that retains Masonic elements, such as a double-headed eagle in relief and an anchor and ark in mosaic above the entrance; original murals by Sheets (touched up by his son, Tony); a brassy gilded elevator; even a gleaming 1960s water fountain on the second floor. Marciano justifies his U-turn from thinking small, declaring that the bold endeavor is ultimately for the artists. “I want to give them a forum to express themselves with their art. And give young artists exposure to the community.”
Former MOCA curator Philipp Kaiser chose several threads for the museum’s opening exhibitions, which display only a scant 10 percent of the brothers’ 1,500 holdings—a trove that spans artists all over the world, such as the esteemed Glenn Ligon, Mexican artist Damián Ortega and DJ-curator-artist Nate Lowman. Marciano also has a significant collection of works by local artists. “Maurice understands the L.A. art scene as a family,” explains Kaiser.
From that angle, the exhibition “Unpacking: The Marciano Collection” is laid out to reflect various relationships between artists: for example, SP 93, a work by Sterling Ruby, appears alongside Kandor 18B by Mike Kelley, Ruby’s mentor. An untitled piece from 2014 by Christopher Wool is placed side by side with Schnee by Wool’s close friend Albert Oehlen. In another gallery, White Snow Head by Paul McCarthy and Shangri-La Blue/Shangri-La Pink by Takashi Murakami are juxtaposed—as both artists are critics of pop culture. Only later did Kaiser learn that McCarthy had invited Murakami to teach at UCLA, and that the visiting artist was thrilled to learn their work would be placed together. “They are both invested in mass culture, but they come at it from completely different angles—but some of the work looks alike,” marvels Kaiser. Along the way, Kaiser also took care to insert the randomness and depth that characterize the Marciano collection; lesser-known artists such as Alex Israel and Carol Bove are interspersed. “You don’t realize the breadth of the collection. It’s 360 degrees.”
It was also essential to present work that reflected the site itself: a history-drenched Scottish Rite Masonic temple. Marciano and Kaiser selected L.A.-based Jim Shaw (who has never had a major show on the West Coast) for the first solo show in the large raw space that was once the theater. Known for creating a religion he calls O-ism and playing with themes of myth and belief, Shaw is a natural collaborator. “He has always been interested in conspiracy theories and has vast archives of subcultural stuff he collects from Freemasons and other cults,” says Kaiser. For the artist’s show, “The Wig Museum,” he utilized Masonic wigs and backdrops found in the building to create an immersive environment, commenting on Anglo-Saxon power and justice—and the loss of it—“for better or worse.”
For Marciano, there is something compelling about being able not only to collect, but to collaborate with and embolden artists. He finds similarities with his journey at the publicly traded Guess (Marciano is retired, and his brother Paul is currently chief creative officer and executive chairman). “Guess is very innovative, fashion-forward,” he says. “It’s all about product development—constantly. I call it reinventing but staying true to ourselves.” He thinks art is basically the same thing and loves how even an established artist is constantly pushing boundaries.
Kaiser’s take is that Marciano admires artists for being driven by a mission or a big idea. And it’s unusual, he adds, how many young artists—think ages 30 and under—interest him. It’s one of the main things that differentiates this foundation from other museums, such as the encyclopedic LACMA or even The Broad, which houses a much older collection. For Marciano, it’s what’s now or what’s next.
Having a private foundation gives him the capability to create the “what’s next.” Marciano and his brother are the sole decision makers. And unlike traditional museums, where a curator has to jump through multiple hoops to get funding and approval to buy art or fit an exhibition idea into programming that is often planned out years in advance, Marciano could take all the art off the walls over the weekend and start fresh the next day. He’s planning on organic growth, leaving open the option to pivot when necessary. “I’d like to see conversations with artists blossom into full-blown commissions,” he muses. “I don’t want this to become an institute. Artists won’t have to go through a long process like one does in a big museum for a commission. I want the freedom,” he says. “Here it’s about the freedom!” marcianoartfoundation.org.
Photography by SAM FROST.
Written by ELIZABETH KHURI CHANDLER.