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Fashion Victims

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.”

Choo, who is no longer employed by MOT, initially refused repeated interview requests with the Weekly, but in a recent talk at CalArts she detailed some of the ways in which she felt MOT officials willfully obstructed a successful mounting of the show. Choo said she felt compelled to bring the show to Los Angeles in part because of a perceived mandate from her superiors to expand MOT’s viewing audience. “I knew it was controversial, [but] I thought this was a way to bring in new audiences to the museum . . . And because of race politics today in America in general, and the race rhetoric in Los Angeles in particular, I wanted to find something that wasn‘t just a Jewish story, that wasn’t just an Asian story. I thought this was a uniquely American story that resonated regardless of racial differences.”

The museum, she said, agreed to host the show while setting conditions that made its arrival unlikely. The Simon Wiesenthal Center‘s donors include some of the wealthiest people in the world; in 1998, the last year for which figures are available, MOT received $28 million in contributions and gifts. Though she faced a $100,000 price tag to mount the show, Choo was expressly forbidden to tap into the museum’s donor A-list. Even after she had successfully raised enough money -- from progressive Jewish leaders and her own contacts -- to get the show, fresh obstacles awaited her.

“When I first proposed this project,” Choo said in her CalArts talk, “they said, ‘Raise the money and we’ll talk about it.‘ They always issued a little challenge, and when I’d meet the challenge, they‘d have to come up with a new strategy somehow to kill the show. When I raised the money, they said, ’Well, you can‘t do this because you need to do X.’ So then I‘d do X and then, ’Well, that‘s done, now you have to take care of Y and Z.’ So I‘d take care of Y and Z and then they’d say, ‘Fine, but you still neglected to do A, B and C.’ So it was always a new thing and it was never a straight answer.”

In mid-March, a week before “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” was to close, I visited the Museum of Tolerance with teachers and students from Otis -- and the aforementioned guerrilla advertisers -- for a walk through the exhibit with Choo. In the lobby, I looked for some indication of the exhibit‘s presence, without success. Legions of high school students assembling were led off by determined-looking tour guides, but on the third floor, where the exhibit was situated, all was quiet and peaceful. A couple of middle-aged Latino women and a single white couple who looked as though they had gotten lost on the way to CityWalk were the only visitors.

The exhibit itself was surprisingly straightforward, tracing garment manufacture from the home seamstresses of the early 19th century, to the labor struggles of the teens and ’20s, to present-day garment factories where Asian and Latino immigrants labor under conditions not dissimilar to those experienced by their forebears. If the rhetoric was vehemently pro-labor, it also rendered the struggle purely historic. The 1995 El Monte sweatshop raid, in which 72 Thai workers, quite literally slaves, were liberated from captivity after an escaped worker alerted authorities, was presented as an aberration. The exhibit closed with two industry-created videos; the first, also seen at the Smithsonian, was a general pep talk featuring garment laborers working out in company-provided gymnasiums; the second, provided by the CFA at MOT‘s invitation, details the group’s charitable efforts -- donating clothes to needy kids.

It all seems relatively innocuous, but to fully understand the arena into which an unsuspecting Choo stepped, one must look to the brief history of the Jewish Commission on Sweatshops. First convened in the summer of 1997 under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), the commission assembled Jewish community leaders, including prominent rabbis, to address the plight of those workers -- mainly illegal immigrants -- toiling in poorly ventilated, ill-lit L.A. garment factories for obscenely low wages. The commission faced industry pressure from the outset.

According to Richard Appelbaum, director of the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research at UCSB and co-author of the commission‘s report, the group’s formation was followed closely by a phone call from Rabbi Allen Freehling of University Synagogue in Brentwood -- Guess founder Paul Marciano‘s synagogue. Freehling arranged a meeting on behalf of the Marciano brothers. Guess has a somewhat unsavory reputation for allegations of union busting, for having been at various times involved in a bitter and well-publicized lawsuit against rival Jordache, and for a protracted struggle with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It was also one of the few major clothing labels running its own factories, and in great part, the commission’s formation was meant to address labor practices at Guess, and to complement efforts of the NLRB, which, in November 1997, filed a complaint accusing Guess of union busting.

The Appelbaum-Marciano meeting was a warning shot across the commission‘s bow. “The purpose of it was for the Marcianos to tell us that they were the good guys, and the union was the bad guys,” Appelbaum recalls. “And then they graciously offered to help pay for the commission’s work, and we graciously declined. And then -- here‘s where it gets a little subjective -- we were reminded gently and politely that the industry was a major philanthropist, and that what we were doing could potentially hurt the industry. No overt threats were made, but I definitely came away with the impression that they were making a full-court press to discourage us.”

From that time forward, commission meetings were well-attended by industry lawyers. “Stan Levy [former general counsel of Guess] really played a very prominent role in deluging us with paper,” says Appelbaum. “He certainly put a lot of legal work into letting us know we were being carefully watched. Knowing the amount of money Guess spent on the lawsuit with Jordache and how they fought the NLRB, I personally felt a lot of pressure.”

In February 1999, the commission released a report critical of industry practices and organization, reading, in part, “The very structure of the women’s fashion-garment production that characterizes the Los Angeles production system encourages the creation of sweatshops and their attendant labor abuses.” The CFA‘s Ilse Metchek countered with a widely disseminated letter and position paper beginning, “The apparent bias expressed by this Commission is very unfortunate, both because it breeds anti-Semitic stereotypes and because it says to the fashion and apparel community that the Commission has already found you guilty . . .” Metchek ended by noting the attractive business opportunities available in Mexico, and then mailed a copy of it to the American Jewish Congress’s national headquarters in New York. One week later, that New York office ordered the Los Angeles AJC branch closed, citing its failure to meet fund-raising goals -- goals it had never met before.

“I was surprised that the AJC, which had a tradition of being among the most liberal of Jewish organizations, should have acted in such an arbitrary and outrageous way as to shut down the office,” says Rabbi Leonard Beerman, co-chairman of the Jewish Commission on Sweatshops, and a longtime human-rights and living-wage advocate. “It appeared to be an act of reprisal against the work of the commission.”

Phil Baum, executive director of the AJC in New York, insists the L.A. branch was closed simply because it couldn‘t pay its bills -- and that the closure had nothing whatsoever to do with the commission’s report.

At the time the Jewish Commission on Sweatshops was so unceremoniously dissolved, Marcia Choo was busily trying to raise the necessary funds. People connected with the exhibit‘s working committee agree that while there was no out-and-out refusal of it, the show was clearly not wanted. “I gather they got roped into it kicking and screaming,” Appelbaum notes dryly. Don Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian-American Studies Center, who jointly produced the exhibit‘s catalog with the Smithsonian and MOT, says he was surprised that “the museum itself did not seem to embrace this exhibit . . . it just looked like there wasn’t an institutional commitment.” Nakanishi adds that it was only his staff‘s presentation of flowers to Choo at the opening that prompted museum officials to acknowledge her publicly.

Likewise, Rabbi Beerman, a member of the show’s working committee, didn‘t receive an official announcement until a month before the exhibit’s end, and had to be notified of the opening by Choo. And then there was that elusive catalog. “At the reception, the museum decided not to even mention that there was a catalog,” says Nakanishi. “They didn‘t display it, and it wasn’t at their bookstore for a couple of weeks at least.” In subsequent talks with MOT director Liebe Geft, it became clear to Nakanishi that the reason was Richard Appelbaum. Co-author of Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry, due out in June from UC Press, Appelbaum had written a brief essay, entitled “The Los Angeles Garment Industry,” for the catalog. Though Geft did not ask for editorial oversight, she knew Appelbaum‘s inclusion would further infuriate concerned donors who, only six months previous, had had their unpleasant run-in with him and the commission. “She said she could kind of live with the El Monte workers interview, and obviously she had to accept [curators] Harry [Rubenstein] and Peter [Liebhold]’s essay,” says Nakanishi. “But she a thought we had done something deceptive by putting in Appelbaum‘s essay, and she didn’t think he was objective or fair.”

Geft says the issue was simply procedural: The Appelbaum essay had not been included in the original proposal and she thus had to go back and inform those who needed informing. The study co-authored by Appelbaum “had been a source of much anguish in the community and for the industry. I did not want anybody to think I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes.”

For his part, Beerman does credit MOT for hosting the exhibit. “I felt, on the one hand, that it was a marvelous thing that the museum, whatever the reasons, was willing to show it,” he says. “It was ostensibly a sensitive thing [for] the museum to show an exhibit many of their contributors would find offensive. [But] it was pathetic that it appeared without significant publicity.”

Despite the stress it caused her, Choo also acknowledges the balancing act her superiors faced. “It takes money to operate an institution. It takes money and endowments and capital campaigns to pay for operating, so you have to weigh the viability of the entire institution [when considering what to exhibit]. In fact, that‘s what the bottom line was: [There were] two big donors -- one [was] Guess Jeans. The Marciano family. Huge donors. Deep pockets . . . That’s who was fighting me behind the scenes.” According to Choo, it was Geft who related this to her.

Geft denies telling Choo any names, or even knowing them. “I‘m not aware of any names or any donors. I certainly am aware of the fact that there was objection from many sources, that the community and the industry were not happy about it. We all knew that. What I did tell Marcia was that we were taking care of all that and fielding that so that she could continue to develop the exhibition.”

Regarding publicity, or the lack thereof, Geft says: “This exhibition has received far more publicity, more press coverage and television coverage than any other exhibit we’ve undertaken. I personally did dozens and dozens of television interviews. So, it‘s absolutely inaccurate to say that it did not get significant publicity.” At the Weekly’s request, MOT faxed copies of press clippings -- a thick packet made up largely of reprints of pieces in the Los Angeles Times (by K. Connie Kang, an acquaintance of Marcia Choo), California Apparel News and the Whittier Daily News. The Times, which also ran an op-ed piece by Appelbaum and Beerman -- hardly generated by MOT -- is the only major local paper that covered the exhibit. Almost all of the press coverage was in small community papers in places like West Covina, Torrance and Riverside -- not exactly communities from which MOT would normally draw large numbers of patrons.

As for the museum bowing to pressure from garment manufacturers, Geft responds, “We‘re not here to kowtow to others. We are here to raise the sensitive and important issues that involve the ways in which human beings are treated, and over which every one of us bears some responsibility.” Claiming to have “had no discussions or heard anything from” the Marciano brothers, Geft referred me to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of development Rabbi Meyer May, who left word that he “has no comment.” (Calls to Guess Jeans were not returned.) Yet when pressed, Geft acknowledges that she “invited [the California Fashion Association‘s] participation, and they did share with us.” In fact, prior to the show’s opening, she had CFA‘s Ilse Metchek in to “actually point out what their concerns were, because they had some concerns about the content.

”As you well know,“ Geft continues, ”the fashion industry, per se, is very sensitive to being scrutinized under a microscope that no other industry could withstand, and it certainly wasn’t our intention to subject them to such scrutiny. We weren‘t here to create villains and victims. That wasn’t the intent. And it didn‘t work that way.“

”Between a Rock and a Hard Place“ closed on March 19. On Monday, April 3, Choo gave the Museum of Tolerance two weeks’ notice. She was asked to clean her desk out by that Friday.

While insisting that her only desire is to put her experience at the museum behind her, Choo still looks back with astonishment at some of the things she says occurred during her tenure there. These included being written up for violating the Sabbath when Smithsonian workers -- not Choo herself -- showed up on a Saturday to complete the installation work, and reprimands for ”arrogance and willful disregard for institutional policy.“

”For a while I felt like I was insane. As I was telling this to my close friends and my mother, I could not believe what I was saying. The story leaves you so incredulous, like, ‘Could this really be happening, or am I imagining it?’ But she takes solace in the validation of her colleagues at the Smithsonian, who, she says, came to understand the full magnitude of what she‘d been experiencing when they spent a week here for the installation. (Peter Liebhold says he understoood things would be different working with MOT much earlier, when the Smithsonian’s standard loan contract was gone over word by word by MOT‘s treasurer and attorney -- something, he adds, has never happened at the Smithsonian before, to his knowledge.)

In the end, Choo, who became acquainted with the garment industry as a child doing piecework alongside her immigrant mother, believes that her “two years in hell” were worth it. “I know I touched a lot of different people,” she says.

Liebe Geft emphatically states that “Marcia’s decision to seek opportunities elsewhere, the timing of the move and the terms of her departure were entirely of Marcia‘s choosing . . . There are always frustrations and there are challenges to overcome . . . also mechanisms, protocol and procedures through which to work, and in attempting to buck those trends [sic] we may create a few more problems for ourselves.”

There is much in dispute, to say the least. But one thing can be said with relative certainty: Even in institutions of the most benevolent, altruistic sort, there are always operating costs, and money to be raised -- a bottom line, as Choo put it. When programming comes into conflict with the reality of financing (and the people with money to give), it should come as no surprise that an institution such as the Museum of Tolerance finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

Note: A group calling itself the Pro Bono Artist Committee has created a work titled “a stone’s throw from a Rock and a Hard Place,” consisting of pieces from the SmithsonianMuseum of Tolerance exhibit. The work is on view through May 12 in Gene Genies Worldwide Gallery at the Brewery Arts Complex, 676 S. Avenue 21, No. 33, downtown. For information, call (323) 913-3336.


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