The Art of Art Handling

Gary Cullen (center) and his team The King of Cleats compete in the 
wrapping portion of the Art Handling Olympics in New York (photo by 
Michael Nagle for The New York Times)

Gary Cullen (center) and his team The King of Cleats compete in the wrapping portion of the Art Handling Olympics in New York (photo by Michael Nagle for The New York Times)

When art needs to be moved, art handlers get to work. They are the men and women behind the scenes responsible for safely packing, transporting, and installing irreplaceable objects found in museums, galleries, studios, auction houses, and personal collections. It’s a tough job – often stressful and time sensitive – but it’s also an interesting one, filled with unique experiences and exclusive access to restricted worlds. I sat down with art handler Gary Cullen to talk to him about the job. Last year, Gary and his team won the Art Handling Olympics, a competition held in New York consisting of a series of difficult and sometimes comical challenges designed to demonstrate the art handlers’ skills.

1. How did you get into being an art handler, and how did you learn the job? 
After getting out of art school and working some pretty horrible cabinetry jobs, a friend of mine got me an interview working at an art handling company.  Since I already had some art handling experience from school, I was able to wing it enough to get a job.  As far as how did I learn to do the job, it’s pretty much all on-site training/trial by fire.  To learn the job just takes time and humility.  You need to learn the basics – installation, packaging and public relations.

2. Moving a piece of art around isn’t like moving someone’s sofa. Can you talk about how working with irreplaceable objects affects you on the job? 
The moving of precious objects can be tricky particularly because many times you have to deal with it on a a case by case basis and with many pieces of art you shouldn’t really even touch them with your skin so gloves have to be worn at all times.  The type of materials used to wrap vary depending on the piece.  Since most of the work we deal with is worth a lot, there’s a tendency for clients to watch you like a hawk leaving little room for error.  This is fun though.  You really get to flex your problem-solving skills.  Also, you need be really, really careful and pay attention to detail because most art objects have delicate surfaces and, in general, can be fragile.  If you put a scratch across a kitchen chair leg, it’s not necessarily a big deal.  But if you put a scratch in the surface of a painting or in the patina of a metal sculpture, it could possibly cost thousands of dollars in conservation bills.

4. What is the best thing about being an art handler? And the worst?
The best thing about being an art handler is being around artists, visiting galleries and seeing artwork all the time.  Also having to think on your feet and not working in an office is a plus.  But heavy lifting can suck and there are some high stress situations. The worst part is having to go to a job period.  I just want to be making art all the time.

6. Last year you and your team won the Art Handling Olympics in New York. Can you talk a bit about what went on, and your experience? 
The Art Handling Olympics was a lot of fun and everyone came in support.  It was grueling though!  But it was a good way for everyone to blow off steam and revel and celebrate in the absurdities that you face in this profession.  The first event was Special Delivery which was also a qualifying round (only the top four teams were able to go on to the final round).  This event was the most physically straining for me.  Each team had to assemble a commercial bin box, put it on a dally and push it to check points around a few city blocks.  At the first checkpoint, you had to take a shot of whiskey and eat a serving of dumplings.  I really wanted to vomit at that point.  Taking a shot of whiskey and eating dumplings isn’t so bad but doing it first thing in the morning when you’re gasping for breath presents a real challenge.  My team and I powered through and qualified to go onto the next round.  Next there was an installation event which was easy.  But then my teammate Mike Reckin participated in the Static Hold event.  It was a contest to see who could hold up a framed piece of lead the longest.  This was crazy.  They had a picky gallery curator with a fake German accent mocking you and asking you to move it up an inch, then down an inch, and to the right, etc.  They participated in this masquerade for about 15 minutes until the judges decided to end the torture.  Mike’s arms were numb after the event.  Regardless, it was a lot of fun besides the cruel and unusual punishment.  Somehow my team brought home the Gold.  Now the endorsements are rolling in.

7. I know that a lot of art handlers are artists. Can you talk a bit about your work and if working with/seeing new art every day has an impact on your own artistic pursuits? 
I mostly consider myself a painter (abstract, grid-based, train of thought compositions) who dabbles in making absurdist art comedy videos.  I come in close contact with art and sometimes see new works before they’re in the gallery.  I love making art so it’s great that I get to see artwork all day.  I see the good, the bad and the ugly.  It can be inspiring at times.  Every once in a while you see an artist you really like or get to come in contact with a piece that you’ve always wanted to see up-close or a piece you’ve never seen before.

Meredith Hudson