Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

The Ecstasy and Exploitation of Art Handling

By Clynton Lowry interviewed by Kressent Pottenger

I decided to be an art handler when I decided to be an artist at the end of college. Yet only when I got to New York City in 2012 did I start to identify with being an art handler. The art world is essentially in New York and that’s where I really developed a sense of the art industry. In the business of art handling there’s the front of the house and the back of the house at a gallery. The art handlers work the back of the house when the gallery is closed to the public. The work involves packing art work, storing it, transporting it, and then the other task is installing it. In that spectrum there are many different art handling jobs: building crates, trucking, and a lot of logistics in how the artwork is going to get from point A to point B. There are people working the trucks, which sometimes includes fabrication, especially for contemporary artworks that demand installation-based work and mixed media work. In that case, you’re kind of remaking the piece with the artist or, if the artist isn’t present, you have some type of directions to follow.

If you’re applying for an art handler position it’s usually with a gallery or a museum that is fully staffed, where not many people are wearing different hats. There will be a registrar, a gallery director, salespeople, conservationists, perhaps some overlap there depending on the size of the gallery. The art handler is usually the person who is doing more of the manual labor, and definitely way down in the hierarchy.

Art handling can be stressful because you’re not always prepared for the job you’re expected to do. You have to think on your feet, which can be cool, but also stressful when the object is extremely expensive, fragile, one of a kind, and your livelihood depends on its safety. For example, a common problem is that a painting does not fit in the client’s elevator, and you might have to walk it up or down several flights of stairs, or in rare cases, place it on top of the elevator, and ride up in the elevator shaft. Depending on the client, you might need to hire a crane operator, order permits, and move the piece of art through the window. But that’s unusual. Some people thrive on that kind of unknown: the problem solvers, task masters, and crisis management types. In this line of work, everyone’s your boss in a way—the superintendent at the client’s apartment building; the warehouse manager; the security, gallery or museum staff; and the curator. It’s a service industry and the art handler is at the bottom of the ladder; he or she is the schlepper, the mover, the grunt, but it’s often easy work too, and can be just as glamorous as it can be humiliating.

Art handling can be stressful… when the object is extremely expensive, fragile, … and your livelihood depends on its safety.

On the more glamorous side, I recently had to re-crate for shipment to Greece a famous sculpture by Kara Walker, made totally out of sugar. It had been on exhibition at the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. It’s a gigantic sphinx- like figure weighing 800 to 1,000 pounds. It’s a commentary on race, bodies, women, sexuality, slavery, sugar refining and consumption, and social inequity. I was at the foot of the sphinx with a group of guys, climbing into the crate. I was so close that I noticed the sugar kind of rot- ting. Just being that near to such important art- work is really exciting, and also interesting. Few people know the artwork is there in that nondescript crate, sitting in the corner of this warehouse. And then it goes on a truck, and the guys who are loading the truck could care less about Kara Walker or that piece of art. It also passes through so many different hands, including through customs, onto a freighter. There’s this phrase “the ecstasy of art handling” and it happens sometimes on the job, and for me handling that huge sculpture was one of those moments. The glass wall between me and the art work disappeared. I get to experience art- work in a way no one else does, not even the artist. Most artists who also work as art handlers tend to run their studios differently than artists who don’t. I can see how this experience would affect the material choice, scale, and direction of your own work. Some artists won’t let it affect their process, but I think it’s impossible once you’ve experienced it as a worker. For example, many art handlers dislike dealing with wet paintings, and they might avoid making them. I don’t like dealing with mixed media and installation-based works which are chaotic to install. I also stay away from those in my own work.

… [C]limbing into the crate. I was so close that I noticed the sugar kind of rotting.

The art handling company I’m working for now is set up like this: You get to the shop (they call it a shop), and half of the shop is cordoned off where there is an office, which has a drop ceiling, carpet—not your typical art space. There is a woodshop on site. The rest of the shop is filled with artwork that’s packed up in cardboard. I start my day on the truck and get all my materials ready for that day. I normally have about three jobs per day. I’ll start my day with getting that art work packed or loaded on the truck, maybe that’s 20 minutes to an hour. If I’m dropping work off that was in a truck from a warehouse then I’m usually taking it to a gallery or a museum where it’s going to be exhibited. Museums typically have their own staff to install the work. If I’m picking up work from a gallery, and going to a collector’s house I might install the work for the collector or owner. It’s a series of deliveries, pick- ups, and installations. Every day is different.

It’s an experience of being part of the help, and the stigma that goes with it.

I go to such a variety of different places— from an artist’s studio, to fairs, to a gallery, to the trucks and loading docks, warehouses, and houses in the Hamptons and penthouses. I delivered to a penthouse at the Ritz. It was one of my first jobs, and I had to go through the service entrance, a completely different experience than anybody going through the main entrance of that hotel. I went through the security check points, where the elevator guy and everyone was grumpy. When I got to the top floor I had to wear special booties over my shoes, so as not to dirty the carpets. It’s an experience of being part of the help, and the stigma that goes with it.

The majority of art handlers in New York City are white men in their mid-twenties to mid- to late thirties. Most have at least a college degree, and probably in art; that’s definitely the case for art handlers who work in Chelsea and uptown. When you go uptown the guys are usually older, and when you go downtown they’re younger. The larger art handling companies at Sotheby’s have unionized art handlers. Before Sotheby’s locked them out, the core group of art handlers were mostly older black and Puerto Rican men. I was told that the older black art handlers trained all the art handlers there and, after the lockout, the art handlers at Sotheby’s are now younger white males. I’m usually the only black guy that I see in this line of work. If i do, he usually only works the truck, and rarely enters the gallery. That’s the environment, and it’s that blatant.

Before Sotheby’s locked them out, the core group of art handlers were mostly older black and Puerto Rican men.

There are no black or Latino-owned art handling companies or art handling managers that I know of, and it is the same with all the galleries. I can’t think of one black-owned gallery. In terms of the demographic when you work the fairs, the guys on the forklift are older white guys or occasion- ally Hispanic. Younger black guys tend to be the ones that are painting the walls and laying out the carpets, and then the art handlers show up, and you can see the whole demographic shift to mainly white men. Now they don’t even hire union guys at the fairs. Instead, they have private contractors, building and painting the walls— and that’s why you see the union guys outside with the inflatable rat.

Through my group of friends I can figure out what other art handlers are making. For instance, I’ve learned that art handlers working full-time at Crozier Art Handling Company or at Andrea Rosen gallery tend to earn between $20,000 and $30,000 per year. It really doesn’t get much higher than that. I just started a new freelance job at a high-end art-handling company. At first they hired me at an hourly rate of $25, but because I wasn’t as specialized as they needed, I would be starting at $23 per hour. Their assumption was that it’s hard to get a job in New York City, and that I’d take the lower pay. I think that kind of indifference from the bosses creates a sense among workers that they’re being taken advantage of.

… [A]rt handlers normally are not paid at the proper rate for overtime and don’t get sick days or benefits of any kind.

In addition to very low wages, art handlers normally are not paid at the proper rate for overtime and don’t get sick days or benefits of any kind. On top of that, we face problems with inconsistent scheduling, unsafe work environments, and the really burdensome 1099 freelance tax status. Classifying workers as “independent contractors” is convenient for the museums, galleries, and art handling companies, but it holds hidden expenses and complications for the worker. Independent contractors not only owe income tax, but self-employment tax, too. These working conditions have begun to give rise to some new organizing.

The New York Art Handlers Alliance, a small group of art handlers that I’m involved with is seeking to address these exploitative workplace conditions. Anyone can become a member once he attends a meeting and signs up for our mailing list. Currently, we hold a happy hour on the first Wednesday of every month to discuss shared resources, and how we might advocate for better working conditions. One of our initiatives is an Art Handlers’ Bill of Rights outlining fair standards for employers: an hourly minimum wage of $25; safe working conditions; benefits; an eight-hour day and a 40-hour work week; equal pay for equal work; coverage under federal, state, and local labor laws; and the right to collectively bargain. We have petitioned for people to show their sup- port, but it has been a challenge to get employers and workers to sign on. Workers are concerned about risking their jobs, or the chance that organizing might harm their chances of having a show in one of these galleries. Because the workforce is made up of artists or other creative people, many art handlers don’t really want to organize because that requires expending energy on something they’re not even totally devoted to anyway. Instead, they want to use their time to create their own artwork. Another obstacle to further organizing is the fact that art handlers are reluctant to identify with a form of work that has low status in the art world. When you are an artist and a writer or an artist and a curator, you are willing to claim this status. But when you’re the art handler or the artist’s assistant or security guard, you will shy away from identifying in this way. I think if we could overcome that, or just embrace it, then there could be much better chances for organizing ourselves as workers.

2 thoughts on “The Ecstasy and Exploitation of Art Handling

  • Hi Clynton, I’ve been art handling in NYC for 14 years. I’m also an artist and agree that the low status of art handling has prevented me from trying to improve this profession. I’m now living in LA and the problems are so much more acute than in NYC. Low pay, moving furniture, poor benefits. I think art handlers should create a national Union. Since it is such a specialized profession and such a minuscule workforce in numbers. I also agree to the Bill of Rights minimum $25 an hour. Let’s unionize!

  • Brent Powell

    Dry good article Clynton! There has been a constant growth in our profession throughout the years and it continues to be built! Throughout the world art handlers, techs, preparatory face a similar challenge.
    New York is not the exception it just has unique issues which I am glad to see you have addressed here. Keep up the good work and network out more with your ideas.

Comments are closed.