Why Art Handlers Are Starting to Demand More Rights

Posted in: I'm a Mover, Regulations

Movers and art handlers are somewhat similar but very different.

As movers, we all face the occasional big challenge, some in the form of carrying something heavy, huge, fragile, crazy-expensive, or maybe all of the above. My personal recurring nightmares involve a baby grand piano that had to be lifted by crane from a third-story balcony and a chandelier that, in the words of the customer, “Cost more than your truck.”

Two things made tackling such challenges bearable: they don’t come by every day, and two, if the worst should happen, these items could ultimately be repaired or replaced. 

For our art handling colleagues, neither of these is the case.

Art handlers work for individuals, private entities and publicly-funded institutions, usually museums. What that name doesn’t suggest is all the associated tasks that come with moving one or five or five hundred pieces of art onto and off of a truck; Routine art handling tasks include things like removal and installation, tons of paperwork, patching and painting walls, working with electrical and electronic equipment and building custom crates.

“Sounds cool,” you say?

Maybe. Maybe not. As art handler Chris Kasper says in his influential 2011 Open Letter to Labor Servicing the Culture Industry, whether you are freelancing or full-time, being an art handler involves the constant threat of losing one’s job if any mistakes are made or if you show any hesitation to accommodate what is expected.

In other words, working for high-flaunting, high society buyers and sellers of art can come with its own nightmares.

“Doesn’t that go against some kind of labor law,” you might ask?

The Life of the Art Handler

Sure, we can manage that baby grand or that chandelier, maybe even slap together a few crates for a customer’s prize wall hangings if we really need to. Moving art, however, is a totally different trade. It requires intimate knowledge of floorplans, authentification, documentation of things being touched, and much more.

As we see in New Zealand, moving art can take a lot more than our common sense and an ability to keep count of things.

“We had to enlist the expertise of specialists…”

The Bath House of Rotorua, on New Zealand’s north island, was built to take advantage of the geothermal hot springs that bubble and boil beneath the surface of the land. Unfortunately, besides hot springs, this subterranean activity also includes earthquakes, making renovations necessary to preserve this 109-year-old building. Today, this historic structure today houses the Rotorua Museum, and some of the bath house’s original décor remains, including ten statues made of Italian marble. The heaviest one weighed around two tons – a bit much for even the sturdiest of hand trucks.

How did they get all that moved?

As the Waikato Times explains, “specialist sculpture and artwork moving company Rich Riggers from Auckland were contracted to assess the weight and dimensions of each sculpture and to determine the most appropriate machinery to move each one, based on maximum loading in that area.” But this is just one aspect of a successful art move. Engineering specialists had to also come in to evaluate the building’s capacity to withstand the weight of these statues as they moved over the floors.

Expert art conservators put together detailed plans for the extraction and crating process for each statue, then builders spent several weeks making these custom crates and preparing the floor for move day.

In the end, we are told, the job went off “without any hitches.”

We assume, then, statues weren’t tied up in the back of a U-Haul or placed on top of any freight elevators.

We’re also guessing that, with all their methods and machinery, the Rich Riggers company has a group of skilled people, trained to get the job done right. Considering Mr. Kasper’s claim that art handlers in New York can lose their jobs for making even one mistake, these people need to be pros at what they do as well.

Pros That Can Be Fired for Any Reason – or None at All

The crux of Kasper’s open letter, through all the colorful examples of what it’s like to be standing on the bottom rungs of the art world ladder, was the sad reality of laboring in the culture industry. Despite high levels of expertise, art handlers are often paid by the gig. You scraped and scrambled for work. You put in long, arduous days. You got treated like a sub-human by the wealthy and you took it and kept going because you didn’t want to do anything to lose what work you could find.

Some art handlers, Kasper explains, are often aspiring artists, slaving away as a mover in the art world to pay for a roof and some food until they can make a living off their own creative work. Others, however, simply find themselves in the trade for good, making a career as an art handler because that’s what they’ve come to know.

A few find full-time employment, while others spent years playing the freelance game. But they all have one thing in common: they were at the absolute mercy of their employers. Employers who, without running afoul of any employment laws, can technically pay them whatever minimum wage the state had set while offering little or nothing in terms of health benefits, sick leave or severance.

Ironically, the art handlers themselves play some part in all of this since, as Kasper described it,

“Everyone needed the job they had. Everyone had to hustle and struggle to get it, and they were all aware of how many people were hustling and struggling, waiting to move into their spot.”

Kasper knew exactly what was happening. He also knew what had to be done.

A Movement for Art Handlers to Unionize

In 2011, this seemed like a far-off reality, if not an outright dream. But Kasper wasn’t the only one with his mind on a union for the laborers of the culture industry.

Another art handler, Neal Vandenburg, found himself in the same tough spot in Chicago in 2014. The Creative Arts Advocate spoke of a familiar story:

“As an art handler, (Vandenburg) moved and installed art pieces into homes or other spaces, working demanding hours with no employment contract to protect him. He could be fired at any time for any reason, and he had no severance benefits if something happened. Yet his employers, whom he says he has a good personal relationship with, weren’t technically breaking any labor laws, or violating any OSHA regulations.”

Vandenburg, who holds a Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Illinois, was working as an art handler for the Chicago art handling company Mana-Terry Dowd when he found himself suddenly spearheading a unionization effort. “I think we found ourselves in a place where (the) law doesn’t properly represent us or our interests as individuals in the workforce,” he states.

Unfortunately, the management at Mana-Terry Dowd didn’t like this union idea one bit and told their union-minded employees that there would be “repercussions” from forming a union. This, not surprisingly, landed Mana-Terry in a bit of legal hot water as their actions were clearly in violation of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Vandenburg and his art-moving colleagues were able to improve their collective professional lot through their subsequent unionization. But as a general practice is the concept ready to take off?

In 2010-11, a group of art handlers protested their treatment by the New York auction house Sotheby’s. This led to New York Teamsters Local 814 to successfully demand that organized labor be used to construct the venue for the 2014 edition of the Frieze art fair. But only in the last year have art handlers in New York begun to enjoy the benefits of being part of a union, in large part through the efforts of Hazel Molina, owner of a small art handling firm, and the Art Handlers Alliance of New York (AHA-NY).

The Unionization Process Plods Along

This goes for the moving industry as well. Just last year employees for a moving and storage company in Skokie, Ill. won their first-ever union contract after allegedly suffering a variety of abuses at the hands of their employer. A few Boston moving companies have joined forces with the Teamsters Local 25, and of course, the Teamsters of New York’s Local 814 continue to represent members of our industry there.

Sadly, unionization and the work of the Teamsters can be a detriment to some. This HireAHelper post from April 2016 lays out the story of the Teamsters trying to block non-union moving companies from getting certain jobs – or any jobs – in New York City.

The road to fair and equal employment can be riddled with potholes. But really, if you treat your employees right you can avoid those obstacles and keep rolling forward.

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