Contributed by Max Liebermann* / The art handler’s endgame is de-installation, and getting there is something of a slog and rather far, in karmic terms, from the glamour often associated with Art Basel. Even some blue-chip galleries pay only $350 a day for set-up and $200 a day for take-down. The day rate may appear to be a good deal for the handlers, but most report working at least twelve hours a day for the first four days of the fair, and at those rates at least one set-up day is needed just to pay for the plane ticket; then there is the hotel, also to be covered by the handler out of his day pay. There are pay disparities – premiums and discounts – but they don’t seem to follow a rational pattern. Some art handlers make $13 an hour and some make $30 an hour; no clear certification process or credentialing standard exists to explain the difference. Experience usually counts but sometimes it does not. Full-time jobs in art handling often pay less per hour and come with more responsibility than freelancing. Go figure.
There is quite a bit of apparent down-time for art handlers, which may explain why some galleries think working Art Basel is tantamount to a paid vacation for the installers. After the initial installations have been completed and the fair starts, installation work is permitted only before the fair opens and after it closes. Since most fairs open around noon, this means workers are often up early, packing work that has been sold, cleaning, or installing new work. During the last days of installing and the first days of the fair, some art handlers, having finished their work, just hang around at the convention center, playing chess, reading, or talking. But despite having some free time during the center-cut of the fairs, numerous handlers do not find Miami to be a desirable vacation destination, or at least one that they have the energy to exploit. Many are too exhausted from the opening surge of activity to venture far beyond the convention center or their hotels while awaiting de-installation.
Taking down a booth at an art fair begins the minute the fair closes on the last day. At Art Miami, which closed at 6:00 PM, fair rules stipulated that all work had to be off the walls and packed by midnight. Making the deadline was not easy, as some booths housed fifty works or more. To make matters especially unpleasant, the abundant recent construction activity in downtown Miami had spewed massive amounts of dust into the air, and the HVAC system had pumped the stuff into the tent. As a result, the concrete floors were filthy, rendering it very difficult to keep plastic and bubble wrap clean for packing. Sculptures and paintings had to be wiped down so they didn’t get scratched in transit. Even artwork that was unlikely to sell had been unwrapped early in the fair in case the dealer needed some extra inventory to show a client, and required repacking. Most of the handlers’ employers were anxious to leave, hoarse from talking and enervated from cutting deals (or trying to) all week, which only increased the pressure on the handlers to complete their mission quickly. In the immediate aftermath of the fair, snoozing fitfully in a sciatica-wrenching row chair next to a jetway or slumping over an airport bar, some art handlers might rue their seduction by that tantalizing offer to spend a week in Miami in December. Once bitten, twice shy.
* Not the reporter’s real name.
Part 1: An art handler’s experience in Miami
Part 1: Sharon Louden finds color and abstraction at Pulse and Art Basel Miami(2015)
Part 2: “Untitled — the best fair in Miami Beach” (2015)
Part 3: A selection from NO MAN’S LAND, Untitled, and ABMB (2015)
Part 4: Artist-run @ Satellite in Miami (2015)
Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.