What it’s like to be an art handler for real housewives, Wall Street weasels, and Jay Z
In this installment of our anonymous interview series, we spoke with three art handlers who install artworks in museums, galleries and estates.
“Jeff” is a technician and carpenter who has been installing art in galleries and private residences for almost a decade.
“Andy” is a sound and lighting expert who freelances for galleries, artists and wealthy clients.
“Damien” is veteran of the job who currently works as a preparator at a major uptown gallery.
Jeff: I’m currently an art handler, though I like to use the European term “art technician.” For the past few months, I’ve been doing it part-time. I work for galleries and private clients. Lately, I’ve been working through a frame shop, doing their pick up, drop off, install, and a lot of packing. I’ve installed everything from giant 600-lb Anish Kapoors to weird chandelier pieces to big unglazed Richard Serras and even a series of mosaics for the eos lipbalm offices.
My specialty is installation because I’m also trained as a carpenter. The wrapping and handling is pretty straightforward. No two jobs are the same. My favorite kind of work is corporate offices like J.P. Morgan Chase and major midtown law firms where you’re hanging hundreds of things at once. My boss knows a circuit of a dozen or half-dozen art advisors who purchase this type of art for affluent or corporate interests. Most recently, I did a huge law firm and the main partner there fancied himself a photographer. We ended up hanging his own framed photographs all over the office. It was a total vanity project. He had a combination of his work and what he called his “collection.” I know about contemporary art and art history. But here he was like, “We picked this up in New Orleans, this cool Batman painting. It’s a strong piece.”
Andy: I got started five or six years ago because I had experience working with artists from a technical standpoint. I was doing sound and light at a not-for-profit theater space. I also had a construction background. My skills naturally carried over into art handling.
I get most of my gigs through people that I’ve met. It’s the kind of thing where if people know you have experience they’ll call you. Most of the work I’ve done has been long-term but not permanent. I’ll work for one place for six months or a year and then something else will come up.
Damien: I originally started working for theaters and realized I could apply it to art. Currently, I work as the lead preparator for a major gallery. Before that, I worked for the Mugrabi family. They’re some of the biggest art collectors in the world. Before that I worked on-and-off for a pretty gnarly and corrupt contemporary outfit. And before that, I worked in museums, specifically for MoMa PS1. Part of my job now involves hiring freelancers that are starting out as I did.
jeff: A million years ago when I was still in art school, one of my roommates was working for Wallspace and he got me into it. The small and medium galleries don’t need full-time preparators or installers. Back then, Chelsea had relatively the same schedule it does now. You would go there about monthly. Or, they would need something pulled out of storage and hung in the backroom for some collector. Or, they would need to move inventory in and out.
I work mainly for private and corporate clients. I’ve also worked for big galleries like Kreps or Marlboro. The museum world is another universe, where preparators and conservators are generally salaried and full-time. Another thing to think about auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which is it’s own huge industry of preparators and handlers who are sometimes union and sometimes not.
andy: I’ve done a lot of work with museums, galleries, artists and private clients. Museums are a lot more culturally focused in terms of both purpose and execution. Of course, there are a lot of people behind the scenes who use the museum as a platform for getting more exposure for art they’re trying to sell, but that’s somewhat secondary. The gallery is pretty much a capitalist endeavor on every front. Although they may have some sort of obvious interest in cultural programming from a basic standpoint, the main focus is selling artwork.
This reflects on art handling. In a museum you’re dealing with other people’s stuff so you have to be extremely careful. In a gallery typically they either own it or represent it so you can be less careful but you’re also doing things more quickly and haphazardly because you’re working against time. There’s much less regulation in a gallery environment than in the museum world. The stakes for error are a lot lower. If something were to break or be damaged, generally you’re so closely connected to the artist that it’s easily fixable. It’s still not a good thing, but in a museum it’s a much more intensive and regulated process.
Damien: I’ve built up a client network. When I first started freelancing, I would look at NYFA and Craigslist. It could get pretty consuming just chasing down the jobs but after a while I developed a routine. In the meantime, I was also doing some music and other stuff in the arts. A lot of art handlers come to the job through being a musician not an artist.
Jeff: I try to avoid the gallery world. It’s kind of a shitty culture. Freelance art handling is intrinsically racist, sexist and classist. There’s always a bit of a “check your privilege” moment. A lot of the work involves really simple trade skills that almost anyone can do. Part of it, in theory, takes the immaterial value of your understanding that this is artwork. On one hand, I’ve seen building supers throw paintings around. On the other, you have people who believe in the magical, mysterious value of art, and won’t touch it with their own hands.
The network is a bunch of BFA white bros. But there’s no reason any other labor force shouldn’t have access to that stream of income. It always struck me as funny, working backwards from the anecdotal data. This may be really far afield, but it’s such a fashionable, elitist world that if you had visibly working class people in your gallery it would declass the space. You’re getting paid a premium because you’re human decoration.
I worked with this Hispanic guy once who didn’t give a shit about art and came out of a crate building company, but he had the skills and vocabulary. What we were doing was mostly packing with a smidgen of conservation. There was a level of education you acquired on the job, such as knowing what materials to put on what and how they would interact. It’s a vague and informal set of skills, but it’s not exclusive to white art school kids. You can pick most of this stuff up in a day.
The best place to see this at play is in Miami. It’s a symptom of a larger problem, but it’s one of the more visible tentacles of the institutional prejudice of the art world. Sure, Jerry Saltz can publish a gallery shitlist and we can have infinite thinkpieces about it, but in terms of the peripheral labor force, it’s more urgent. If you lined up all the art handlers at Art Basel, you’d be like, “Yep, there it is.”
Damien: I went to Miami this year. I spend a lot of time hanging out with people who work for Maquette. They go every year, so there’s a culture. Everyone takes over the hotels and the same one or two bars. It’s a giant, never-ending party. I’m basically hanging out and drinking with the same people I drink with back in New York. A lot of them, I hired myself.
worth of art was offered for sale at the 14th edition of Art Basel Miami in 2014
No big deal
Jeff: Sometimes artwork or property gets damaged on the job. The protocol for those type of scenarios varies. My boss is bonded for $2.5 million in insurance, which is very helpful. Generally, you can’t get access to a lot of buildings, especially in affluent neighborhoods, without an insurance policy. You might have to move a chandelier, because you’re also technically a carpenter and a mover.
I’ve seen a person accidentally put a pencil mark on a painting, but it’s not the end of the world. Another time, someone accidentally drilled through a gas pipe, which was interesting. They were testing to see if there was a stud and they applied some force because the wall was resisting. They were using a really thin drill bit that hit a steel pipe. They had to emergency cut a four-inch hole in the wall just to stop the gas leak and epoxy it up.
Andy: I’ve been on teams before where a work of art was damaged. I worked in restoration for two years, so I’m familiar with the process. What happens is the work somewhat secretively goes to insurance. Then a restorer or conservationist “fixes” it, which, depending on the situation, means bringing it as close to its original state as possible.
Damien: I’ve personally never damaged anything myself, but I’ve had people that I’ve hired, like shippers or constructors, damage stuff on my watch. It took me a long time to realize this but if something happens—and it can happen to anybody—it’s not really a big deal. Of course, this varies in terms of museums or galleries. Museums are far more involved in photographing and documenting everything as it comes out. Whereas in the gallery, it’s much more lax because they either own the work or represent the artist. There’s no real regulation in terms of record-keeping or legalities. Most of the time, you’re still able to sell that art for the same amount of money.
Jeff: In Europe, they do things differently. I worked with a team at a Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland and it was such a different labor culture. The art handlers there are full-time, career technicians. They are effectively the custodians of the institution. The particular show I was working on featured a lot of younger artists who orbited alternative practices outside of the studio. The theme was basically “European and American DIY Kids in Europe!” There was kind of a big passive aggressive kerfuffle because of the division of labor. These expat kids were very hands on, hammering things together and drilling into walls. But the technicians were on hand to hang all the art as they had been doing it for twenty years, so they were being very protective and even a little insulted because they felt like their skills weren’t being fully respected.
In the little utopian Kunsthalle culture, everyone has lunch together at a big table—the directors, the curators, the artists, and the art technicians. It’s definitely a different kind of feeling with regard to the division of labor. In New York, you have polite classism, where everyone is really nice and cordial with that shit-eating grin that reminds you you’re the help, like “Yes... Please... Thanks... Ok...” Except you’re not really just the help because you know about art. Sometimes, they’re condescending. Other times, they’re overly chummy.
ANdy: I worked for a dead artist whose assistant was carrying on his legacy and in control of his estate. His work needed to be restored after Hurricane Sandy. I worked on the Mike Kelley show at MoMA PS1. I’ve worked at David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and other major galleries. I came into this with an existing literacy in art. There’s definitely art I like and dislike. Art is a matter of taste and taste is subjective.
Damien: One of my most memorable jobs was installing the Mike Kelley retrospective at MoMA PS1. I worked with two of his friends, who were still running the show. They had started out as art handlers and now they’ve made a big effort of protecting the legacy of their friend. I learned a lot from them about handling enormous and complicated works. For example, I successfully counterbalanced 5,000 pounds of stuffed animals from the ceiling with my coworker while operating on no sleep. I’ve also installed James Lee Byars, Christoph Schlingensief, Maria Lassnig, James Turrell, Matthew Barney, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Alexander Calder, Warhol, Basquiat, to name a few.
Jeff: I prefer working for private clients. Sometimes, they’re condescending. Other times, they’re overly chummy. But occasionally it can be genuinely friendly, like “Let’s hang out about art.” You can show up and charge a pretty exorbitant rate and then hang out all day, no pressure. It’s not full kilt. It’s not like you’re retiling their bathroom or anything, even though it’s the same transaction in many ways.
I got a couple of sex stories out of it. It happens. Oh, and I hung all the art in Richard Gere’s Hamptons house.
Andy: I’ve installed art in some extremely rich people’s houses. You’re typically intercepted by someone who’s the client’s estate manager or personal assistant or housekeeper. One time, someone had a chateau in Connecticut. They had valuable artwork just laying on the ground and multiple dogs running around. I got the impression that this was a vacation house or a second home. The work was definitely being impacted by the dogs for sure. I wouldn’t necessarily call it severe damage, but you could see their fur and paw prints.
Damien: I have a history of installing art in the most insane, wealthiest homes in New York and elsewhere. I’ve worked for Wall Street financiers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. I’ve worked for Picasso’s granddaughter. Last year, I had to drop off a giant rolled canvas to John McEnroe. He struggled with us to pull the canvas into his studio from the staircase for over an hour. Funny guy.
My most famous client is probably Jay Z. His home—he probably has several of them—was very opulent. But his offices were pretty normal and he seemed like a pretty normal guy himself. He didn’t speak to us at all, but kind of just milled about. The art is what you’d expect Jay Z to have, like Basquiat and Warhol and Koons other uber-expensive Pop choices. It’s really obvious.
Jeff: My daily routine is case by case. Historically, this is the most steady art handling job I’ve had. I have a little bit of an issue with the nomenclature, though. Art handling is a codified set of labor practices. A lot of the time it’s glorified packing, shipping and trucking. It’s a 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek. When people say “art handling,” that’s what comes to mind. And it’s not like I don’t do that, but I really avoid orthodox gigs. I’m more of an installer or technician. It can be run-of-the-mill, but often it involves a technical or electrical component. You can be a person of loads things on and off a truck, and I’m not denigrating that at all, but I’m performing a different type of labor.
Andy: It’s pretty straightforward. I usually just show up and put art on the wall. Flat work like paintings and photographs is extremely easy to install. Any kind of conceptual sculpture, especially stuff that weighs a lot, is asymmetrically weighted, or has moving parts, can be pretty difficult. A lot of times, you have to build stuff as you install it. It comes in multiple pieces and you either have instructions or have to reference older documentation of it and figure out how to reverse engineer how to build or fabricate it. I’ve never personally installed the same piece on different occasions that require a different configuration, but I have worked for artists who have a lot of room for interpretation with the way their work is set up.
Damien: My schedule differed depending on whether I was working full-time or freelancing. As a freelancer, it was mostly a 9-to-5 or 10-to-6 type situation, but sometimes you could find yourself working 16-hour shifts or overnight. This would usually be for a show that was opening the next day. It really depends. If you’re freelancing for an art fair, for example like the people who are hired to go to Basel, you’re working 10 days straight with only a few of hours of sleep and a lot of drinking.
The jobs all vary by intensity and duration. The hardest pieces to install by far—which my gallery does a lot of—are things that are counterweighted or cleverly hung. Most of these objects are decorative or conceptual. They’re designed to look good in rich peoples’ homes. It’s a genre for those who don’t know a lot about art, both in terms of its history and its process, but are impressed by artistic novelty. It’s a trend that comes out of the idea that painting is dead.
Jeff: What I do is also partly a service or personality role. You have to be able to roll up your sleeves and placate your clients. They’re surrounded by people who say yes to them, and dealing with clients is its own skill set. I just finished a job this morning in this insane apartment where half of my billable hours were discussing the interior decor and historical value of the property. It’s weirdly consulting as well. Sometimes, I’ll break things down and think, “Man, these people’s hourly cost of living exceeds what they’re paying me tenfold”—and I charge a respectable rate.
That’s sort of the fun of it. A lot of full-time art handlers are usually in some band or something. That seems to be a pattern. They get so cynical about it. It becomes a toxic environment after a while. Art is denigrated as a commodity. I’m not trying to sound like I’m 18 about it, but it’s an interesting profession in that I get to handle work that I love and discover new artists. I love being around the art. No part of my formal art education, whether it was taking an art history lecture or going to a museum, could prepare me for the feeling of intimately interacting with the work. It’s a rare firsthand opportunity. On a good day, it’s really good. On a bad day, there’s always that nagging feeling of privilege.
Andy: One of the things you encounter a lot is picky or indecisive clients. You just have to be patient. You’re getting paid by the hour and getting paid pretty well so patience is a virtue. You can spend hours installing a piece and then the client changes their mind and says they want it an inch higher or to the left. It’s just a part of the job.
Damien: I often deal with wealthy women. They usually fall into one of two categories: plastic surgery housewives or power suit business types. Both are picky, but for different reasons. The first type doesn’t really know much about art at all and is totally open to my curation, like, “Where do you think this should go? Does this look good with this?” The second type knows more about art but is also more demanding and opinionated, which can get annoying to work with. Last week, I installed a piece on 80th and Park, at a private residence. I was hanging it in the living room as they observed from the couch. Their conversation for the entire hour was 40% plastic surgery and 60% cosmetics, with the occasional praise of the artwork purchased.
There’s a whole other echelon of collectors out there. Some people have entire storage units filled with priceless masterpieces. Other people buy art for their homes and offices and like to think of themselves as connoisseurs. Two years ago I worked for one of the biggest art collectors and dealers in the world. After explaining that I needed to thoroughly pack his Basquiat and be on my way, he proceeded to simply grab the piece and toss it in the elevator. I think his exact words were: “Don’t worry about it.”
Museum technicians and conservators
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Museum technicians and conservators
in the US
Hourly mean wage
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