What is an “art handler”?

July 2nd, 2009

When we advertise for art handlers there are inevitably calls and emails in response saying essentially: “I’m not exactly sure what an art handler is or does, but I know I would be super good at it!” Well, you might — most art handlers are trained on the job and people from all sorts of backgrounds have succeeded in the role. But it isn’t an easy job and it takes the right blend of skills and personality to make the cut.

 

In the next few posts we’ll take a look at art handlers and art handling; the more the public understands what we do and why and how, the better. And perhaps there are some future art handling superstars out there in cyberville waiting to be discovered!

 

So, for starters, what is an art handler?

 

An art handler typically works for an art services, transportation, or storage company and performs some or all of the following tasks:

  • Drives a truck, either locally or long distance between cities
  • Picks up and delivers a variety of artworks including paintings, sculptures, and mixed media works of all descriptions
  • Inspects artworks to determine how, where, when, or if to touch them and how to pack for transport
  • Understands how to properly wrap, load, span, tie in artworks within a truck to keep then safe and stable during transport
  • Selects proper archival and other packing materials depending upon the medium, surfaces, condition and fragility of the works in question
  • Packs and crates artworks of all descriptions
  • Interacts positively with a typically educated, professional, and often opinionated customer base in the field
  • Installs artworks professionally in settings ranging from corporate to residential, including selection of proper hardware and exercise of aesthetic judgment as needed
  • Prepares condition reports and photographs artworks as needed
  • Completes critical paperwork such as inventories and bills of lading with accuracy and attention to detail
  • Has the “people” skills and situational awareness to work with a partner or larger crew in a seamless way, taking leadership and direction as needed to complete the task at hand
  • Is familiar with basic art terminology and art history

 

Not all art handlers necessarily need to drive trucks, crate, or install artworks; in larger companies there are departments and an art handler may never be required to drive a large truck, make a crate or softpack paintings. But the wider the applicant’s skill set the more valuable he or she is potentially to any employer.

 

It should be noted that art handling in a for profit competitive business like art transportation is quite different from the job of a preparator or art handler in a museum or gallery setting. There is a tremendous emphasis on dealing with the public and many services of necessity are are performed with third parties looking on. Ever put a $5 million dollar painting into a crate with a room full of museum staffers looking on? Or install a painting on a 20 foot white wall in a living room overlooking the ocean with the owners of the artwork, gallery representative, art consultant, and artist all offering input and suggestions?

 

It takes a certain personality and sense of forward motion to get the job done both safely for the artworks and expeditiously enough to keep the company in business. Time counts, and the extra caution slow motion rules which are standard operating procedure in some institutional committee cultures simply don’t apply. Many otherwise talented art handlers can’t make the shift to the “for profit” culture or are fine working alone in a shop but not comfortable out in the field with onlookers checking their watches, asking questions, and sometimes second guessing methods and materials. Whatever their other qualifications, art handlers who are loners, can’t do paperwork, or who fail to develop a good “art side” manner with customers don’t last long.

 

Betsy Dorfman

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2 Responses to “What is an “art handler”?”

  1. aaron c. arnold Says:

    I really like this blog. I currently am the material handling manager for a granite import firm in Colorado. I offload, pack, and transport expensive Italian marble and granite (and also bulking precision machinery). I am looking to take my skills and apply it them to the fine art packing and transport field. I look forward to studying your blog!

  2. T. Ashley McGrew Says:

    Just thought I would mention that in the UK the term arthandler is a commonly used to refer to an employee with a job description that equates with the term Preparator in the states. For what it is worth if you are talking to folks in the UK it may mean something different. If you are talking about the term Preparator it could mean almost anything regardless of where you are!
    I appreciate your blog as well.

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