Handling Art

Being self-employed in general and a musician in particular means that unless you are, say, Sting or Lady Gaga, there are sometimes these annoying gaps in your calendar and cash-flow. In an ideal world this would always mean it’s time to hit the studio and woodshed, but in reality one often takes whatever work comes along in order to keep the proverbial bread on the table. Anyone who makes a go of it will experience this sooner or later. I have been a nanny, made shoes, dug ditches, painted houses, mowed lawns, laid tile, sold flutes, and of course waited tables (to name just a few.) Now I can add a new one…

Art Handlers are the folks who pack, ship, move and install art as it goes on exhibit in one place or another. I recently got called in to sub for a friend who is in this business, and it was… pretty interesting.

8am, a cold Monday in February.

There is something exhilarating about stepping out of the underground caverns of the metro onto the DC mall. The air is cold and crisp, the low angle of the sun illuminates the Washington Monument in phallic glory.

I arrive at the museum and swap my ID for a neat laminated tag which gets me into the bowels of the building. I am led through a warren of offices and introduced to my coworkers for the day, three guys who joke and swap recent stories from exhibits they have worked on. I am briefed at some length on the parameters of the work, which are elaborate, but basically boil down to “You are going to be handling some unimaginably valuable pieces of art. Take your time. Don’t drop anything. Don’t do anything dumb.” Got it.

Three semi trucks arrive and we stop traffic to let the first one back down the ramp to the loading dock. This in itself is pretty exciting, as we don’t have traffic flashlights or official looking clothes or anything. But none of the usually homicidal DC rush-hour drivers attempt to take our lives. Cool.

At about this point there is a brief delay while we wait for a security guard to arrive with a dog whose job it is to sniff/inspect the contents of the trucks. Enter Nitro the bomb-sniffing Cocker Spaniel. Somehow Nitro clashes badly with my image of sniffing guard dogs. He is frenetic and sniffs madly at everything in sight, including the bag lunch of one of the guys on the loading dock. The guard has a hard time getting him to do the rounds inside the truck and he (the dog not the guard) is sporting a large, scary-looking erection.

After much sniffing by Nitro, we are given the green light to unload. The trucks are full to the brim with wooden packing crates, ranging from something the size of a large carry-on, to truly immense. Some of them are unpainted wood, some are blue, some are a really unfortunate shade of pink. All are stamped with numbers and tracking codes and such. And they all bear the cryptic legend “Blinky Palermo.”

This as it turns out, is the name of the artist responsible for this particular exhibit. At this point in the story I have no idea Blinky was, but he must have been prolific and he made big heavy things. Most of the crates are huge (some are 10 feet high by about 12 feet long) and far too heavy to contemplate lifting without pallet jacks, j-bars and other assorted implements of destruction, which are luckily in plentiful supply.

We carefully shift the crates onto dollys, maneuver them up the ramp, down a long hall to a freight elevator, and eventually to their final resting place in the galleries upstairs. A woman with a clipboard seems to know where everything is headed. She has some sort of complicated documents which spell out in detail which pieces go where, and is directing traffic.

We get the first truck unloaded. The second truck arrives and backs painfully down the ramp, making me appreciate the driving skills for the first driver, who got it on the first try. This second driver is a gnarly old dude with a very white beard, silver tipped boots, and big Ben-Hur style spikes on the wheels of his rig.

It takes us the morning and the first part of the afternoon to get the trucks unloaded, but finally they are empty.

Lunch in the sunshine. A homeless guy sits on the wall outside the coffee shop asking for change. I offer him a cookie.

He thinks for a moment. “What kind?”

I say “Oatmeal chocolate ship.”

“You make them?”


He accepts.

After lunch I am handed a huge crescent wrench. There’s this big black metal thing out front of the museum which turns out to be a Calder sculpture. It’s held together by oversized bolts which are rusting out. After lunch we help the curators replace the bolts. Kind of exhilarating to be up on a ladder, repairing a huge sculpture. Passersby seem very interested in what we are doing. At one point a washer goes rolling. A guy grabs it. “Hey you lost a piece of art!” Oh dear.

Around 5pm, we pack up and head home. I have a spring in my step. It’s always exciting to have a glimpse into a world other than your own.

~ by matthew olwell on March 24, 2011.

2 Responses to “Handling Art”

  1. good storytelling – wonderful pics – discriminating street guy – fun


  2. And, of course, add blogging to your list of skills. Hopefully this will lead to a gig that puts food on the table. Quite a good read. Love to the family.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: