Inside the World of Art Handlers

If the one constant in life is change it certainly holds true that at the Cleveland Museum of Art there is always something new to see, particularly now during the exciting expansion project. One of the museum’s goals is to create exhibitions and collections that are relevant and inspirational to its patrons and to do so in a way that makes each visit to the museum fresh and vibrant. There is an ever-changing schedule of exhibitions to be installed, new acquisitions to be added to the galleries, works being rotated on and off exhibition, and a myriad of behind-the-scenes support activities taking place each day, and they all have one thing in common….art handling.

Tracy Sisson, art movement supervisor, coordinates the movement of all art within the museum utilizing a team of five highly-trained art handlers. Planning can often begin up to one year in advance of any object actually being moved.

Barry Austin and John Beukemann, two of the five art handlers that make up the Cleveland Museum of Art’s team, recently sat down to explain their job of working with the objects in the museum’s collection.

Being an art handler requires having art terminology/history knowledge, technical skills, and the right personality. And there are both physical and psychological components to the job. Objects vary greatly in size and weight and art handlers have to be physically able to manipulate both very small and very large pieces of art. It takes steady hands and incredible focus and concentration to move art within specific parameters. Although the art handlers are frequently working on a strict schedule, they can’t rush and must work at a very deliberate pace. The safety of the object is their number one priority.

The main areas of responsibility for an art handler include:

  • Assessing art to determine risk/approach for art movement
  • Transporting art safely throughout the museum
  • Installing/de-installing art, including making proper hardware selection choices
  • Packing art for shipping
  • Pick-up and delivery of art

“Each piece of art is unique and has its own set of problems that have to be examined,” explains Barry. An object may require a special mount to be made for its installation in an exhibition, it may always need to be stored in a certain position because of its condition, or it may be that its size or weight makes it more challenging to move or install.

John is a Cleveland Institute of Art alum and has actually moved his own artwork, which was featured in a local artists show at the museum. His artistic abilities allow him to visualize what impact the placement and lighting of an object has on the visitor experience.

Both Barry and John love their jobs because they are in the presence of great artwork. “We are more intimate with the objects than most people will ever be,” says Barry. They note that the privilege is not lost on any one of their team. The great care they put into their jobs helps the museum run smoothly. Gretchen Shie Miller, registrar for loans, notes that “couriers visiting from other institutions are impressed by our museum’s art handlers.”

After spending some time with the art handling team and learning about all what goes into moving and installing works of art, there’s no doubt that the Cleveland Museum of Art collection is in good hands. The next time you’re at the museum, keep an eye open for the art handlers, although, if they’re doing their job right….you just might miss them.


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