Handle with CarePosted: October 23, 2019
The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Written by Erin Allen
An art exhibition is a finished product. The walls are pristine, the artworks are hung perfectly level, and the sculptures are arranged just so. When visitors arrive, their reaction to an artwork or to an entire exhibition may be influenced by the color of the gallery or the lighting in the space, but one generally only notices the level of a painting if it’s off. The goal of an exhibition is to make you only notice the intentional–the arrangement of the pieces, the thematic ties throughout the space. However, there’s another aspect of putting together art shows that rarely gets much public attention. This is the unseen labor of art handling.
Art handling in the simplest terms is exactly what it sounds like — the handling of the artworks that will go into a given exhibition or display. However, much more goes into this work than simply managing the pieces once they arrive to the gallery. Art handling also entails the installation of these works in a specific manner, and in the case of the work we do at the Stamp Gallery, it can also entail a great deal of renovation between shows. This generally means sanding, spackling, and then sanding some more before repainting the walls in preparation for a new exhibition. Only after this process can a new exhibition truly get underway.
Outside of the hands-on aspect that art handling provides in a gallery space, the position is gaining more interest because of the insider knowledge it can provide. While curators go “behind the scenes” to understand what an artist is trying to communicate or what an artwork signifies in the framework of an exhibition, art handlers are privy to a great deal of insider knowledge because of the behind the scenes work they take part in during the construction and arrangement of a show. This interest in art handling has taken hold in recent years due to the cult success of art-handler.com and their associated Instagram account, @arthandlermag. What was once a niche community has now flourished into a global phenomenon of arts workers and the public sharing images and memes relating (as literally or theoretically as they would like) to art handling. Whether it be the shared groan of seeing people carrying uncovered and unprotected art through the streets of New York City, to commiseration over the “starving artist” (or art handler) stereotype, or the collective uplifting of arts workers fighting for better wages and safer conditions, this community has opened up a new dialogue about the art world.
This dialogue is helping to break down some of the barriers regarding who the art world is “for.” The physical labor associated with art handling places it into a different category than many art-related positions that tend to be solely academic or intellectual in their pursuits. Both of these positions are vital to the success of an exhibition, and both can offer a unique perspective on individual artworks, as well as the art world as a whole. Securing a place for this dialogue will help to ensure that the physical, creative, and intellectual labor that goes into the creation of art exhibitions is valued as a collective necessity, rather than as myriad parts.