Art Market

Art Shippers Play Catch-Up Following U.S. Government Shutdown

Benjamin Sutton
Jan 29, 2019 5:28PM

Image by chuttersnap via Unsplash.

As some 800,000 federal employees got back to work on Monday after U.S. president Donald Trump’s 35-day government shutdown, many artworks remained stuck in limbo. Some languished in ports and airport cargo warehouses; others sat in museum storage facilities, waiting to be sent back to lenders or to a traveling exhibition’s next venue.

In some instances, this was due to the closure of federally funded museums, making it difficult or impossible for shippers to pick up or deliver artworks on schedule. Elsewhere, the agencies overseeing the passage of goods into and out of the country—especially when that process involved multiple agencies beyond U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which were deemed essential during the shutdown—were either stretched thin or working with skeleton crews. And while some art shipping firms experienced relatively few complications from the shutdown, others reported major disruptions.

“I have a shipment stuck at a port in New Jersey, two containers, they’ve been stuck there for 10 days,” said Fritz Dietl, the founder of Dietl International, a New York–based art shipping and logistics firm. “They’re supposed to be in Chicago for an exhibition, and now that deadline has passed, and the museum may have to postpone the exhibition.”

Shipping art into, out of, and around the country—already a slow and often expensive process—became even more onerous during the shutdown. And complications may endure in Washington, D.C., and beyond for a long time. Meanwhile, President Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that another shutdown is “certainly an option” if he’s unsatisfied with a forthcoming plan on border security from Congress. With major spring exhibitions around the country on the line—not to mention auction season and fairs like Frieze Los Angeles and the Armory Show—a further shipping logjam could become very costly and disruptive for the art trade.

“It’ll take months and months to get back to normal after the shutdown, and normal wasn’t all that great to begin with,” Dietl said.

Artworks shipped internationally must pass inspection by the CBP and the TSA as they enter the country. Both agencies were deemed essential during the shutdown, obliging staff to continue working without pay and resulting in increased absenteeism, staffing shortages, and delays for passengers. Artworks passing through major airports were subject to many of the same delays. Any artwork that needed extra clearance, or whose export or import license had been challenged, would typically have required the attention of another agency, one whose employees might very well have been among the 800,000 furloughed during the shutdown, resulting in additional delays.

“We’ve been dealing with delays at airports and at ports—we’re definitely feeling it,” Dietl added. He highlighted the difficulties faced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, among many other things, regulates the import and export of animals, including artworks that may include animal parts.

“If you want to get a Damien Hirst butterfly painting to London right now, you’re out of luck,” he said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service was stretched very thin, understaffed, and underfunded even before the shutdown. At the best of times, it takes six to eight weeks to get an export license from them; right now, we’re telling clients four to six months.”

Even though the art shipping industry has weathered government shutdowns before, the longer one drags on, the more disruptive it becomes.

“If there are enough things that get backed up, it’s going to have ripple effects across the supply chain, and it could create a pretty big backlog,” said Adam Fields, the founder and CEO of ARTA, a shipping and logistics company. He added that although ARTA’s operations had been largely unaffected by the shutdown, he said that if it had coincided with the spikes in shipping that happen around Art Basel in Miami Beach and the holidays in December, “it would have been a disaster.”

Shipping art by air remains the preferred method for the art trade. But Jonathan Schwartz, the president and CEO of Queens-based art logistics company Atelier 4, said that if no agreement is reached by February 15th and another shutdown begins, his company could lessen the impact by avoiding airports as much as possible, instead shipping by ground domestically.

“We have a fleet of trucks, so we can move things domestically without relying on the TSA if we have to, but that also makes things more complicated,” Schwartz said. “Going by sea is also complicated, because then you need climate-controlled containers, which we’ve done sometimes. The only workaround is to end the shutdown.”

In addition to slowing down the movement of artworks, the shutdown affected logistics company employees who work closely with federally funded museums in D.C., most of which were closed from within the first few days of January to the shutdown’s end. While federal workers will receive back pay for the weeks they were furloughed, people working in federal facilities for outside employers are often not so lucky.

“Our employees that had been scheduled to work in federal museums in the month of January were forced to use paid time off,” said John Jacobs, the co-founder of art shipper Artex and director of museum strategy at Crozier Fine Arts. “That’s really terrible, because it means they won’t be able to use that paid time off later in the year.”

The end of the shutdown means a lot of catching up for the staff of federally funded museums.

“While work is certainly delayed, it’s usually not canceled, because exhibition schedules are set in advance,” Jacobs said. “Museum workers will have to work overtime and work weekends to keep to those schedules.”

Benjamin Sutton