Features

The Art Handler Who Fell Down an Elevator Shaft

The first thing his gallery colleagues asked when he emerged from the elevator: Was the art okay?

This is the fourth installment in a five-part feature, The Danger Epidemic in Art Handling, which runs September 2–6 in honor of Labor Day.

As art handling has professionalized over the last decade, some employers have made substantial improvements to their workplace health and safety conditions — but others have lagged behind (photo by Jasmine Weber for Hyperallergic)

When James Castro moved to New York in 2002, he knocked on almost every gallery door in Manhattan looking for a job until he got lucky. He didn’t have much experience, but one dealer decided to take a chance on him anyway. (Hyperallergic is using a pseudonym for the art handler to protect his identity.)

“When I started working as an art handler, it was kind of a joke — more of a fun thing to do. Almost 20 years later, the art world has grown so much and now it’s a real job,” the 42-year-old said. “But back then, nobody wanted to be the ‘best’ art hander; everyone wanted to do their work and go home.”

Even as the industry changed, he continued to love art handling. He was happy to have found good coworkers in an industry known for bolstering hostile personalities. It’s one of the reasons he asked Hyperallergic keep the name of his workplace anonymous. But after a few years with the gallery, he decided to use some of his savings and attend New York University’s MFA painting program. He graduated from school in 2008 and returned to the art handling business shortly thereafter.

Reentering the field as a freelancer, he worked around Chelsea. Castro described the galleries there as engaging in strange business practices he described as “weird and disorganized.” For example, managers often expected their employees to work nonstop and without breaks. He discovered that one blue-chip gallery he worked for had secretly installed surveillance cameras in the packing room. The gallery director was monitoring the art handlers and would come back to question them whenever he saw anyone taking as much as a five-minute break.

Those years were difficult for Castro. Sustaining any type of manual labor is difficult; he knew this well from having previously worked in warehouses. But hanging heavy frames and lifting massive crates over the years has also taken a toll on his body. Carpal tunnel set into his wrists; he developed an umbilical hernia; and another time he accidentally cut off a tiny piece of his finger.

Eventually, he rejoined the gallery where he first started working. “Personally, I don’t think I can complain too much,” Castro said. “I get paid more than most everybody else with a rate of $40 per hour.”

He emphasized how much he loved working with the gallery, but also detailed one particularly frightening recent experience. Castro and his colleagues were tasked with transporting a shipment of books from one floor of the building to another. Whoever moved the books into the elevator had overstacked them; the art handler estimates that their cumulative weight may have exceeded the lift’s weight limit by thousands of pounds. As they rode the elevator, something began to buckle. Castro heard the gears jam up and the lights went out. Suddenly, the lift plummeted six floors down the elevator shaft of the gallery’s building with books and people flying into the air until gravity took over.

When they reached the ground floor, Castro was miraculously uninjured. His coworker, however, had suffered from a broken collarbone and hurt ankle; he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Once Castro returned to the gallery, he took a moment to tell staffers about what happened. The first thing his coworkers asked: Was the art okay?

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Professional relationships are difficult to navigate in every industry, but the competitive nature of the art world urges workers to feel privileged for any job, no matter the compensation. There is an incentive to stay silent, and some art handlers who spoke to Hyperallergic would not go on the record for fear of retaliation. Nevertheless, virtually all workers said they would like to see substantial improvements to the health and safety standards of their organizations.

As art handling has professionalized over the last decade, some employers have made substantial improvements to their workplace health and safety conditions. But others have lagged behind. Running an art institution, no matter the size, is an expensive operation. Depending on the size and weight, the costs of transporting, insuring, and installing artworks can run into the high tens of thousands of dollars. Small galleries — born from closet-sized DIY spaces and retrofitted storefronts — are in an especially difficult position. They and the mid-sized galleries typically rent their spaces and don’t usually have the capital necessary to make substantial improvements to their storage capabilities.

But not every art hander is looking for a drastic improvement. Many preparators point to easier fixes, like on-the-job safety training and lessons on how to handle complex machinery like cherry pickers and forklifts. Many large institutions, art handlers reported, sometimes don’t even do that.

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The New Museum, photographed on September 19, 2018 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A former art handler at the New Museum shared his story with Hyperallergic on the condition that his name stay anonymous.

He had left art handling behind, moving to Italy after six years in the industry to take a job as a gallery director. He had begun his career as an artist’s assistant before becoming a preparator in 2006, but now had a chance to curate and really get to know artists. But two years later, his tenure in Europe ended and he came back to New York, returning to the art handler hustle at an auction house before later joining the New Museum.

Like Castro, he saw art handling as a way to financially support his other endeavors in the industry. But the New Museum was also a chance to work with a prestigious institution. He took the job and was happy there for two years, until the accident.

It was 2016, and the art handling crew was working at a rapid pace to install Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest, an exhibition that would break the museum’s attendance records. His manager requested that he help operate the forklift. The art handler was picking up the fork side of the machine when his manager, not seeing him, began operating the lift. It pinched his finger and pulled it back, transferring all the system’s weight onto the worker’s hand.

“Hospital. Now.”

He yelled for help and his boss, realizing what had happened, immediately handed a colleague the company credit card so that he could be rushed to the hospital for urgent care. At the time, the worker didn’t have health insurance and work wasn’t offering any benefits; eventually, he did receive worker’s compensation from the museum, which also paid for his subsequent visits to the doctor. But unfortunately, part of his finger was torn off.

“They were very careful not to say sorry,” the art handler recalled. “It seemed like they were more concerned with covering for themselves.”

Multiple art handlers at the New Museum corroborated his account. A spokesperson for the institution said that no such incident has occurred in the past three years and that it is “in compliance with OSHA rules and only permits full-time certified staff to operate heavy machinery.”

After the accident, the art handler exited the business and entered into the conservation field, where he is very happy.

Looking back at his job with the New Museum, he doesn’t blame his manager for the accident, but instead admonishes against the rapid pace upper management expected art handlers to do their job. If people were allowed to slow down, maybe he wouldn’t have been injured. And in retrospect, he found it strange that art handlers there were allowed to drive lifts without formal training. “There were some precautions, but we also could have done things more safely,” he admitted.

Regardless, he is happy to have exited the business.

“Art handling is a job that doesn’t particularly lead anywhere,” he said. “It takes a tax on your body, especially if the working environment is not amicable to sustainable labor. Sometimes getting the job done is prioritized over the safety of workers, but you can’t do the work without them. It would be nice to see the industry shift its values.”

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