The professional art world is a major industry with a global reach and fuelled by the allure of objects and ideas encapsulated in installation spaces of every kind. It is also characterised by a skein of elements familiar to followers of any high profile culture industry: glamour, celebrity, publicity, money and power. On the upper slopes clings art stars, high profile directors and curators enmeshed in influential positions, hard wired to sponsorship and funding, putting forward themes, discourses and critical observations, reflecting the most noble and progressive of social aspirations and concerns.
Beneath them sit legions of waged workers supporting their activities and at the end of the logistical chain, we have the persons responsible for making sure all this cultural detritus comes out to be exhibited, traded, then hidden again into the vaults, warehouses and private collections of the moneyed and powerful. They are the art handlers, and what would it mean to consider the art world from their perspective?
One facet could well be the understanding that some of the multiple meanings conveyed by visual art (including its display, patronage and circulation) are actively formed by social relationships, interactions and, by extension, its labour relations. While the field has been explored by artists and writers at length, along with voluminous academic research, very little of that enquiry has centred on actual workers as close to the system as installation technicians.
Every art handler understands their job as being one that constantly catches the art object with its pants down. Unlike the public viewer who only sees art framed in a white cube (or display booth) where its moral/political values are presented intact. The art handler sees such objects in transition; as items reflecting their own labour and the unusual intimacy between worker and object needed to get the job done. And in today’s commercial art world, with its vast accumulation of objects, they are increasingly aware of the vital role they serve; as noted by Christoph Lang, the director of F+F Schule fur Kunst und Design in Zurich, who organised the first Art Handling symposium in 2014.
“If one pays attention to art handlers now it’s because the huge, expensive, very technical pieces produced in contemporary art compel us to realise that the artist works in a network of individual hands. Their work has become news because it is linked to this strange contradiction that has become more and more pervasive in the realm of art: extremely expensive pieces produced and transported by people who work in an invisible manner.”
And here is the paradox within the role of installation technician. Art handling and its related areas ranging from crate building, framing, packing and moving is intrinsically blue collar in nature and pay, but regularly conducted by overqualified arts graduates; not just unskilled removal people as might be assumed. For many such ‘intellectual labourers’, art handling is one of the few avenues into the workings of the professional leagues; unless of course, they are fortunate to become recognised artists in their own right. So even though art handling is considered to the industry’s dirty work, it is conducted by educated employees who can articulate what they witness on the job and their relation to the objects entrusted to their care.
The industries of visual art have been, and continue to be at the professional level, a hall of mirrors where the oeuvre of its art stars and market relevance is reinforced and cross checked by its directors and curators then amplified and echoed by an array of industry catalogues and publications. Beneath this professional system, there exists of course, the cultural makers, independent gallery spaces, alternative venues and writers constantly at work forming strategies and artwork that can used to critique, subvert and call to account these structures while offering counter points to professional promotion narratives. However, where these activities are incorporated into the commercial sphere however remains the prerogative of powerful interests and at their discretion. But as noted, these systems also depend on workers such as art handlers and they can provide a form of insider critique at precisely the same point where other strategies tend to be jettisoned.
In regards to the objects themselves, art handlers can offer another avenue to demystify artworks. As artists, they have a fundamental training and understanding of the materiality of art and this is brought to their work as technicians. They know they represent more than some abstract exchange value or simple visual experience. They understand and know the objects in their care are part of the world of things; of weight, texture and fragility and not just something that appears and disappears on a stage as a matter or course, to be taken for granted.
As Robert Storr notes in his conversation with Chuck Close and Manolo Bustamante in Art Handler Magazine “I..think that everybody who writes for October magazine or any of the theoretical journals should do about six months as an art handler. So they can actually learn what physical things are really composed of..”
A career as an art handler is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand technicians are given due recognition, especially for example, when an art logistics company is seeking to reassure it potential clients about the capability of its staff; such as this paragraph on the Crozier Fine Arts website:
“At the core of the services we provide is the art handler, an experienced pair of hands entrusted with the physical safety of the objects in our care. Following a long- standing tradition, all Crozier art handlers are also practicing artists, giving them a unique understanding and respect for our profession.”
But in other instances, such workers can readily be treated as just store people and not worthy of the type of regard or recognition they deserve. This has been evident through the ‘implementation of business efficiencies’7 that which took place at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013 that saw the installation department merged with lighting, an increased workload and longer hours. It is was also demonstrated during such disputes as the lockouts of art handler workers at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 due to unionisation efforts. In response to such pressures art handlers are now showing signs of organising in some locations and to date, there have been two symposiums on art handling and efforts to gain recognition of their important place in the art world hierarchy. This includes actions such as the drawing up of the Art Handlers Bill of Rights and labour organisations such as the Art Handlers Alliance of New York. Such moves have not yet taken place in Australia and it would be gratifying if this article could help in that process of due recognition.
“We need to start thinking about of art handling as a skilled profession and a career path like any other trade rather than as a temporary position one holds until they make it or drop out.”
By unpacking the observations, experiences and knowledge art handlers have about the art world, it could be hoped that they could find the opportunity for workplace advancement in the future and be seen by their employers for what they really are: vital components of an industry that would be crippled if they walked off the job. Or, at the very least, not be subject to the business restructurings that compel them work harder and longer with less job security. In parallel creative industries such as film, live music and theater, the technical staff are recognised as such, either through union representation or at least some acknowledgment in the credits; and so it should be for the industry of fine art.