Such organizational efforts were heartening for the union and its supporters, but the art handling field soon faced other challenges. Since the lockout ended, Tysh said he’s observed that Local 814’s auction house membership itself has become “a little whiter, a little younger, [and] a little ‘millennial-transplant-from-out-of-town.’” While art handling used to be a subset of the broader moving industry, dominated by people of color, today the increasingly specialized field has become the domain of boutique firms.
The New York moving companies that Local 814 represents pivoted to focus on high-end office moving, taking advantage of the city’s commercial real estate boom. “It’s not like the work was just stolen from them by these upstart art handling companies,” says Tysh. “A lot of our companies don’t do that work anymore.” That change, those I spoke with said, left the door open for hiring managers to expect or prefer art handlers with academic backgrounds in art, which tends to skew toward a white demographic.
Why is such background a necessity? “A similar analogy would be if you’re transporting hazardous materials, you don’t necessarily have to have a degree [in chemistry], you just have to understand the guidelines,” says Antonio Serna, who has worked as an art handler and was a member of the Arts & Labor working group. These attitudes can have knock-on effects when it comes to the demographic makeup of art handlers. “I’ve never heard someone say they’re not hiring people of color for gallery work, but systemic racism doesn’t work like that,” said Clynton Lowry, the founder and editor of Art Handler magazine.
“We need to have a more serious approach to the art handling world and also use it as a way to bridge the demographics,” added Tysh, who notes that he plans on increasing efforts to train his union members, the majority of whom are people of color, in art handling.
While there appear to be growing efforts by the city to tie funding to staff diversity, it remains unclear if art handlers will be taken into account. The People’s Cultural Plan, a progressive activist-driven plan for the public arts funding allocated by The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), wants the city to guarantee worker protections for all third-party contractors—whether employed by a public museum, or one that receives DCLA funding, like the New Museum and the Guggenheim. It would also require organizations receiving public funds to take bids from businesses of color.
“I’m not trying to promote the idea of a black art handler over a white handler or a working class guy over the new millennial transplants because there’s room for all of us. That’s the point of the labor movement,” said Tysh, who joined Sotheby’s in 2005 only to see most of his mentors, primarily people of color, grow older and retire or move on to other jobs. “We just need to figure out a way to acknowledge each other and the different levels of privilege that we have.”
There’s hope from advocates that Hazel Molina’s contract and the Bill of Rights could spark change and offer a real blueprint for galleries and others in the field who, unlike Molina, may not be dealing with clients who require union labor. “Other people in the industry, they want to do better,” said Lowry. “I think gallery owners would prefer to create a better working environment for their art handlers.”