THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
If you spend some part of your day in traffic, you have probably seen small- to medium-sized box trucks without any information indicating what is inside. No company name or “How’s my driving?” contact number. No description of general services like “Plumbing” or “Moving” that the company may provide. This is a common enough sight that few people’s curiosity will be piqued. But if you have ever wondered what may be inside one of these beat-up jalopies, there is a good chance that at some point, you have seen one carrying some art. And not just stuff from Pier 1. These objects could be valued at hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.
Discretion is obviously necessary when handling highly valued private property. Some companies do advertise, but think about how many company names you have seen on the side of a truck. How many of them were clearly for art handling? You may also think that art does not change hands very often, but this not true. Art gets moved every day. More and more art gets made, and more museums open across the country and start building collections.
This expectation of discretion carries over to the life of the art handler. The art handler must be quiet, focused, and respectful of the space they are in and the objects they are working with. They must have technical abilities and knowledge that few people do. It is a specialized, skilled trade that is carried out by people who are often well educated and have advanced degrees. Yet not many aspire to choose art handling as a career path. Why shouldn’t they? If one is interested in art, would it not be desirable to work within the field of the arts?
When I started working as a full-time art handler two years ago, I was excited about the opportunity. I knew it was not a glamourous job and not a lucrative one. Like any job, I knew that it would sometimes be boring and occasionally stressful. But I would get to work with my hands, build new skills, see parts of the city I had never seen before, and even get to look at interesting artwork. Even better, I had found a company that was different. They were national, with a corporate office and benefits. They presented themselves as “a place to hang your hat.” I thought I had found a career. Instead, what I found were deceptive practices, a hostile work environment, wage theft, and like so many other industries in this country, a culture which prefers workers who are de-skilled and disposable rather than valued and treated with dignity.
It is not lost on me that this sounds bitter and that there are many people out there suffering from unemployment or stuck in worse positions. But in the growing movement for workers’ rights, fair pay, and job security, it is important to call attention to yet another industry in which people find themselves stuck living paycheck to paycheck, with no opportunities for growth and little to no mobility into another career, particularly when that industry is at the heart of a system in which the wealthiest people in the world have control over the production and distribution of monetized global culture and social capital
An art handler friend once told me a story about a day they were working in a museum. A team of carpenters had come in to work on some new construction. One of them looked around in awe of the vast white, austere space and then looked at my friend and said, “Wow, you must make good money here.” My friend just laughed. It is a common misconception that the wealth and power behind museums extends to those who make it all possible. And there is a lot of wealth and power.
In the United States, museums rely on endowments, fundraising campaigns, and revenue generation through entry fees, memberships, and food and gift shop sales. In addition, events, educational programming, and the hosting of “blockbuster” touring exhibits like “David Bowie Is” help bring in more bodies, which I’m guessing makes some of the more stuffy curators cringe.
The data are murky, but on average, North American museums receive roughly fifteen percent of their funding from government sources as opposed to a majority of government funding received by their European counterparts. Europe is shifting their museum funding models to function more like the ones here in the US, but many of them still receive a majority of funding through their government.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in the “Dragon Psychology 101” episode of the Revisionist History podcast, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds over 2 million objects in its collection. Nevertheless, in 2018, the museum decided to fire ninety employees and start charging admission up to $25 for adults. Gladwell points out that the Met could have easily solved their budget crisis by selling off just a few of the objects in their vast collection. This would have been a short-term solution in the least but would have bought them time to protect their employees’ jobs and address long-term models for sustainability.
Gladwell makes the case that this is a kind of large-scale institutionalized hoarding, and I have no reason to disagree with him. But how is an obsession with art objects different from just plain old greed? The gap between earnings and cost of living for the middle and working class has been growing for decades, keeping already oppressed people marginalized and adding more younger people to that pool every day. The art world is not all that much different but for the distinction of allure. The idea of the artist is still one that is romanticized in our culture—that of the visionary who is discovered as the voice of their generation, who will hold a mirror up to society, forcing us all to see ourselves for what we really are, ultimately changing the world. Okay, maybe that is a naïve idea from a bygone era. But art schools today can still generate six figures of tuition payments for a two-year master’s degree, bringing in millions in revenue each year and building a pool of thousands of young artists from which high society can pluck out a few and place them on a pedestal. The rest will find other work: teaching, design, food service, retail, and, of course, art handling.
Art handlers are problem solvers. They are often confronted with logistical problems no one has confronted before. As art objects become more complicated and desirable, it falls on the art handler to get them from point A to point B.
They navigate trucks through city traffic and into narrow alley ways and loading docks. They deduce ways of carefully dismantling large paintings so they can be transported up century-old elevators and stairwells whose architects never foresaw the whims of future residents. They drive in pairs across the country from one city to the next, loading and off-loading crates containing objects of the aforementioned historical, cultural, and monetary value. They spend their days in windowless warehouses and wood shops, building those crates or moving them around from shelf to shelf, truck to truck. Depending on the art handler, much of their time is spent in the vast white cubes of the well-funded gallery and museum world. Others are permitted into the homes of people who have obtained great wealth and influence and have art collections valued at millions of dollars (even the billions in some cases) to show for it. They take detailed notes and photographic documentation of entire collections in people’s homes, even traveling to other states for week-long overnight trips if the job demands it.
On paper, it is a decent job to have. In practice, not so much. The more experienced art handlers I have spoken to have told me stories of rampant drug abuse on the job, in some cases by upper management. Others have described verbal abuse from employers and clients alike. I myself have seen denial of pay to long-distance truckers left out on the road because of canceled deliveries. In one instance, two drivers I know were on the road for three weeks and only paid for six of those days. When they asked permission to drive home (which they were only five hours away from) for a few days, they were told to get a hotel. These same drivers told me they often feel pressured to get the cheapest hotel option and choose to sleep in the cab of the truck rather than stay in a room of questionable cleanliness. I have heard stories of disputes between drivers, physical altercations, and abandonment over the road. I have seen professional long-distance drivers come and go because they are hired to drive, only to find out they will spend more time in a warehouse taking out trash than driving. Frequent truck breakdowns and canceled jobs don’t help in retaining qualified drivers who can find other work.
Some of the tools most commonly used by art handlers. Photo by the author.
This is just one example of the false promises some companies make to get people in the door. Both myself and people I have spoken to have been offered opportunities for advancement, only to be strung along for months, being told they will soon get their promotion: “We just have to complete this warehouse project or hire this many long-distance drivers.” In my case, the can got kicked down the road so many times I repeatedly asked for a date, a performance review, feedback, any indication of what the future held for me at the company. Finally, one day, after my manager got tired of my asking, he just told me to get another job.
This, especially during the pandemic, has become a common refrain. No annual performance review? You’re just lucky to have a job. Where is my overtime pay? You’re just lucky to have a job. I worked through my lunch break without pay? You’re lucky to have a job. My paycheck shows less hours than I worked? You’re lucky to have a job.
It’s true. We are lucky to have jobs. But that does not mean we cannot or should not advocate for ourselves. The deception runs even deeper within these businesses when there is opportunity to exploit the pandemic. After I returned to work in June at my company, things were slow. Some staff members left. But the work picked up after all the delayed exhibitions had to be resolved and private collectors started buying and moving art again. We started working more hours on tighter timelines with fewer staff, all going out into the city during a pandemic that has killed at least 300,000 people in this country as of the middle of December. One of our staff even caught COVID-19. And clients don’t always wear masks. I heard stories of disdain from clients whom colleagues asked to wear a mask while they worked in their homes. Sure, we have to put booties over our shoes to protect their floors, but they can’t wear masks to protect us from infection. Fortunately, those instances have been rare.
All this was happening while management claimed the company was in financial jeopardy. No raises, no performance reviews, no new hires to lighten the workload, no regular testing for COVID-19. The complaints were growing, morale was lower than ever, the work environment more hostile than it already had been before the pandemic. When management called a meeting to explain that the company was hanging by a thread, this claim was undermined just hours later when the corporate office sent out a company-wide email saying job bookings were up over sixty percent from last year and they would be buying new trucks and building an addition to their warehouse at headquarters.
The broader cultural issue is one I have seen throughout the industry. There is a bitterness. It is a kind of angry resignation—a disdain for the very work one is carrying out to make a living.
Art handling can be quite demoralizing for a number of reasons. If you have read this far, they are probably obvious. But it is not just the low pay and toxic work environments. It is the clear class distinctions the lowest people on the totem pole face when they go to work and see not just the quality-of-life wealth can provide, but the degree to which the world is regulated by this elite minority—not just the way in which they regulate the art world and its economy. I was on a job once moving paintings in a penthouse apartment when I overheard the client debating over the phone which former secretary of state they wanted to invite to a party. The two mentioned did not get along with one another. Quite a pickle.
These are the original influencers. I’m not talking about sexy gym rats on Instagram or funny pantomimers on TikTok. These people have been playing the long game behind the scenes for decades, just as the tycoons, monarchs, merchants, clergy, and dictators did before them for centuries—only now it is no longer the power of the image that holds sway over society. Who needs religious iconography or poignant allusions to classical narratives when you can have works so deeply mired in intellectually rigorous conceptuality or ambiguous abstraction that no one could ever doubt your intent to own art as simply “a patron of the arts”? Instead, the mass appeal of fine art has been slowly filtered out over time. We have TV, movies, and video games for that now. Fine art is simply a low-risk speculative trade with built-in return on investment determined by the person doing the speculating.
Art handling companies’ warehouses are filled with portions of the private collections of billionaires who house these items under multiple accounts with different names, some of which are non-profits. This is not even to mention that, in recent years, wealthy private art collectors have been building museums with limited public access in order to get a tax write off on their entire collection.
As far as I know, it is legally dubious to consider the storage of a private art collection as a tax-deductible expense essential to the function of a non-profit organization, particularly when those collected objects are packed away in boxes collecting dust for years on end. Project managers have joked about how a client wants a new crate to store a piece and how the cost of the new crate (which can be in the thousands of dollars) is just more added value to the work of art itself. So, is the value of the artwork determined by the owner as opposed to the market? In this case, they are one and the same—auction house, dealer, collector. I once knelt to hold a steel sculpture at an angle so a conservator could inspect the bottom. A project manager later told me the piece (a very famous one) was purchased by the client for ninety million dollars. From whom? From someone else who had previously paid eighty million.
Storing art may not always be tax deductible, but donating it is. If a piece of art gets passed around a few times with a ten-million-dollar price here and another million there added on, that’s a pretty nice profit when you get tired of looking at a thing and decide it is worthy of public viewing. If only museum patrons knew it is not just the entry fee they are paying to see that piece of art. They are also paying into an imbalanced tax system in which the wealthiest art collectors received a massive tax break in 2017. In theory (and in other countries) it should be one or the other: fund the museum through admission or through the tax system.
I was tempted to list more details from my own and fellow art handlers’ day-to-day experiences in this toxic work environment. But what it boils down to is poor communication, failed leadership, cowardly management, and a level of arrogance that can only be ascribed to the demoralizing nature of the work. If it is not already obvious, this a male-dominated industry. The company I work for has no female art handlers, but other companies do, and I’m sure they can do the job just as well as their male counterparts. But gender disparities in art careers is a topic for another article.
When fixing the broken culture of the art handling industry, one would think better protections for workers could boost morale and incentivize higher performance. But this is America. Land of the free… to exploit others for personal gain. One need only to look to recent attempts art handlers in Chicago and New York have made to unionize to see what kind of pressure we face.
Here in Chicago, back in 2014, Mana-Terry Dowd, LLC, came close to unionizing with Teamsters Local 705, but the decision was left undecided after votes were challenged on the grounds that company managers who opposed unionization cast invalid ballots. Allegations of intimidation tactics were filed by employees against the company as reported in the Chicago Tribune as well as other local publications.
Similar issues have persisted in New York. Though many museums in New York have unionized workers, the private companies that have been cornering the art handling market do not. Initially, the work went to moving companies, but many of them stopped doing that kind of work, opening the door for specialized art services companies to hire handlers with art degrees.
As reported by Artsy and Art News, one of these companies, UOVO, has been leading the union busting charge against its own employees, deploying tactics (similar to those used by Mana-Terry Dowd) of intimidation, misinformation, and threats. Most recently, UOVO management used the pandemic as an excuse to fire employees who had voiced support for unionization while others got paid furlough. A UOVO employee and union organizer, Daniel Powers, spoke simply and truthfully to LaborPress.org, stating that “art is no longer art. It is stock,” and that “we hold the most valuable things per pound in the world for the richest people in the world.”
New York has a growing movement to improve workers’ rights in the field of art handling. This is thanks to the Art Handlers Alliance of New York (a.k.a. AHA-NY), which drafted “The Art Handler’s Bill of Rights,” and Phantom Designs owner Hazel Molina, who helped negotiate the first union contract with a private art handling company in New York.
The movement towards unionization is slow and difficult, but these people in NYC are showing us that it is possible. I am not a Chicago native, but I have long been under the impression that this city has a strong history of labor organizing. It would be a shame to let that legacy wither in the face of weak leaders who have more power over workers than they know what to do with.
Artwork ready for shipping (NYC Lower East Side, 2017). Photo by Michel Ségard.
The art economy as it stands today is one that can generate vast amounts of wealth for a select group of people while relying on undercompensated, unprotected labor to do so. No matter how educated or skilled those laborers are, they are subject to a system that presses the notion that a career in the arts is a path one chooses at their own peril. But as with so many other working-class industries in this country, the myth of rugged individualism is deployed to deny the existence of collective effort and shared responsibility. It is time for these disparities to be resolved, and in the art economy, it must fall on the artists and small business owners to make the change and for art itself to be reclaimed by the people.. ■
A Chicago alleyway. Just one of the many types of places art handlers find themselves.
Photo by the author.
A view from the lower loading dock area of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by the author.
Artworks' travel accommodations. Photo by the author.
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