Before every serene art gallery show, dozens of people struggle with impossible catalogue deadlines, finicky lighting, and work that is just too wide for the door. Curators fight with project managers who are constantly measuring each piece’s temperature and humidity level—even the degree of nuclear emission, in some cases. Caption writers wrangle with graphic designers who refuse to use capital letters because of the implied hierarchy among characters.
During my years working as a curator and researcher at art and science museums across London, I always noted that while these discussions grew heated and loud and obtuse, another group remained silent and in the background. This team of built men (they were almost always men) went about their business hauling room-sized artistic renditions of gallbladders, two-ton medieval dentistry chairs, and oversized oil paintings of 1960s garden parties. They did this with barely a sound.
These art handlers, typically working in pairs, physically transport, install and often completely assemble the works of art. Some are full-time Teamsters with a construction background. Increasingly, however, many are freelancers and artists themselves, looking to earn their keep somewhere, anywhere, in the art world. Salaries start at around $16 an hour; handlers who begin as schleppers can rise through the ranks to become truck drivers and “preparators,” or installation foremen.
The best are precise, organized and conscious of the exorbitant value that routinely passes through their hands, says art advisor Annelien Bruins, who works for private collectors in New York. Handlers should be aware of that irreplaceable object “at every second,” Bruins says, “like a baby.”
I stopped working in galleries years ago, but I have remained captivated by those urban oases with their quiet, calm and sacred feel. And I never stopped thinking about those background workers who suddenly disappeared on opening night, fading away when the bottles of cheap pinot grigio popped, rarely receiving any credit for their efforts. Who were they?
Tara Israel photographed and interviewed five New York City art handlers—all of whom are also artists themselves—to find out why they do it, what they want from it, and how it affects their own creative production.
Adam Sperling, 27, of Cambridge, Mass., has a Bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College in Studio Art with a focus on sculpture and photography. After stints as a graphic designer and environmental landscaper in Montreal and Cape Cod, Sterling came to New York last year to pursue creative work.
What types of art handling have you done?
Auction house work and residential, in people’s homes, where you’re dealing mainly with their interior designers. These designers curate their clients’ whole lives; they decide what art they should buy, what books go on their shelves. They throw around 50K as if it’s nothing. Some of these clients don’t care at all about the art. It’s tough to watch. What would the artist think? Though, I guess they’ve made some money. Lots of these rich collectors are miserable. And when you move their work, you’re seen as subhuman, not as a real person. But you have to ignore the vapid misery; they treat you badly because they are sad.
What has excited you most?
Being up close with de Koonings, Rothkos. Those are my guys. I saw a Pollock hanging opposite someone’s bed.
Any crazy accidents you can tell us about?
I once almost dropped an entire series of Warhols. A colleague broke a Dan Flavin piece: he dented the light fixture but he claimed that the artwork was actually the light it produced, not the physical fixture. And those light bulbs burn and break all the time. There was a big debate at work: what is the actual work? What does it mean to break the work?
Do these accidents, or the potential for them, stress you out?
I’m freelance. I always have one foot out the door, so I don’t get too worked up. I don’t plan on staying in this business; I don’t want to admit that this could be my future! I want to stay ambitious, do lots of things. I only handle two to five days a week, and I often turn jobs down. After 12-hour days, I can’t work on my own stuff. It’s best to have four things going on, and one of them is your own art. Even if an artist isn’t in it for the money, he wants recognition. I want to work on my own photo-collage, a practice that comes from my sculptural training. I like to rip and tear photographs, deconstruct them, expose their materials. I’m interested in deterioration.
Will you stay in New York?
Of course. It’s the best and worst place for artists. Creative but competitive. But part of being a New York artist means doing a lot of things, having many interests, not putting all your eggs in your art. It’s the thing we do to make some money, for the time, like being a waiter at a fancy restaurant.
Josh Slater, 33, has lived most of his life in Park Slope, except for a stint at the Boston Museum School, where he studied film and trained in silkscreen and drawing. His paper, collage, sculpture, mural and video work has been shown from Japan to L.A., in Dossier Journal, and on the sides of N.Y.C. buildings.
How did you come to art handling from film and silkscreen?
I got into art handling as a lie. It was out of nowhere—I’d never done anything like it before. A friend worked in it and said I should drop his name. I got jobs at lots of galleries.
How has the job changed since you started?
Art handling became cool about ten years ago. All of a sudden it became an option for people in art school. It went along with the art market boom, and the rise of Williamsburg. A New York company even organized an Art Handling Olympics. It was hip to be a glorified mover. But with the economy collapse and the art bubble pop, the work has shifted. You used to get hired for a week, sometimes just to stand there. Now it’s just for a day. I’m doing less. I’m kind of retired.
You couldn’t handle handling full time?
Ultimately, I want to phase it out and just make my own work. Plus, people start to see you only as a handler, not as an artist. And then, perception becomes reality…I don’t want to get stuck in it. I am an artist.
Was it what you expected?
It’s hard. It’s tricky to hang seven paintings in a grid format, do the math, and do it all quickly with someone watching you. There’s pressure. Sculpture is easier; painting is irritating―a little higher, an inch lower―but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a word-of-mouth business and I’ve gotten jobs floating between galleries on and off for six years. I’m probably on some kind of second-tier list of freelancers, a 280 hitter. I think mainly I keep getting work because I’m reliable, fun, and frankly, not weird. Hey, these people have to spend nine hours with you a day.
How has your own work changed over the years?
I shied away from the art world for a long time after art school. My ego suffered from post-art-school-shock. The whole prodigy thing doesn’t really make sense. It took time, until I was about 27, to figure out what I was into as an artist, what I was about. I needed to grow up, try lots of things, figure out how to be satisfied, and develop the confidence to just go for whatever I was into and keep pushing it. I had to learn to fail. Being an artist is all ego and no ego. Nine times out of ten you say: this shit sucks. But then that one time, you make something awesome and you have to be confident that it’s awesome.
What is your reaction to being exposed to the inner workings of the art world?
It can be frustrating. You see a show and you’re like, ‘This person got a show? It’s bad art. And he’s 19.’ A young art star now is someone in their 20s. It used to be someone in their 40s. They say you should never see how laws or sausages are made, and the same is true for the art world. Working in galleries can be a real turnoff; you start to realize that it’s all so obviously about money. Don’t get me wrong—I’d love to get paid handsomely for my artwork, but I draw regardless of compensation; it’s just something I have to do.
What are the most remarkable things you’ve seen?
I once moved a painting and found a four-inch rare Brazilian cockroach behind it. The insects were brought in as part of the opening, but I guess they didn’t catch them all. In terms of work: an early Andy Warhol. And I once bumped into a Paul McCarthy sculpture. Usually the work I install is by artists who are not well-known. A lot of work today has a bigger-is-better attitude. We get calls like, ‘Hey, can you move this 600-pound random painting?’
Any notable accidents?
I’ve been close to dropping things. I’m often having to balance work and put weight on my hip, and I’m scared of injuring it. I’d rather drop the art than hurt myself. Besides, the work is all made of strong stuff, so whatever.
Do you always stick to the rules?
If no one’s watching, I don’t wear gloves.
How do you leave your mark on the job?
I draw goofy cartoons on the big crates.
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Kevin Kennedy, 32, originally from New Jersey, trained as a painter, sculptor and art historian at Tufts University and has shown work in Boston and New York. He has worked as a handler in New York for seven years, primarily at one of the city’s premium handling firms.
How has your art handling career changed over seven years?
My first role was driving the truck. I had to be trained. These are special trucks with shock absorption systems—you’re not schlepping something in a U-Haul. Still, it’s not easy. There’s a pothole problem in New York. I once saw a bronze piece get bent. Later I moved up to manager, which was disappointing. It’s not what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to install art, especially sculpture.
What do you like about installing sculpture?
It’s a puzzle. You have to make it work; reinforce walls, figure out how to lift objects. I liked it when I had to figure out how to make an Anish Kapoor fit into a room, how to work with a stainless steel Koons that you can’t touch.
Do the artists ever tell you how to do it? How much of it is your decision?
Koons sends a 30-page instruction manual for his work. We followed that. My company took these things very seriously. We had to wear masks so you didn’t cough on work. Some projects needed two types of gloves—white and nitro. Auction houses don’t care about any of this—they’re just hawkers of work, they throw it around. But to buyers, these pieces are totally precious.
Isn’t the real, physical, dirty world a dangerous place for art?
Sure. These are the challenges of installing work in private homes. I was at a guy’s apartment, installing some really delicate white wax works, which are supposed to be pristine, but the crate got stuck in the elevator. I had to bring them in one-by-one and they got covered in hair and dust. Pieces get fucked up when they move. But people understand.
What’s your favorite piece that you’ve installed?
Usually I like the challenge of large-scale sculptural work. Sometimes I come across Van Goghs and Monets, even though there aren’t many in the U.S.A., but paintings are not that exciting to put up. My favorite is probably the Klimt embrace that I installed at the Estee Lauder Foundation. The one that sold for $85 million.
Does it stress you out to think of the financial value of these works?
In seven years, you stop thinking about value.
What are the collectors like?
There are different types in New York. Some really rich collectors are awesome and collect classical stuff that they’re really passionate about. These collections can be really odd, but they’re totally inspired. I love it when I can work directly with these clients. But most collect contemporary art; not stuff you’ve seen in art books. Ninety percent of the collectors I’ve worked for buy work for investment, status, because someone told them to. I deal with their ‘art consultants.’ I’m often delivering pieces to storage units; they don’t even live with or see their work. Then again, they often lend a lot of work to shows so the public can see them, so I don’t want to pooh-pooh them entirely…
Have you ever tampered with work on purpose?
No! But I’ve heard of handlers putting their initials on the backs of pieces. It really fucks with their provenance.
I saw a Keith Haring crate thrown into a crushing dumpster.
How has being an art handler affected your creative work?
It’s drained my creativity. I feel like a leach—not making work but leaching off someone who is. It’s hard being an artist exposed to art all the time. I’m probably unique among art handlers, though, because I wanted a career. I wanted health insurance. I wanted to impress my parents. That’s why I went into management. Other art handlers just do it for the money. My colleague put up an ad looking for a manager for handlers and got two resumes. Then he changed it, and said he was looking for basic, entry-level handlers. He got 500 resumes. Most guys don’t want to be promoted.
After a couple of years of managing, I realized I just wasn’t myself. At first I was inspired by the stuff I was seeing, but after a while I was really soured. I hated everything, I became jaded. I was installing Hockneys and I didn’t give a shit about them. So I went freelance last year. I had a lot of contacts, people would request me, and I can charge three to four times as much [as what I was getting paid before]. But I don’t want to start my own company. I want to open a restaurant.
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Benjamin Maddox, 33, grew up in North Virginia, Tx., and various other locations where his military father was stationed. At 16, he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains across the country. After attending California College of Arts and Crafts for a combined major in photo, sculpture, and film & video, he has experimented in many mediums, including making plush toys, soaps and customized sneakers. He moved to New York ten years ago to be close to his sister after their brother’s death. His recent projects include large resin chandeliers and a photo series of people involving a trampoline.
So how did you come to art handling?
I started handling by helping my buddy do runs on his truck. That guy is a pack master—he can pack a truck like nobody’s business. I see it as the ultimate game of Tetris. He trained me and I did jobs with him, ranging from easy gallery pick-ups to art fairs where you need to pack lots of stuff quickly. From that I got install and assistant gigs. I consider freelance work to be the refined art of bullshit. Never say no, don’t turn down a job, and don’t let on that you don’t know how to do something . My typical approach to dealing with an unfamiliar task is to say, ‘Why don’t you show me how you want it done, so I can do it your way…’
What are some of the most interesting spaces that you’ve worked in?
I’ve installed for the publisher of Interview magazine. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, in a huge estate with multiple duck ponds and a few Koons balloon animals on the lawn. He owns the polo club nearby. His caretaker drives around in a Mercedes. He’s passionate. He collected work and supported the arts early on. He was buying Warhol, Basquiat, Haring back in the day for nothing. His downstairs living room has the Marilyn piece that you see on the cover of all the Warhol catalogues. Most of the paintings from the Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum a few years back were on loan from his collection.
I’ve been to Manhattan penthouses with one or two rooms dedicated just to art—work they really like; sometimes they know the artists. They rotate the work in and out. Other spaces are less interesting. Some are too crowded; the collector is just showing off quantity and you can’t enjoy the work—it’s all stacked on top of each other.
It’s totally inspiring and completely frustrating to see how much people pay for total shit sometimes. Some of these collectors will pay $800,000 for a painting just because it matches their couch, or because an art consultant told them it was a good name to own. I’ve been installing work, and had the client turn and ask me, ‘So what do you think? Do you like it?’ Sometimes they just want reassurance. It seems like they don’t even know if they like it.
So you’re treated like a consultant?
No. I’m basically considered a “delivery guy.” I’m delivering a $35 million painting, and I have to use the service elevator. That’s why it’s funny when they ask for my opinion.
Have you ever broken a piece?
There are plenty of things I’ve seen that I would like to break.
Seriously. Have you ever been accused of damaging work?
A guy once tried to blame me for a damaged piece. I packed it well. He didn’t ship it properly. Everything is insured. It has to be. The shipper’s limit of liability is typically between $10 and $100. Now, you can just take a photo using your phone if you see anything that looks damaged when you receive the work, before it gets packed up, and email it to the office manager so they have it on file. You just have to pay attention to the details.
Some artists don’t know how to make stuff. If it’s poorly made it will probably get destroyed. They don’t have a proper understanding of the materials they are using, and most certainly don’t concern themselves with thinking about how the work needs to get transported. You can’t put plaster on some thin, untreated plastic bucket and expect it to last. That’s frustrating; it’s so expensive, and just total shit. First pothole, and it’s a goner.
Your favorite kind of installation work?
I once did a complex, web-like light piece that was approximately 50 feet by 70 feet and had to hang perfectly level at 16 feet off the ground. I like it when you really have to figure out how to make it work, when a structural engineer is brought in to determine where the weight can hang from the building. There are always challenges: the client doesn’t realize how big a piece is, or how many components there actually are, and the work doesn’t fit. Or it’s made out of chocolate.
I really respect an artist that is involved in the process and hands-on. I get irritated when an artist doesn’t even know how to make their own work. Some wouldn’t even know where to begin if it was left up to them. I understand it’s their idea, but when I’ve put more time and sweat into it than them, in a way, it’s more my work than theirs.
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Justin Penov, 30, grew up in Ohio and received his B.F.A. in printmaking from Kent State University before moving to New York. For four years he worked at Safe Art Transport, or SAT, a major handling company. He now works for PACE gallery printmaking, and is part of the Texas Firehouse, an art collective in Long Island City.
How did you come to art handling?
I worked in printmaking and conservation suppliers, and finally got into art handling through contacts and other artists I’d stayed in touch with. When I started, there were three of us on each job: the driver, the one who did the paper work, and me—the third guy, the schlepper, the bitch. I even used to ride in the middle of the truck seat, and I’m a big guy…
I got promoted, though, when they saw that I could work with customers, was organized, didn’t let $25,000 paintings go missing. At our company, you could go into crate-making, warehouse, soft-packing or trucks, which is where I went. Trucking meant you were moving around.
Where have you been?
I worked with my boss on Julian Schnabel’s account, so I have traveled to put up his shows internationally. Venice, Toronto, Winnipeg in February. That was awful. The bosses were inside and me and my colleague were putting together aluminum frames in minus 20-degree weather; we lost feeling in our hands.
What’s it like installing Schnabel?
Schnabel’s work is massive—he always calls my boss to do it. SAT is known as the company that never says no. We do the crazy jobs. My boss Werner was a six-foot-four Austrian brick shithouse—he’d move anything. I loved it. The most fun we had was putting up two of Schnabel’s pieces in the Met Life building. They were 25 by 25 feet, and we had to get up to about 50 feet just to hang it. The marble wall had no give, so we were swaying on a scissor lift the whole time. We’ve carried 600-pound pieces up a 10-floor walk up; we rode on top of service elevators when works didn’t fit inside; we’ve carried work up Napoleonic staircases.
Once, we tried to get a piece up to the 42nd floor and a guy lost his finger. SAT had been hired to pack up some works coming out of a penthouse. We fit travel frames and shadow boxes for a dozen or so larger works, and then moved the packed pieces onto the penthouse terrace. From there, the rigging company took over, attached slings and guidelines, propped the works up on to the ledge, and then sent them over the side of the building to descend to street level. Each work slowly rappels on a line that feeds into a winch. A rigger at street level is in control of a hand line, which controls the balance of the artwork as it’s being lowered down. This particular guy was standing with his back to the mechanized winch, looking up at each piece to make sure it was oriented correctly during the descent. But he wasn’t paying attention to how close his hand was getting to the winch as he tossed aside the slack parts of the hand line. He basically fed his finger into the machine. The winch grabbed hold of his pointer finger, sucking the skin and nail off, all the way to the quick. He’s lucky that he jerked his hand out when he did, or his whole arm could have been sucked in, kind of like an alligator’s death roll. Later, we found the tip of his finger, 15 feet or so from the winch.
Sometimes the small jobs led to bigger catastrophes. Once I had to install a piece at a woman’s summer home in Connecticut next to six antique Piranesi prints that were on an adjacent wall. I was nailing hooks into the wall, and the vibration traveled through the wall and loosened the eyelet that was holding the wire that attached the frames to the wall. One broke loose on one side, swung down, knocked the bottom one off. It broke, glass was on the floor, her dogs walked in it and then got their bloody paws all over her polar bear rug. Fortunately, the company was always behind me. But it was demanding work. I’d do 65 hours a week. Get up at 8, drive the truck, want to kill at least one taxi driver, lift crates, and get home at 7. In the four years I was there, at least a dozen people left—they couldn’t hack it.
Do you plan to stay at PACE or do you ultimately aim to be a full-time artist?
I’m very happy. I can’t think of a profession I’d rather be doing. I love working with art and artists, getting shows up. I love the problem solving. They know me as the master of weird hardware. I’ve begun to understand the art world better. And my own work is not a business. I’ve loved getting exposure to so much art, but I make work for fun, not as a commodity. I do architecturally-based pen and ink drawings; it relaxes me to do detail-oriented work in the evening when I get home. I was never good at PR, and at some point realized that I’ll never be a celebrity artist. I lost that dream!
Would you recommend art handling as a career for art school grads?
A lot of artists go into handling, but college does not prepare you for the realities of trucking, taking your shoes off at some rich guy’s door, whose house is like a pristine museum, lugging crates, and using the service elevator. Once in a while you meet a client who is a real asshole, but you need a healthy perspective about it: I’m not a schlub; they’re just a jackass.
Some collectors, though, are nerdy. This has nothing to do with how rich they are. The guy who loaned all the work to the Met for the Raphael show is really passionate. I’ve been hired to go over and just move around his paintings, so he can see how things look in different positions and next to other works. He plays with his collection. He’ll chat about it with us; he’s so into it. That’s good fun.
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Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor. Born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City, she frequently shows her work in galleries and is a contributing editor at Dossier Journal.
Judy Batalion ’s work has appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Babble, Nerve, and The Frisky, among other publications.