On a recent Wednesday evening after hours at Jessica Silverman Gallery, a group of over a dozen art handlers sat in a circle on the floor describing how they ended up in this line of work—a largely invisible, yet integral part of the art industry.
Some embellished resumes to gain access to entry-level jobs; others worked for free to pick up skills. Many described the delicate balancing act of juggling on-call jobs at multiple local art institutions alongside their own art practices. All were, first and foremost, artists hustling to make a living in the Bay Area economy. The mood was convivial and confessional, unguarded.
The gathering took place under the auspices of Womxn* Art Handlers (W*AH), a new Bay Area group dedicated to supporting women, people of color, queer and gender non-conforming individuals in the professional arts industry. Art handlers' names may not be ones you see in vinyl on museum walls, but they're the people who make sure that Magritte painting hangs just so, and that the sculpture you're admiring has a pedestal to sit upon.
Organizers Kat Trataris and Marcela Pardo Ariza officially launched the group on Facebook in March (which has become a de facto job board for W*AH) and organized the first meet-up in late May, but the idea’s been with them for years, ever since they ended up handling art as student workers at the San Francisco Art Institute.
“It felt like such a good job and such a resource,” Trataris says of her introduction to work previously unknown to her. “I couldn’t believe how hidden and inaccessible it was, period—to anyone, much less anyone who wasn’t a cis white dude.”
The world of prep (short for preparator) work, art handling, install and fabrication—all terms that generally describe various behind-the-scenes roles involved with the movement, installation and presentation of art—is a fairly closed one. In 2015, a survey of diversity in American art museums found that only 15 percent of preparators and art handlers identify as non-white and only 25 percent identify as non-male.
It’s a job that requires a plethora of skills (safe packing and transport of art, knowledge of hanging mechanisms, media player know-how, comfort with heights, construction experience, the list goes on) to prevent injury to art handlers or damage to often priceless pieces of art. But there’s no degree in art handling, Trataris says, so these specialized skills remain within a set group of people, and those doing the hiring often look to those people for recommendations.
“It’s the biggest problem, actually,” she says. “There’s no way to verify someone’s actual skill set, so basically it all becomes word of mouth. But then it’s the same five people circulating. How do you even put new blood into that situation?”
With W*AH, Pardo Ariza and Trataris have a multi-pronged plan of attack. Regular mixers (they’ve held two since May) give art handlers the chance meet each other in an informal setting. Women and people of other gender identities can network and forge alliances in a field where they often find themselves alone on a team of men. Eventually, the organizers imagine these gatherings could become opportunities for hiring managers to scout talent.
The group is also dedicated to building knowledge, so that W*AH members can feel more confident in their art handling abilities and become more competitive candidates in the field. Trataris, who was one of the co-founders of the recently closed R/SF projects, staged an open install night at the gallery so W*AH members could watch the process from start to finish. In the spring, Pardo Ariza and Trataris will teach a free public education class at SFAI, a series of four workshops covering art handling basics. It’s a curriculum they hope others, especially institutions, will adopt to make the field more accessible to a wider range of aspiring workers.
“As we’re talking about inclusivity and diversity in the workplace as something that must happen—and I feel like a lot of places at least say that’s where they want to go—we also want to move away from tokenism,” says Pardo Ariza, who works in YBCA’s civic engagement department. “It’s not just having one woman preparator or one POC working there. It’s about actually making the place run by different peoples and bodies and abilities.”
“It’s so important to have a diverse workplace,” says Trataris. “Communication styles and methods are better when you have a diverse group of people because you realize the limits of your own communication style. And better communication styles make for a more open work environment and make it easier on an international basis. I think it just makes a better prep world.”
“—or any world!” Pardo Ariza adds.
Other events, such as a recent visit to the SFMOMA Collections Center in South San Francisco give W*AH members rare access to the inner workings of the Bay Area art world. In the climate-controlled warehouse filled to the brim with crated and wrapped artwork, SFMOMA employees walked 15 art handlers through their approaches to staging, conditioning, conserving and shipping art. It was a privilege Trataris is fully aware of. She credits her own time working at the Collections Center as two years of pure art education—now she wants to share that breadth of knowledge with W*AH.
“For me it became all about figuring out how institutions work,” she says. “Being a preparator allowed me to explore what is a gallery, what is a museum, what is an art school, what is the Venice Biennale? I could understand the art world in a big scope through prep work.”
The challenges W*AH faces—of bringing new voices into a male-dominated workplace and breaking down old structures of gatekeeping—are not unique to the field of art handling, but Pardo Ariza and Trataris approach the task with a sense of purpose.
“Ideally all these relationships we’re building are also artistic relationships,” Pardo Ariza says, “where we're supporting each other’s work and we’re getting to know each other better. We're creating a stronger community for all of us in a place where people are constantly moving away.”
Their long-term goals include organizing art handlers to advocate for higher pay across the board. (At the most recent meet-up, those gathered listed pay rates at various Bay Area museums in the $20–25-per-hour range,) Trataris wants to see this type of physical labor credited in exhibition-making, alongside the names of curators or lending institutions, as equally important to the finished presentation. And ultimately, W*AH wants to change the industry completely.
“I mean ideally-ideally—and I don't know how many years this takes—it does so well it doesn’t have to exist anymore,” says Trataris.
Pardo Ariza agrees: “I think that was the mic-dropper.”