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The dark side of the art world The industry is fuelled by horror and filth

Is it straight? (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Is it straight? (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


September 8, 2022   5 mins

I was visiting an exhibition last week when I came across a painting I had handled, several years back. I knew it well from my time working in the art world, so it was a bit like bumping into an old friend; you know the one — intense and brilliant and tiring. You see them sparingly, and when you do so it’s usually with the feeling that it’s come far too soon.

As an art lover, being desensitised to a painting that once held you in its thrall can feel like a minor bereavement. But after years spent looking after works like this one, in airport lounges and cold warehouse storerooms, this detachment often becomes second nature; you develop a necessary blindness to the qualities of the work, and at the same time a hypervigilance for the cosmetic and technical detail others might not see.

This skewed perspective forever alters your gallery-going experience. Forget the brushwork — is the wall spotless? Is the label perfectly straight? Is the centre of the artwork 155cm from the floor? Are the correct fixings being used? I couldn’t help myself. As the well-dressed crowd thinned off, and with one eye on the guard, I pressed my cheek to the wall and peeked around the back of the frame of the painting; spring lock fixings — perfect.

Over the past two decades, I have worked in a variety of jobs which brought me into contact with very valuable works of art. With budgets cut to the bone and deadlines moving by the hour, the establishment art world is — behind the façade — surprisingly low on glamour. Job titles are fluid and often bear no resemblance to the duties performed; one minute you might be touching up a million-pound picture, the next scraping half-eaten canapes off the gallery floor.

Of all the people I worked with, the ones who carry the heaviest load, literally and figuratively, are not the polished curators or gallery assistants, but the art handlers. Far from the press images of men in cotton gloves and Persiled shirts, the day-to-day world of art handling is one of bulging necks, Status Quo ponytails, Rustlers Burgers for breakfast; gallons of sweat and total aesthetic desensitisation.

Art handlers deal with everything: cars, swords, books, clocks, Picassos, ancient fossils, the blouse Marc Bolan wore on Top of the Pops, the horrendous sculpture that just got craned onto the mud outside your local town hall. And working at ground level, they have a pretty decent insight into the art world’s shortcomings, not to mention a wealth of trivia about the items they handle.

Who knew that every glass drop on a crystal chandelier has to be individually packed and accounted for? Or that Tudor oak beds were made for self-assembly, with helpful matching emblems carved at each joint? Who could have guessed that compressed air is the tool of choice for cleaning dust from the arse-cracks of marble nymphs? And in a world of very old, and very heavy stuff, there are horror stories, too.

Decaying country houses are, of course, the source of so much valuable property, but when an owner decides to flog the family silver, someone has to go in and get it. Legends abound: rotting food, dead pets, dead people; removing desiccated surgical gloves and rigid tubes of Anusol from Georgian bedside tables; choking down the dandruff of some dead Viscount as his rug is shoulder-carried onto a van for the first time in its 300-year existence.

Filthy jobs coupled with meticulous processes, brain-melting repetition and seriously heavy lifting can soon lead to burnout. Being at the sharp end of the movement of art, and having responsibility for displaying works and decorating gallery spaces, it is the art handlers who often bear the brunt of the shifting aesthetic whims and crazy deadlines imposed by clients sprawled on far-off sun-loungers. But there are bigger issues than burnout and dissatisfaction among what is a relatively small sector of workers.

Accessibility, equitable pay, diversity, sustainability; these are just a few of the areas in which the art world lags behind. On websites and in catalogues, there are pledges and logos galore, but behind the scenes progress is slow. The art world emits 77 million tonnes of CO2 annually — more than Austria — with the annual programme of international art fairs accounting for much of it. But behind-the-scenes artworks are also flying solo around the globe, constantly, in a kind of try before you buy. A sculpture might be delivered to a castle or villa and installed there for what amounts to a 15-minute “vibe check”: Is the new piece initiating a dialogue with other works in the collection? Does it make the peach tones pop on the collectors new chaise longue? If not, it flies straight back home to await its next summons.

In the art and antiques world, more than possibly any other sector, presentation, exclusivity and mystique is key, and accessibility comes very far down the list of concerns. Nepotism means positions in the art world are often filled by underqualified people from privileged backgrounds. While of course well-meaning, and in many cases determined to work hard, they have often been insulated from their failures by family connections, and do not have the robustness or the range of practical life experience that working your way up in a job, and sometimes stumbling, brings.

How motivated and alert to real-world issues can you expect your organisation to be when you employ people who talk about their annual salary as a dining allowance? Or who have never used a hoover? Imagine it’s all hands-on-deck before a big exhibition and you pass one of the many smiling Henry hoovers to a new gallery assistant, only to watch them stand in the midst of a war zone of cleaning and painting, gripping the tube attachment, staring at it with the kind of vacant reverence a man in the street might reserve for a semi-automatic weapon.

Nepotism is particularly harmful to an industry which already lags painfully behind others in so many aspects of modernising itself, but the truth is, “nepotism babies” — as Hollywood has labelled them — fit a little too cosily in the establishment art scene. They offer just another layer of unreality in a world which is already bizarrely unfocused; where the walls are cleaned with pencil erasers, the ceilings are hoovered as thoroughly as the floors, and the flowers get more water than the security guards.

The atmosphere created by this rigorous attention to detail — often laboured over by low-paid workers such as the art handlers, as well as tradesmen such as carpenters and decorators — is entirely rarefied and proudly intimidating; many commercial galleries will claim unfailingly that they are “open to all”, but visitor numbers rarely bear that out. Now, as large-scale sensory installations and one-off immersive experiences draw younger crowds to art for the first time, traditional galleries are increasingly looking for ways to invigorate a century-old business model built on plain white walls and warm white wine, and overly reliant on an ageing client base.

Increasingly, they are up against a growing crowd of passionate and diverse curators who are democratising the gallery-going experience through social media and a do-it-yourself ethos. Subversive, attention-grabbing art and rugged warehouse exhibition spaces are nothing new, but what is novel is the energy and thoughtfulness of these up-and-coming facilitators, who shy away from explicit commercialisation by focussing on creativity and collaboration.

Often staged in public venues and disused commercial premises, these types of exhibition offer a welcome stimulus at a time when urban areas look more desolate than ever, and people feel increasingly disconnected from their surroundings. Big galleries are wise to the growing appeal of this type of transient and evolving installation, but copying an organic movement is not easy, and a lot of institutions already look like the embarrassing dad in ripped jeans as they announce copycat collaborations and pop-up shows that are as carefully staged as any flawless blockbuster exhibition.

Discovering something unexpected, by someone unexpected, in a place you never thought you might find it, feels like breathing clear air when compared to the audio-guided trudge, or the empty white cube that we have dutifully turned up to for so long. For myself and many of my colleagues, the thrill of handling very valuable art wore off quickly; seeing under the bonnet of the established gallery and museum world killed any enthusiasm we might have had for its commodification. But the experience of making new discoveries by unknown artists has caused me to re-evaluate my relationship to art in the first place. More than anything, these experiences are about the art itself, with no room for the carefully constructed illusions that myself and my colleagues once worked so hard to maintain.


Tom Newlands is a Scottish writer living in London. His work has most recently appeared in New Writing Scotland, the New Statesman and in the BBC Radio production Margins to Mainstream with actor Michael Sheen. His debut novel is forthcoming in spring 2024.

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Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

I was having so much fun reading about art “roadies” and the heavy, often disgusting work they do when, out of nowhere, accessibility, pay, diversity, sustainability, and CO2 emissions appeared. Does absolutely everything have to do this hand-wringing obeisance? All industries and pursuits have their difficulties, but it would be so nice if faddish “social justice” mea culpas weren’t shoehorned into every little story.

G Cruse
GC
G Cruse
1 year ago

I was frozen in mid-cynicism by Accessibility, equitable pay, diversity, sustainability; these are just a few of the areas in which the art world lags behind.
I really didn’t expect to find such scolding on Unherd. Must be some of that diversity.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  G Cruse

Well, G, there is no escaping it, apparently. I’ve been a fervent Unherd reader/subscriber for almost a year. No shortage of scolding, but soon you recognize a byline and know to skip straight to the comments, which are usually worth the money.

G Cruse
G Cruse
1 year ago

I do like the comments. Unherd readers are folks I’d hang with in the flesh, and they can turn a good phrase.

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
1 year ago

Excellent essay. I do wonder, though, how long these spontaneous art exhibits, that value creativity over commercialism, will last when some of the artists become famous and their works command high prices, and when the people who organized these events become recognized impresarios. Money has a way of tainting everything.

Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It already has. It’s a facile game in the arts. Just like any other business. The elites manage and own it all and those at the bottom, wanting a way in, will play, and pay. The question I consider a lot nowadays is, how much do we need art? Most people have some sort of visual art in their house, usually a print, or something printed on canvas. Not the real thing. But what’s the real thing? They want something to break up space. They have their likes. The “real thing”, well we’ll be told about that, informed about its worth, it’s relevance, and the artist will be treated like some performing pet. Nasty work if you can get it.
“but what is novel is the energy and thoughtfulness of these up-and-coming facilitators, who shy away from explicit commercialisation by focussing on creativity and collaboration.”
Why is it novel? Its always been this way. And then they succumb to success.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“Pecunia non olet.”
(Vespasian.)

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

Funny though. I keep smelling it.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

As did Titus!

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
1 year ago

You shame me with my ignorance of classical languages. Thank goodness for Google translator. 🙂

Jason Highley
JH
Jason Highley
1 year ago

Very nice piece. Thanks for the contribution.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

Do the big auction houses employ posh, well-connected youngsters because those connections are likely to bring in the big country house sales? Just asking. It might make commercial sense.

Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

That’s what’s so obnoxious about it all: making commercial sense. The art itself, created by the individual, that’s the act of creation. It’s human, vital to our existence, even if it means pretending to be someone you’re not, it’s a creative act. I know artists want to make a living, fine. But for a long time, and maybe not in all countries, they did not get a part, a percentage, of the ongoing sales of their work from one investor to the other as it increased in value. I know it’s business, but they pretend it’s more than that, that it’s of value to society, our well-being and who we are. But in fact what they are is a really bad painting.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

After the notorious Joseph Duveen – Bernard Berenson scandal, who would seriously believe any ‘art expert’?

Anne
Anne
1 year ago

This would apply to any field: after the Iraq war, why would anybody believe any ‘political expert’? One choose which expert one relies on and hopes for the best just like one’s lawyer, doctor etc.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Anne

Yes indeed, back to square one, sadly.

Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago

Funny how the artist gets a tiny mention in the last paragraph, almost forgotten.

Matthew Steeples
Matthew Steeples
1 year ago

I was hoping for a mention of art forgers and those who fall for them and/or go along with their antics in this story. The toffs who go to Florence to art schools and then end up in Sotheby’s and Christie’s are one thing given they do bring in the goods via their other toff friends’ grandparents, but the murky world of the likes of art’s answer to Ponzi scheming like Inigo Philbrick is quite another. Having encountered such, I was hoping for an account of this here and maybe the author could look at such next.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

When I saw the title of this piece before I had read it, it made me think of a painting which was in the National Gallery in London of Judith Beheading Holofernes. She’s cutting off his head with a knife and blood is spurting. Her face full of concentration and effort. My young daughters were with me at the time and they were fascinated by the painting.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

And so they should be. I believe the work in the National Gallery is by the lesser-known artist Jonathon Liss. There are more famous versions by Caravaggio and most notably by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the very few female artists to gain any sort of traction before the modern era. (She knew what she was doing too, after being raped by her art teacher, who was acquitted at trial whilst Artemisia had thumb screws applied to try to “prove” she wasn’t lying!!)
A more general point to make is that the “art world” and art itself are, of course, two different issues and shouldn’t be conflated, except where an artist might be pandering to the gallery as it were, which defeats the object of art. What is the object, then? Well, art is as old as recorded human history and is simply a means of communication, which naturally changes through different eras. It’s great that parents should take their offspring to experience the real thing, and i hope your daughters gained something which will encourage them to do the same with their offspring.
This article simply raises the profile of what happens behind the scenes, and is welcome. One interesting point is how the art handlers quickly become somewhat indifferent to the works they’re handling, however famous they might be. As an artist, i’d encourage people to stop treating artworks with undue reverence and simply interact with them with the purpose they were intended – to cut through the barriers that stand between us.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“to cut through the barriers that stand between us.”
Has that always been its “purpose” and is the purpose always the same?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Nick Moore
Nick Moore
1 year ago

Really interesting! Thanks

Jeff Hedrich
JH
Jeff Hedrich
1 year ago

Did the headline writer read the article?