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It’s easy for me to scoff now at the silly situations I put myself in for scant wages without benefits or steady hours. But I didn’t feel silly at the time, I felt lucky. I got to hold doors open for artworld royalty, like: Ann Hamilton, Bruce Nauman, and John Baldessari – all of whom were so gracious and personable that it felt like a professional accomplishment to do something for them that they could have easily done for themselves.
I got my first art handling job right out of graduate school, when I was 24. It was for a commercial workshop and gallery in Hollywood. I drove a full-sized van loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of artwork through the busy streets of downtown Los Angeles.
My boss kept a variety of knives and blunt instruments in the pocket of the driver’s side door. He said these were there to fend off the “wild dogs” that roamed around the industrial area where one of our storage sites was located. I never was sure if he was joking, but I did see a lot of dogs wandering around out there.
At another storage site, a blatantly inebriated guy once came up and asked me to pay him to help unload the van. When I declined his offer, he tried to grab a framed Robert Rauschenberg out of my nitrile-gloved hands shouting, “See, I can help!”
A lot of us museum, gallery, and arts organization workers got into this line of work to support an art-making habit that we have cultivated throughout our lives. Maybe it started in high school, when we were encouraged by the support of our art teachers. So, we went on to study art in college and, when we did well there, our art professors urged us to go to graduate school (we were in a recession, after all).
Now, a lot of us have terminal degrees and are ostensibly experts in our field. And, while we may have started out studying art because we just wanted to make our own work, we have developed a deep reverence for the processes and environments related to the making and exhibiting of art.
A lot of us have also approached the walls of arts institutions from multiple angles, in various roles, including: curator, exhibiting artist, and art handler. I used to joke with a former colleague of mine that sometimes we were in the band and sometimes we were the roadies. (My current position at a museum is vastly better than the circumstances that I described when I began art handling, but I do continue to carry out the duties of an art handler – in addition to other responsibilities.) Because while we love making our own art, we’re also happy to spend our days contributing to the successful exhibition of the artwork of others while we make our artwork on our own time. And when we’re ready to show our artwork, someone else will likely help us, too.
None of this is news. In fact, some popular instagram accounts post daily memes characterizing these circumstances (they even have T-shirts!). What isnews is that contemporary art publication Hyperallergic released a 5-part feature about The Danger Epidemic in Art Handling – starting with the aptly titled, “The Museum Wall that Broke The Art Handler’s Back” – which came out the opening week of Take Back The Walls exhibition.
These articles advocate for the rights of workers who may have had to put themselves in harm’s way in an effort to properly present artwork. Whether or not you agree with the assertions made in these articles, they certainly point out that the value of the work done for museums, galleries, and arts organizations can be challenging to define and quantify.
The work I have on display in Take Back The Walls is informed by the relationship between my experience working with my hands as an artist and my experience working with my hands as an art handler. Using cardboard, polymer clay, aluminum tape, and the salvaged guts of an electronic holiday decoration, Animatronic Sewing Machine illustrates the contrast between the handmade aesthetic of an expressive, but deliberately useless, sculpture and the handsome, inscrutable, design of a functional device, like a sewing machine.
In the context of this exhibition, Animatronic Sewing Machine is a reference to the dynamic that often exists between the artistic expression in the work exhibited within the walls of an arts institution, in comparison to the meticulous design and crafting that goes into the presentation of that work, including the construction and maintenance of the walls themselves. The upshot of this dynamic is that the unseen work that goes into an exhibition has a profound impact on the overall effectiveness of the presentation of the art object.
For instance, The red power button on the front of the Animatronic Sewing Machine must be pushed to trigger the electronics to move and light up, but the button doesn’t always work right away. Sometimes it does, sometimes it takes about 20 seconds of continuous pressure for the electronics to turn on, but it does turn on eventually. This is an inadvertent feature of the work. It was only when I switched it to a plugged-in power source for the exhibition that I noticed inconsistencies in the time it takes to turn on, but I decided to leave it as part of the work because it plays on the differences in our expectations from an art object and an arts institution.
The success of the concept behind the Take Back The Walls exhibition is that it recognizes that there is an ecosystem of labor within the artworld. Sometimes you’re the artist, sometimes you’re the art handler, sometimes you’re the curator, sometimes you’re the art professor (oh yeah, a lot of us art handlers are also adjunct professors!), and sometimes you’re the arts writer. All of these roles need to be sustained for the artworld to function. That’s why, while I do love working for a museum, I’m happy when the work I do there goes unnoticed by museum visitors, because what they don’t see is part of what allows them to appreciate what they do see.