Handle with Care

Domenick Ammirati talks to art handler Alexander Russi

Photo: Alexander Russi.

For all our fluttery ideas about the dematerialized object, the economics of art still rely on moving physical objects from one place to another. Right now, the logistics of art are frozen, as are the lives of those who shuttle, mount, and set it just so. Even the relatively small number of art handlers and installers with non-gig positions at institutions and the larger moving outfits have been subject to layoffs—some, like those at UOVO Fine Art Storage, with questionable motives. The rest are mostly freelance, mostly precarious, and right now mostly not making a living.

I’VE WORKED IN ART HANDLING SINCE 2014. It’s mostly been with a rotating group of five or six artists who work around New York and regionally, traveling farther sometimes—we’ve gone to Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard. We work for private collectors, installing in their homes. It’s a little upscale, I guess you could say. I’ve had to supplement that job with artist assisting, gallery jobs, and recently I’ve started working at a carpentry shop. So I have art handling as my baseline, but I’m always filling in the gaps with other part-time work.

The last job we did was March 12, a Thursday. We went to Westchester when it was kind of heated up with coronavirus cases—the containment zone around New Rochelle had been in place for a week. The job had been scheduled for maybe a month. The whole time we were watching things develop and wondering, Are we still going to Westchester? But we needed the money, and it was going to be a good-paying gig, so we went, keeping in mind the risk. We did the job and we left—we didn’t go to the grocery store or anything. No masks though. We joked about that day being the last day of work, and that’s exactly what it was. The next day Cuomo announced the ban on nonessential travel in New York State.

Three of us drove up there and met a collections manager, for an estate an hour and a half out of the city. A big, sprawling place with a barn, a stable. We were there for a full day; the client was there for just a little while—the higher end jobs are more efficiency-driven. People might only have fifteen minutes before they have to go to a meeting, so it’s like, Let’s go! We had already started the whole social distancing thing at that point; I think we did mostly shake hands, but the client made clear he wanted an elbow bump. We installed some big paintings; we installed a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, which took a long time. I like to wear socks that are particularly sturdy because you have to take off your shoes. One of the other art handlers wears yellow socks exclusively. The job does have its performative aspects.

Alexander Russi, Happy Hour, 2019, 24 x 20, oil on canvas.

Working for a collector you can make $400 a day, as opposed to what you might see in a gallery, where you’d get $20 an hour or $25. If you’re more experienced it can maybe yield $35 an hour, but you have to negotiate for that. It’s not wildly lucrative, but this year had been actually really good for me, and I had a high-paying gig lined up for April that was unfortunately canceled. Last year I didn’t make very much money; 2018 I made a decent amount. It fluctuates.

In the back of my apartment, we have a little garden area, a ten-by-ten plot. There’s a fence around it made of pipes that the folks living here before us put up; there’s a rose bush that goes back to the 1940s, I’m told. It feels like a privilege to have this place, right now especially. In the garden there’s some lettuce, some quick-growing greens we could start eating soon—we planted them three weeks ago. We’ve got some Swiss Chard coming up that I planted last fall, some beets, kale, fennel, radish. Flowers are coming up too; we have tulips and hellebores and fritillaria. My girlfriend works for a landscape designer, so she’s learned a lot about what works well together. Right now, she’s able to work from home, but she’s had to hand some of her tasks off to other coworkers. It’s clear that there’s potential for a furlough. It’s a small firm, so they have small margins.

We were incredibly lucky with rent this month. Our landlord applied for and got a mortgage moratorium and passed it on to everyone in the building. If that’s anything like applying for unemployment right now, I’m sure it’s a pain in the ass. You’ve seen the numbers—sixteen million people in the country have filed for unemployment? I was actually able to file online in forty-five minutes, but you have to make a follow-up call, and can only call on certain days, determined by your last name. Every time I call, it won’t even ring, or sometimes it will ring and then immediately hang up. I don’t know when I’ll be able to count on that.

The extra time at home has opened up my studio practice a little bit. We have a large closet space, and I work in there making small drawings and paintings of things that I grow in the backyard. Of course, sometimes I ask myself, What am I doing? My paintings are seasonal the way the plants are. There’s a span of time for their beginning and development, and there’s a downtime. Now, the plants feel more vital, and maybe I feel that way about my paintings as well.

Alexander Russi was raised in Kansas and Colorado and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He received his BFA from New York University in 2014.