This is the third installment in a five-part feature, The Danger Epidemic in Art Handling, which runs September 2–6 in honor of Labor Day.
One of the greatest ironies in the history of contemporary art is minimalism’s appetite for maximally-sized objects. The monumental turn toward manufactured and industrially produced artworks was a reputational coup for the emerging avant-garde looking to stake an artistic claim to something more American than apple pie: consumerism.
But their boon was something of a bust for art handlers, who suddenly had to learn how to install wall-sized paintings and house-heavy sculptures inside small gallery spaces with little time for proper training. The 1970s were arguably the genesis of dangerous art handling — a time when the job started to require more than a few strong men to carry canvases, busts, and statuary. More than ever before, art handlers were contending with unconventional objects, mixed media, and hazardous materials.
In November 1971, a team of art handlers was installing Richard Serra’s enormous sculpture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis when a two-ton steel plate toppled over and crushed a laborer to death. A subsequent lawsuit absolved the artist and museum of blame, but 17 years later, a worker lost a leg while dismantling another of the artist’s sculpture (this one weighing 16 tons) at Leo Castelli Gallery.
“The first accident was devastating,” Serra told the New York Times in 1989. “It shook me to the bone and made me question the whole activity of building. I couldn’t work for a year. The second accident, I knew the person, a young man with two children.”
Serra isn’t the only artist whose work has been linked to fatal accidents (Alexander Calder, Beverly Pepper, and Christo all have works that have killed people during installation) but he has become a reference point for many art handlers when asked about their experience with dangerous work.
Being an art handler means belonging to a patchwork quilt of professional communities united by stories like the ones above. Deaths and injuries become cautionary tales told between art handlers as a means of expressing how dangerous this industry can be. But they also build solidarity and community, which is why the art handling community is so close-knit. After all, art handling is a business that runs on referrals; many people join the field shortly after graduating from college upon the recommendation of friends and professors. Likewise, learning where to work and what wages to expect comes from colleagues.
But translating goodwill into solidarity requires significant time and effort. What has felt like a sudden rush of unionizing at museums like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the New Museum was actually the result of months — if not years — of coalition building. Alongside those efforts, art handlers have also attempted to foster a culture of collegiality.
Clynton Lowry began art handling in 2012. Beforehand, he had studied English at UC Berkeley and thereafter embarked on a two-year painting program at Yale University. Although art handlers are predominantly proud of their work, many also feel embarrassed by it — as if performing manual labor denigrates their work as artists. Lowry wanted to create a positive identity for those art handlers, launching Art Handler Magazine in 2014. The online publication details the behind-the-scenes experiences of art handlers and studio assistants tasked with often invisible, vital work like managing inventory or preparing exhibitions. Over the years, the magazine has uncovered the inner workings of labor and logistics that make possible the rarified and glamorous art world. But the publication is likely best-known for its humorous presence on social media; its Instagram has over 53,000 followers (more than double last year’s amount) who enjoy the site’s reposts of comedic memes and stories from art handlers around the world.
But the subtext behind this humor has always been about community-building. If art handlers can proudly identify with their jobs, maybe the industry can reform for the better. “There is respect in a sense,” Lowry told Hyperallergic. “But art handling is below the line, and curators aren’t really looking for the input of their workers. It’s weird because art handlers are often very educated and qualified to make those judgments. It would make sense to have more rapport between curators and workers.”
Another mission for Lowry is to revive the Art Handling Olympics, a now-legendary event that occurred in 2010 and 2014, survives today thanks to a colorful write-up in the New York Times by Randy Kennedy, who describes the workers as “underpaid, uninsured, overworked and sweaty.”
Exhausted from working during Armory Week’s art fairs, the handlers are said to have indulged in satirical races to keep heavy framed objects fastened on the wall. Another event involved a Nascar-style competition where teams would be judged on how they unloaded artworks from wooden crates and installed them without curatorial guidance or instruction. Calling it a “chance to grab a little glory,” Kennedy wrote, “And even better, they got a raucous public forum in which to mock gallery owners, curators, collectors, critics, fellow artists and just about everyone in the art world, not excluding themselves.”
Despite these bursts of camaraderie, art handlers still have difficulty building a community behind their work. The industry is built on contingent labor that rarely enjoys enough stability to build a long-term community. (A podcast called Art and Labor, created by arts workers, tackles that very subject.) Plus, the workforce predominantly skews white and male. Women art handlers who spoke to Hyperallergic said that they have regularly experienced sexism on the job. “I was often called honey by management and my colleagues would look the other way,” one museum art handler said, “and they wouldn’t let me lift stuff even though that was literally my job.”
Historically, art institutions have hired predominantly white staffers who have produced predominantly white exhibitions. A recent ARTnews survey of every solo exhibition held at 30 museums across America in the past decade found that only 28 percent were devoted to nonwhite artists. According to veteran art handlers, their field was once an outlier. For example, Sotheby’s is said to have once had a majority of Black and Latino men as art handlers in New York. That changed after the company locked out their workers from the auction house during a particularly contentious 2011 contract agreement. According to Teamsters Local 814, which represents the art handlers, workers were eventually offered substantial buyouts, which the vast majority of veteran art handlers took. The new employees who replaced those workers were predominantly white. A Sotheby’s spokesperson confirmed this account and noted that it recently completed successful negotiations with the Teamsters on a new contract.
“I was told that the older Black art handlers trained all the art handlers there,” Lowry said in a 2017 interview with the CUNY’s New Labor Forum, a story repeated by several other art handlers that Hyperallergic spoke with. “After the lockout, the art handlers at Sotheby’s are now young 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.”
“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,” he added.
Outside of big institutions and fairs, many art handlers begin their careers with shipping companies. Work for these groups typically involves long hours inside trucks traveling around New York or even across the country. In such a situation, coworkers tend to bond with each other.
John Odom moved to the city in 1990 after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art, answering an ad for art handlers found in a Baltimore alt-weekly publication. “Being on trucks with other guys is a wonderful experience,” he said. “It felt like being a cowboy. You were given this unusual task and you’re out on the road all day with a few men and it’s your responsibility to keep the cattle roped in — only you’re actually working in the homes of top collectors and artists, and two hours later you might be on a frightening loading dock at the airport where you think somebody might try to kill you.”
Back in the day, Odom saw countless injuries on the road. Truck drivers are supposed to only drive eight hours a day, but they would often drive day and night to get things done. He had started his career with a company called Fine Arts Express (FAE), which no longer exists. The company would push their employees to complete transport requests in rapid order, he said, resulting in truck crashes into parked cars and people breaking their legs or feet when sculptures slipped through their fingers. At one point, he said, FAE asked its employees to sign a statement saying they were personally liable for any injuries or accidents that occurred on the job. Workers took the form to the Department of Labor, Odom and other industry sources recalled, which said it was an illegal contract.
Having made the transition to gallery work long ago, Odom sees a different relationship between employers and workers. “I feel like they are operating on two models: one based on common goals and a collaborative effort toward communication, and another where there’s an atmosphere of fear,” he explained. “If you are in a stage in your life where there’s no cushion if you lose your job, that kind of attitude can intimidate you. Most art handlers are living paycheck to paycheck.”
The prevalence of that second model within the art world has become a rallying cry for art handlers looking to unionize at museums. Art handlers at the New Museum allied across several staff departments to advance their goal. At the Guggenheim, art handlers paired with facilities workers to organize for better pay and benefits, noting that many of their colleagues were making $25 per hour while art installers at New York’s MoMA PS1 received $32.50 per hour, which is a 30 percent difference in pay.
The work was also inconsistent. “The scheduling is such that they will book us for six weeks of work, and then we might get there and be told not to come in next week,” Eric Heist, an art handler at the Guggenheim, explained to Hyperallergic in June. “There’s no recourse here. It’s about lack of transparency; we have no autonomy and no voice. If we enter negotiations, then we can set a standard.”
Guggenheim workers began discussing the prospect of unionization in April with a group of around 20 people. News spread by word of mouth until a larger coalition formed, ultimately resulting in a successful 57–20 vote in favor of joining Local 30, a chapter of the International Union of Operating Engineers also representing installers and maintenance workers at MoMA PS1. Organizers were elated after their triumph, celebrating at the (propitiously named) Union Pool bar in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. But even as some art handlers rejoiced, others within their ranks worried that the center of this movement cannot hold.
Over the last decade, art handling has professionalized as a practice and workers have attempted to build a culture of pride around their jobs. However, not everyone was happy about the union forming at the Guggenheim. “It’s a small percentage of over-educated, semi-skilled, and under-employed people pushing this,” a museum carpenter wrote in a June email to Hyperallergic.
“We love our jobs and have a positive working relationship with our managers,” echoed Bryan Kaczkin, a freelance exhibition construction worker, in a related but separate email. He agreed with the above worker’s statement. “I am not afraid of expressing my views,” he added, saying he was “not afraid of these losers or their ‘goonion.’”
Nearly two months have passed, and the Guggenheim has yet to officially recognize the art handler union. Members of the group say meetings with management are set to begin in early September.
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Editor’s Note, 04/18/2022: The lede image has been changed at the request of the subject of the photograph.
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