By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, a group of students led by Otis College of Art and Design artist-in-residence Kirsten Dufour gathered in front of the Gap on the Third Street Promenade. They came not to shop but to “advertise”: Armed with stickers for the Museum of Tolerance‘s exhibit “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820--Present,” the group fanned out from the Gap, to Abercrombie and Fitch, to Banana Republic, stuffing the stickers into pockets and pasting them onto clothing racks, labels and price tags, and even just below some of the cash registers. When their actions were discovered, the police were summoned, and Dufour and company were quietly escorted away, leaving employees of the Gap et al. to wonder why an exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, of all places, would lead to such guerrilla tactics.
It‘s a good question, and the answer is that “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” -- a survey of American sweatshops consisting of archival photos and a few historical artifacts, including mass-produced slave workshirts, union posters from the ’20s onward and objects seized in the infamous 1995 El Monte sweatshop raid -- was not advertised. Nor was the press properly notified. (In fact, a Smithsonian employee who sensed a hostile environment at MOT had to fax a media advisory from her Los Angeles hotel room -- with her cell phone as the contact number.) Nor was the catalog available at the opening. Nor was MOT‘s then--assistant director of museum programs Marcia Choo part of the official opening program, even though the Smithsonian-produced exhibit came to Los Angeles in large part due to her unceasing efforts. All of which is puzzling, because -- on the surface at least -- “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and the Museum of Tolerance would seem such a good fit.
“Garment workers have been a kind of touchstone for progressive Jews -- it’s an issue they tend to rally around,” says Karen Brodkin, author of How Jews Became White Folks. Every Jewish youngster inevitably hears the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and is likely to have one grandparent or great-grandparent who was a radical firebrand in his or her day. Jews played a central role in organizing the garment industry, which in turn played a central role in Jews‘ rapid ascent into the middle class. But Jewish immigrants were both exploited and exploiter. Though no longer as prominent as the time when New York’s great department stores were helmed by men named Gimbel, Schwarz and Arbus, the Jewish presence in the garment industry is, of course, significant. While representing just one-fifth of all companies, Jewish-owned concerns account for more than half of all major L.A. garment manufacturers, and their market share exceeds 50 percent of the $28-billion-per-year industry, according to the Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops. Some of the bigger players are Guess? Inc., Rampage and Jonathan Martin.
The questionable practices of L.A.‘s garment industry are not unknown to the U.S. Department of Labor, says Gerald Hall, who as a veteran DOL field investigator policed garment manufacturers for 20 years in L.A. “They get a lot of attention, and we would say deservedly so,” says Hall, who is also a member of the National Policy Committee for Wage and Hour in the Garment Industry. “There is not an industry across the board where you can find 50 percent of employers [whose] workers are not receiving the minimum wage. I don’t know another industry in Southern California that‘s like that.”
Given that, it’s not surprising that some local garment manufacturers would not be terribly pleased to see an exhibit detailing the history of the garment sweatshop arrive at the Museum of Tolerance, to which many of them donate generously -- as Ilse Metchek, executive director for the L.A.-based California Fashion Association (CFA), was happy to confirm. In fact, local industry played a prominent role in attempting to quash “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” long before the decision to bring it to Los Angeles. Lobbying efforts included Metchek‘s appeal to Senator Diane Feinstein as well as an angry letter to congressional representatives (especially those from Southern California), threatening to turn it into another Enola Gay exhibit, the atomic bomb exhibit stifled by veterans groups. But Representative George Miller (D--Martinez) rallied 48 colleagues in Congress, getting them to add their names to a letter of unconditional support for the show.
Just the same, despite aggressively pursuing institutions from the East Coast to the West -- including its own traveling exhibition sites, as well as the Skirball Cultural Center -- the Smithsonian found no museum to take the exhibit. The difference at MOT was the hiring of Marcia Choo, who had spent eight years with the Asian Pacific Dispute Resolution Center, a nonprofit mediation and conciliation service and an arm of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Says the Smithsonian’s Peter Liebhold, one of the show‘s two curators, “Long before the exhibit opened in D.C., we were looking for other venues -- in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. We had also looked at venues in L.A., and MOT . . . expressed interest, but then we never heard from [them] again. In every institution we approached, the administrators were just too nervous. We thought once the show had opened, maybe people would be less nervous about hosting it, but that was not the case. A week before the show was to come down, we received a letter from the MOT -- authored and signed by Marcia Choo -- asking for the exhibit. We put it in storage, and Marcia was able to raise enough money to buy herself some time.”
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