Lifestyles Of The Rich And Occasionally Tacky: A Brief Chat With An Art Handler

The art world is a mysterious and swirling chimera, full of shadowy figures and lots and lots of money. What you see hanging on the walls of museums and in the homes of the fabulously wealthy costs money. Someone with deep pockets and connections and a sharp, severe bob moved that money around to make the acquisition. When we talk about art, we concentrate on the artists and the consumer only. But, just like in any other profession, the real work is done behind the scenes. For every massive Motherwell you see hanging on a giant wall in a loft somewhere that you will never ever be able to afford, there was a team of people gingerly moving that thing into the house and dealing with the whims of a decorator, an assistant, a rich person and their associates.

The art handlers and installers are the unsung heroes of the art world. Falling somewhere on the totem pole above the plumber, but below the nanny, these people work tirelessly to make sure that the leisure class are pleased with the spoils of their wealth. It’s one of the more thankless jobs of the art world, but still worth considering. While celebrating the splendor and the talent of the artists that made whatever you’re looking at, remember that someone put that on the wall. I sat down with Craig*, a dear friend and art handler and installer who has worked in the homes of the very rich, the very famous and the in-between to get some insight on everything from being the hired help to gallery walls.

The Frisky: Tell me about your background and your relationship to art. 

Craig: I studied painting in school. I moved to San Francisco, continued to paint, and worked in a gallery. When I came to New York I got a job as an art installer. Now I work for an art and antique appraisal company. I travel a lot and inspect fancy things.

Has what you do for a living affected the way you feel about being an artist?

No, I don’t think so. I think that art handling/trucking/installing is a great way to connect with other artists and see what’s selling. And one out of every twenty clients will offer to buy your work. You could wind up with a patron.

Rich people are generally the worst, but sometimes, maybe they’re the best? Do you have a story or two to share about why they’re the worst and why they’re the best as it relates to the art you’ve hung?

There was one woman that always requested me as her installer. Within the last ten years she had moved to New York from somewhere like Dallas, and I got the feeling she was accustomed to a 10,000 square foot home. Keep in mind she owned adjacent townhouses near NYU, and she had knocked down walls to connect them, but still she complained of feeling stifled and cramped. She gave me coffee and snacks, and before I hung a piece she’d ask where I thought it would look best. We sat in her sunny living room and talked about art, and her tastes. She told me about her kids and her husband. If I spent six hours at her house I might do one hour of work, but we charged her for the whole time. It’s almost like I was an escort, the expensive kind that won’t have sex with you. I liked her a lot.

As for rich people being the worst: one guy told me to leave because I set my backpack on his carpet without asking.

What’s the most expensive piece of art you’ve ever touched?

Literally touched? A Frank Stella painting. It was damaged, and I saw it taken off the stretcher bars and laid out on a conservator’s table. It was worthless at that point, so nobody minded that I was poking and prodding the canvas. There were rips and tears all over the surface. I put my nose up to it. There was also a Rubens painting that I installed in a home. The decorator had me come in way too early to hang it in the vestibule. I was so nervous–the space wasn’t nearly finished and there were contractors walking by the painting carrying long two-by-fours. I felt like I should stand guard until everyone left, but it wasn’t my problem once it was on the wall. I never heard about it again, so hopefully no one put a board through it.

You seem to be higher on the totem pole than a plumber, but somehow below the nanny. What’s it like being the hired help?

Most people are nice. Only about ten percent of the wealthy clientele I encountered were monsters, but they were sometimes bad enough to make you forget about the other ninety percent. When a client was merely dismissive of me though, and assumed I was an idiot from the get-go, that was something I could fix. If I’m walking through someone’s apartment and I see their entire art collection, I’ll usually recognize something. You’d be surprised how quickly a collector will change their mind about you because you noticed and complimented the Motherwell in their housekeeper’s room.

So, if a collector’s mind did change about you because you were knowledgeable, what’s that like? How do they start to treat you differently once they realize the you’re not a moron?

You get the sense that there’s an “inside” way that they talk to people, as opposed to the “outside” way they speak to most tradesmen. Once I was on the inside, it was like getting a social upgrade: the client might ask my opinion on current events, politics, or literature. They might ask whether I thought it was worth framing this lesser-known drawing they kept under their bed. I talked a lot about food with clients, because the best food in the city isn’t necessarily expensive anymore. “You live in Brooklyn, eh?” they’d ask. “Ever go to Williamsburg? I’ve been hearing a lot about the barbecue there.”

What kind of art do rich people seem to like on their walls? Does money have anything to do with taste?

A celebrity once asked me to hang three of those paintings that elephants make with their trunks. In her living room! So, I guess my answer is no, money has nothing to do with taste. And I know from experience: there are way too many Chagalls prominently displayed in apartments in the city. The ones with chickens playing violins and goats walking on the moon. Chagall is the worst.

Any stories you have about the exceedingly wealthy and their very good or very bad art?

One client collected all of my favorite artists. I’m really into minimalists: Brice Marden, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, etc. etc. This guy had his walls covered with their drawings and paintings. It was awesome.

What’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever had to hang or install?

I’m going to sound petty for taking another dig at Chagall, but oh well. He made a book of lithographs that illustrates the story of Daphnis and Chloe. Most of the books have been chopped up and the lithographs individually framed. There are 42 prints in total, and I’ve had to hang most of them, multiple times, in a variety of locations. If you want to see some hideous art, give those a Google. But, then again, they’re super famous and expensive, and art historians love them. Oh! Also, those photographs that Robert Dutesco takes of the horses on Sable Island. I installed those in so many places. They are the worst. Very popular wall decor in the Hamptons.

What’s the cutest/nicest?

I hung two drawings from Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” series in a big, beautiful kitchen in a beach house. They looked stellar.

In addition to being the hired help, you are also sometimes trusted to work with people that are designers and they are, I’m sure, really cool and chill. How would you make a gallery wall? What would you put on it? How would your ideal wall look? Any tips, or should we all just live in boxes that are devoid of decoration?

I think it’s best to lay everything out on the floor, and fiddle with the configuration until it looks nice. Then hang it. With gallery walls, the shapes and negative spaces you make between the frames are probably just as important as the pictures you’re displaying. And since most gallery walls are clusters of small- to medium-sized pictures, the frames you choose and the matting are important, too, because the images themselves aren’t that large. Like it or not, the first impression is going to be the arrangement on the wall from across the room. People might not even get close to look at the art.

Do you think that working with the rich people that you have worked with has made you reconsider your position towards humanity or towards art in general?

It’s all really worthwhile. In my experience, even if a particular artist is a great investment at the time, people won’t buy unless they connect with an image. I had one client who definitely didn’t give a shit about what he owned, as long as his art increased in value every year. But he was dumb, and he was an exception. I’m a snob and I have strong opinions of what I like and don’t like, but it makes me smile when someone absolutely loves something that I think is awful. And they’re so happy to tell me all about it, and so happy it’s hanging in their home, and they can look at it every day. Art is great.

*name has been changed

*Edited to clarify my relationship with the subject. He is a dear friend.