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The Art Handler Who Saved the Emancipation Proclamation From Drowning in Mountain Dew

Calder Brannock was told he was just transporting an empty vitrine from the National Archives in DC north toward New York. That wasn’t the full truth.

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

Calder Brannock (image for Hyperallergic courtesy Calder Brannock)

Washington, DC may be the only city on the planet that contains more museum staffers than artists. There are more than 70 museums spread across the nation’s capital with some of the most prominent ones along the National Mall belonging to the Smithsonian Institution. The organization — tasked with stewarding the nation’s cultural heritage — employs around 6,000 people and holds nearly 137 million objects within its collection.

With such an immense catalogue, the Smithsonian must hire a small army of art handlers to whizz their works around the world. And with few opportunities to sustain a creative professional life in the DC area, many local artists ultimately join the prepatorial field to make ends meet.

That’s how Calder Brannock found himself traveling in a truck with what initially appeared to be an empty vitrine and a laptop bag from the National Archives within the first three or four months of his career. After graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a sculpture MFA in 2010, the then-24-year-old found it impossible to find a job in the competitive art industry. Eventually, he decided to begin working as an art handler with a shipping and installation company that frequently worked with the Smithsonian.

In New York, where rates typically fall between $20 to $40 per hour, art handlers describe Washington DC as the industry’s big white whale. Because the Smithsonian Institution is a public organization, federal wage rates calculated according to the Office of Personnel Management guidelines would net them upwards of $60 per hour depending on their employment classification, though most employees with art handling skills are likely to still make within the $20 to $40 per hour range. But in reality, most of the nation’s museums save money by contracting with art handling companies who pay their employees substantially less. Only a few art handlers remain on staff.

When Brannock began working, his company paid him $13 per hour with benefits. He worked there for three years and found that the only way he could get a raise was by threatening to quit; even then, the highest he ever earned was $16 per hour. “It was preposterous working for that little when I was handling vases as old as the period written about in Homer’s Odyssey,” he said.

And the work was not easy. Sometimes accidents happened. Brannock says that he once fell off a truck when he was working as an art handler and cracked his head open. For two days, he didn’t know who he was; his brain was stuck on a minute-and-a-half loop. And for months afterwards, he felt scrambled.

Over the course of his tenure with the organization, Brannock handled priceless works by artists like Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso. The people he worked with would come from a range of backgrounds. Sometimes he would be working with art handling veterans with years of experience on him; other times, he would be driving a Caravaggio painting across state lines with a trucker who had never heard of the Baroque artist.

Although he considered it an excellent experience and one of the most interesting jobs in the world, Brannock also described art handling as involving little pay and long hours. Worst of all, the art handlers were rarely informed by the company about the contents they were shipping. Sometimes they would even have armed guards and not know why.

Initially, the assignment for the National Archives seemed simple enough: transport the cargo from one institution to another along the highway. For peace of mind, he had double-checked with the museum that there were no artifacts onboard. The institution told him no. He, a colleague, and two museum employees hit the highway north toward New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Along the way, they stopped at a Wawa roadside convenience store for a snack. Brannock returned to the truck’s passenger compartment with a large Mountain Dew.

It was a relaxing break until someone accidentally tipped over the soda, which spilled across the truck’s passenger compartment. Seeing the laptop bag and thinking there was a computer inside of it, Brannock rushed to save it from the encroaching drink. He was successful. But upon closer inspection, he realized that this wasn’t an ordinary satchel but a specialty document bag; inside was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and facsimile copies of the historic document.

A spokesperson for the National Archives said that the institution was not made aware of any such incident occurring, and that its guidelines are continually under review and revision based on lessons-learned, best practices, and changes in policy. After this story was published, another representative for the institution emailed Hyperallergic to dispute that such an event had occurred, noting that two National Archives employees — a senior registrar and a holding protection specialist — were also traveling with Brannock and his colleague and would have reported the incident, had it occurred, back to the museum.

“The National Archives employees were responsible for couriering our holdings and maintained control of them at all times,” the spokesperson said. But during a phone call with Hyperallergic, the representative admitted that the employees could have set the speciality document down in the truck for a moment; though, he also noted that neither employee from the National Archives recalled the incident occurring as Brannock had described. And while the museum says it notified the shipping company Brannock worked for about the historic documents, it could not confirm whether or not this information was relayed to the art handler. The institution also declined to share any documentation related to the case with Hyperallergic.

When asked whether or not it tells art handlers about the contents they are shipping, the museum said: “Holdings security measures are such that information shared about contents is limited.  The underlying requirements for safe handling (food and drink, environmental controls, security, etc.) are established in advance and are expected to be met in all cases regardless of the level of information provided about the contents.”

Incidents like the one above informed how Brannock would create his own business as an independent art handler. Since 2013, he has worked with galleries and art consultants for their shipping and installation needs. Several people in the Washington DC community described him as their favorite go-to installer. He has come a long way from the lower wages he received earlier in his career; today, he typically charges around $100 per hour with a two-hour minimum — and he always insists on knowing what he’s handling.

‘“This is a gig economy and it can be feast or famine,” Brannock, now 34 years old, explained. “What I bring to the table is me; it’s my experience that you are buying. With larger companies, you can roll the dice on who is coming. And part of the job is knowing when to step back to check everything is safe with the correct weight ratings and right equipment.”

While Brannock cultivated a career in Washington DC, many other art handlers first gained their professional footing in New York before landing full-time employment at the Smithsonian.

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Aaron Philip Maier thought he had left art handling for good. He had struggled for years in New York to balance his work life with his artistic aspirations. He was sleeping on his grandfather’s couch in Queens and commuting to gigs at MoMA PS1 and David Zwirner. In the moments in between work and sleep, he would visit his Greenpoint studio in Brooklyn.

“Physical labor is difficult because it takes a toll on both your body and sense of self. When you’re walking around with dusty clothes, you are seen as a laborer. People look and treat you a certain way. Even at museums, people might smile but they don’t engage with you,” explained Maier. “I couldn’t focus on art because I was so demoralized at work. It was exhausting and morally draining.”

But art handling was one of the only jobs he could get after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. He already had experience in construction work and would help friends install shows around the city. Following his dream to make it as an artist in New York, he moved to the city in 2012 and soon began freelancing at MoMA PS1. 

He found the museum disorganized. He says that the quality of work he produced was not monitored, and MoMA PS1 didn’t have a vetting process for art handlers to prove themselves. Everything felt like a chaotic scramble. 

And Maier had serious misgivings about the safety standards on the job. In general, the museums and galleries he worked for in New York lacked the personal protection equipment that was required on construction jobs he had previously done. There were no dust masks, steel-toed boots, or safety goggles; there was also no formal training for using machinery and equipment. Perhaps worst of all, Maier says he was often tasked to sand drywall without any kind of respirator. The Center for Disease Control warns against exposure to the dust particles emitted by sanding drywall; research indicates that workers who inhale it may face an increased risk of silicosis and lung cancer.

“[MoMA PS1] would have been flagged like crazy if OSHA had walked in and seen us working without the proper personal protection equipment,” he said.

The museum declined to comment for this article.

But according to Maier, life at David Zwirner was even worse. He had joined art handling to learn more about the institutions he studied in college and to get closer to the artists he admired; instead, his managers told him not to speak to the artists or anyone else who walked into the gallery. Work was a high-stress environment where, he said, anything less than perfect was treated like a complete failure. Employees were often yelled at for their mistakes in front of colleagues. (Such practices are common at the gallery, according to sources who have worked there. One former Zwirner employee mentioned that male personnel were known for making lewd comments to their female staff.)

A spokesperson for David Zwirner said that the gallery hadn’t known about the allegations until Hyperallergic contacted them for comment. “The gallery is dedicated to promoting and prioritizing a healthy workplace, with mutual respect across all departments and roles,” the representative replied over email. “We absolutely do not condone this type of behavior. The Gallery’s leadership takes these allegations very seriously and encourages individuals to use the protocols we have in place both to report and address issues such as these.”

When asked what type of protocols the gallery has in place, the spokesperson did not respond.

After these negative experiences, Maier’s planned to move back to his hometown of Washington DC and build a family business with his mother flipping houses on the real estate market. But on a whim, he had applied for a job with the Smithsonian and ultimately landed a position with the National Museum of American History. Four years later, he now works as an exhibit specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Unlike in New York, Maier has enjoyed working for DC’s cultural institutions. As a government employee, the 31-year-old currently makes $82,000 per year with health insurance, a travel stipend, paternity leave, and nearly a month of vacation days. In fact, the Smithsonian’s pay and benefits system is so great, he explains, that other institutions simply can’t compete. Last year, Maier interviewed for a position at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) as the museum’s fabrication shop supervisor, but thought the salary was too low. At the Smithsonian, he earns a raise every year and could be making six figures in the near future.

Besides, there certainly has never been a dull day in Washington. Like Brannock, Maier has handled countless sensitive objects passing through the Smithsonian’s many institutions. For security reasons, he’s often not told about the details of what he will be handling. While at the National Museum of American History, for example, he was tasked with building mounts in a gallery for the exhibition Religion in Early America, which closed last June. Several of the objects included in the show were priceless, and one section included Bibles previously owned by the Founding Fathers.

One of the holy books included in the exhibition had belonged to Martha Washington; it was a gift from her husband received four months after he assumed the presidency. Amazingly, the museum had also received a loan of the Washington Inaugural Bible from the St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons. George Washington had used the masonic Bible when he was sworn into office as president at New York City’s Federal Hall, the nation’s first capitol building.

Maier and his crew were not told exactly when two of America’s most important Bibles would reach the museum. When the Washington Inaugural Bible did arrive, it came handcuffed to the wrist of a Freemason. He had only around thirty minutes to build a plexiglass mount for the Bible. Guards stood by the book the entire time while a paper conservator took notes and made a template that Maier could work from. He was not allowed to know certain details about the Bible’s make.

According to a spokesperson for the National Museum of American History, the arrangement followed best security practices and adhered to the lender’s requirements for the Washington Inaugural Bible.

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The Smithsonian Institution (image via Juan Llanos/Flickr)

With an annual budget of almost a billion dollars, the Smithsonian invests proper training and pay to retain an elite group of art handlers on staff. But what about the rest of the industry?

Cultural heritage travels between the world’s storage facilities, galleries, auction houses art fairs, freeports, museums, and mansions. By 2026, the combined wealth of the world’s private art assets will outmatch the Gross Domestic Product of the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth-largest economy. Financial experts at the consulting firm Deloitte estimate that the combined value of artworks owned by the world’s top collectors will total $2.7 trillion. With so much capital exchanging hands, who is paying the people facilitating those transfers — the art handlers — their fair share?

Compare that economic scale to what art handlers receive from their employers. With comparatively low pay and no benefits, they struggle to afford rent; they perform manual labor with little oversight or safety precautions, accruing tens of thousands of dollars in debt when the inevitable accident happens; and when they complain about working conditions, employers might intimidate them out of reporting abuses.

The labor of art handlers has dissolved into the uniform, crystalline luxury of the white cube, and evidence of their value barely exists above the surface of the industry. It’s unlikely that the casual museumgoer knows that the job exists. Even in auction house catalogues advertising their services, the art handler disappears, replaced by attractive models only pretending to move million-dollar works.

Earlier this year, a study published by the University of Southern Denmark examining United States census data since 1850 found a strong link between a person’s family income and their likelihood of becoming an artist. The research indicated that every $10,000 added to family income made a person two percent more likely than those who don’t come from money to go into a creative profession. In other words, the economic status of one’s family can predetermine one’s ability to succeed in the art world. It’s therefore unsurprising that many artists who turn toward art handling as a means of survival quickly fall into the profession as their main career. When asked about the socioeconomic status of their families, virtually every art handler interviewed for this feature said they came from a low-income or middle-class families. 

In retrospect, many veterans of the industry said that the odds have always felt stacked against them. The art world had offered them a survival job, but never enough money to really live. The art world had offered them a chance to work with famous artists, but never a chance to become their equals. The art world had offered them proximity to power, but never a chance to wield it.

Editors note 9/9/19: This article has been updated to reflect new information about the position that Maier interviewed for at SFMOMA.

Editors notes 9/13/19: This article has been updated to reflect new information from the National Archives.

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