An Art Handler's Miami

Tess Thackara
Dec 12, 2012 5:10AM

Local artists in Miami have a complex relationship with the city’s flagship art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach. Some utilize the influx of collectors, gallerists, and tastemakers to best advantage, while others prefer to withdraw until the final pair of Manolo heels can be heard clicking into the distance, and the city is turned over once more to the small community of artists based there permanently. Last year, over 200 galleries were represented in the main convention center alone, and some 50,000 attendees passed through its doors—but how much of this transitory capital trickles down to the local community, if at all?

One conduit comes in the form of the art handling industry, now booming in Miami relative to its size when Art Basel Miami launched in 2002. Leo Valencia, a local musician, picked up an odd job handling and installing art during the first Art Basel Miami, a temporary position held by many artists who say the money earned during the fair can support them for months. In the fair’s fledgling years, Leo says, a major art handling company at Art Basel Miami would hire around 100 handlers, but now they have honed the process down to far fewer hands. For years, Leo worked for a nationwide handling company; now he runs his own small handling business, Logic Art Miami, with a staff of six.

Over the years, letters from Frederick Douglass to Abe Lincoln, and never-before-seen music scores from Bartok’s personal estate have passed through Leo’s hands. He once opened a crate to discover a small Pissarro—“it just captured me,’ he says, “you open up the crate and see the back of a painting and you see the age of it.” The backs of paintings, it turns out, reveal particularly valuable secrets; on a painting’s back, Leo says, lies “the history of the work that people don’t know and people don’t get to see.” He has come across candid notes from Diego Rivera to lovers asking that they don’t show the work to Frieda; poems; doodles and studies; even earlier versions of the work that the artist has discarded, turning the canvas over to begin again.

And the less appealing aspects of the job? Every year, the snowbirds—wealthy jetsetters with holiday homes in Miami—come down to Palm Beach from northern states and Europe to escape the cold in Miami’s mild winter climate. Many of these homes contain works of art whose value vastly exceeds that of the houses themselves, making insurance on artworks unaffordable—even for well-healed snowbirds. Enter Leo and his art handler colleagues, who are tasked with moving the artworks into storage annually when their owners leave town and the hurricane season barrels its way onto the Gulf coast. Or consider installing a complex work of art in a busy convention center. One year at Art Basel Miami, Leo was responsible for installing a mobile created by a well known west coast artist; the piece was comprised of a series of approximately 15–20 ft high sewing strings attached to a circular tablet mounted to the convention center beams. Each individual string was threaded with 30 paper octagons and assigned to one of 800 velcro spots adhered to the circular tablet—Leo’s job was to fix each string to the correct velcro spot. Installed next to a convention center entryway, this delicate piece was subject to frequent gusts of air, as well as inquisitive fair-goers treading a path directly through its curtains of strings. Leo, in turn, received regular emergency calls to untangle the installation. What is captivating and ephemeral for a viewer can be a laborious nightmare for a handler. 

Installing, packing and shipping art are complex procedures. An initial inquiry made by a collector or gallerist is followed by a site visit; measurements and photographs of a work are taken and sent to a custom crate-builder, who uses non-corrosive archival materials to build a unique shipping crate for each object. Each artwork presents its own unique set of problems, and Leo is no stranger to the absurd. He describes arriving at a gallery to find artworks constructed of throwaway materials—a piece of crumpled paper or a bit of plastic—and having to strategize with a group of handlers how to transport the paper without adjusting its crumples.

The delicate work involved in art handling, combined with the cost of shipping insurance, adds up to a high premium for young artists, and small galleries and institutions seeking to transport work. Embedded in a community of young local artists in Miami, Leo has become acutely aware of this reality—and of a Catch-22. Without funds to ship work to art capitals, they struggle to gain the exposure they need for their work. But without this exposure and the interest it might generate beyond Miami, artists are unable to pay the sizable shipping costs. It is not unusual for artists to be offered shows abroad if they can cover their own transportation costs. Recognizing the importance of channels of exchange in the art world, Leo has come up with a proposal that he hopes will make a difference. If he wins the large grant that he is currently a finalist for, he will establish a program to send the work of three Miami artists overseas and bring the work of three overseas artists to Miami’s shores. Leo, who has worked as an art handler at the Paris Louvre as well as in New York, Miami and London, is now passionate about realizing a solution for artists in his hometown Miami community. “These are my friends, my peers,” he says.  

Published on Art Practical Sketchbook 

Tess Thackara