Production Line: Matthew Tully Dugan
Artwork elucidates, suggests, deconstructs, and elides, but first it’s hung, framed, shipped and downloaded. In our new series,“Production Line”, Spike talks to the people who do just that: the brains (and brawn) behind the operation. First up is Matthew Tully Dugan – simply “Tully” to those in the know. Got a situation? He can handle it.
Alexandra Germer: How did you first get started as an art handler?
Matthew Tully Dugan: Through my brother Brendan, who was running Karma gallery outside of New York at that point. He asked if I would be able to help out with a number of shows that required transport. It was the end of a long summer of doing different interior design jobs, and I was just moving into the city, trying to find my way into the art world. One of my first gigs was a large transportation job for the artist Ann Kraven. They flew me to her studio in Maine to pack some works. It didn’t seem like a big deal. We got up there, I met Ann, and she showed us the work. She’s prolific in the way she produces, she will create paintings of the moon every fifteen minutes. She had hundreds of paintings. This was a lot more work than we anticipated. But we just had to make it happen.
AG: Did that make you realise that you a talent for the job?
MD: Yes. And also realise that the scope of these jobs can get really big and really involved. And that there are so many different things that go into handling art …. There can be 200 pieces that are studies, but they’re just as important as a million-dollar painting that’s just made, that’s still wet, that you’ve got to get it from point A to point B without damaging.
AG: Does that happen a lot? Where you show up some place and it’s just not what you expected?
MD: A lot. Working for Karma was a very fast-paced environment. If the artist had an idea change at the last minute it was like, “Ok, let’s figure out how to make the artist feel comfortable in what we’re doing for them and give them the freedom to do what they want to do and not be limited because we didn’t have the resources”. I got pretty used to showing up to a job ready to handle whatever they were going to throw at me. You’ve got to be able to learn on the fly and adapt to any environment, whatever that requires.
AG: Do you feel like working and doing what you’re doing has changed the way you understand the value of art?
MD: Definitely. I have a much broader understanding of an artist’s practice now. Spending time in studios and seeing how some artists make a hundred paintings in a few months, while others work on one painting for years. Regardless, it all requires the same amount of attention to detail because despite having potentially thrown these materials together, preserving what that final product actually turns out to be is of the utmost importance. You have to be respectful of what that artist is looking to create and looking to show to the world.
When you’re handling a Rudolf Stingel, you’re acutely aware of the fact that this work is worth millions of dollars. You have three studio assistants watching you and there is a heightened level of care that goes into more valuable works, but at the same time, you should be taking as much care of a non-valuable item as something that’s worth a lot of money. There are many things to consider. There’s insurance, there’s a lot more on the line when things are worth a lot of money. It can make it more stressful, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a painting, oil on canvas or whatever it is. Usually it’s just about who’s watching you do the job. [laughter]
AG: What’s the best and worst part of your job?
MD: The best part is being able to go into so many different artists’ studios and see how they’re producing these works, demystify some of the practices that seem so intensely wrought with specialised techniques. Being able to see, like oh, they’re just using this epoxy that they’re tinting. You get to understand materials a lot better. That processes are not as sacred as they may seem as you see the final product in a gallery. I’m a self-taught artist, so I didn’t go to art school, and a lot of these experiences have taught me how to use different materials, how to properly stretch and prep a canvas. All of these different things.
The downside is the loss you experience in the demystification of certain art objects. You see behind the scenes, so to speak. That can make the art lose some of its magic. I like to come really prepared when I do a job. You never want to show up without the right tools. I’ve learned to take more time preparing by communicating the needs for projects, as opposed to just showing up and having to figure it out. Galleries always have so much going on. They’re working with fifteen different artists and everybody’s got different needs. It can definitely burn you out after a while. That pace started to frustrate me at a certain point, and that’s when I decided to move out of the gallery position. I ended up working for an artist in a studio for a while. It had its ups and downs as well. But again, it was cool to work with someone where the focus was on one thing not on five hundred different things at once.
Collectors don’t know anything...
People have really strange ideas about what they think looks good.
AG: Do you have horror stories that you want to talk about?
MD: There has definitely been. To be honest, in the four or five years that I worked for Karma, there was a lot of opportunity for things to go very, very wrong. I can think of one time where there were some close calls, a nightmare project. We were moving between galleries, and that included a bookstore and the artworks, so we had to move our entire inventory for the summer in Chinatown. It was a much smaller space, so it was a little harder to work in. There was not enough room to pack or manage works. They started doing programming there despite it being a very small space, just because they wanted to keep that momentum going. Karma was planning an event for the release of book by Ari Marcopoulos documenting Matthew Barney’s studio. They wanted to show some of Barney’s works and said, “Can you go get a truck and go out to Matthew Barney’s studio and pick up this work.”
It was like a workout mat that was built with plywood and a steel channel. It was super heavy, it was probably like three or four hundred pounds (130-180kg)! It was no problem when we loaded it from the studio because they had a forklift and they just put it in the back of the truck. But once we got back to the gallery, you know, we didn’t have a forklift. We just weren’t prepared. We managed to get it out of the truck and on to a dolly, but it was super top-heavy. The dolly wanted to slide out, and we had to hold onto this object and try to wheel it onto the sidewalk and up into the space, up the stairs. Even just placing it on the ground – you can’t just like drop it or put it there. It required a lot of us to make it happen, but it ended up being fine. And then we had to do it again on the way out.
AG: In addition to transporting works from studio to gallery, you also help install them?
MD: The only other element that can come into play is if the artist is doing an installation-based work that requires an alteration of the space. That starts to create another level of production value where you’re physically building out the space, putting up walls or creating environments that alter the environment that you’re in. When that happens, you’re applying more construction skills. Sometimes people have very specific mural-type things that they want to do. In that case, you prep the walls, paint a space, install lighting. A lot of galleries will hire that out and get contractors to come in and do that, but having some of those skills under my belt, it was something that I ended up doing 90% of the time, unless there just wasn’t time for me because I had other obligations.
One of the last shows I did at Karma was this Urs Fischer show where he built a wall on top of fruits and vegetables. Basically, they sourced all of the food from a market where it was getting thrown out. Urs was helping us arrange things and then he starts building a brick wall physically on top of that as its foundation. We’re mixing concrete outside. You can’t do it inside because you’ve got a lot of dust, it’s a very messy environment. Just being able to isolate those potential issues comes into play in a lot of different scenarios if artists want to do more installation-based work.
AG: Is there anything that a lot of artists or gallerists or collectors don’t know about handling, transporting, or installing art?
MD: I would say that there’s a range. Pretty much every art handler has some sort of background in construction or interior painting or drywalling, or things like that. Sometimes even the artists won’t know how they want something installed. They won’t provide certain elements that would make a job a lot easier by creating hanging mechanisms of their own design. Other artists are very particular about that. They spend time making full diagrams of how a work is put together and installed. A lot of those diagrams are being made by studio assistants or people that work for galleries or for art handling companies. They have super detailed drawings on how a crate is put together to secure a piece, where it is rigid enough that it’s not going to move, but maybe the materials are soft, brittle, or able to be destroyed easily.
Collectors don’t know anything. You go into a house and they’re like, “Oh, how do you want to do this?” [laughter]. People have really strange ideas about what they think looks good. It’s all personal preference, so I can’t really say that it’s all nonsense, but there’s definitely an element of being straightforward with the client and giving them your best recommendation on how to do something properly so that it’s going to be safe and work in that space for a long period of time. You’re working for them and you need to make them happy. Even if they have really intense or bizarre demands that need to be met. That ends up being the most complicated, oftentimes. Then you’re also working with your building codes and supers. They’re like, “Oh, well, can you put this up, but if we need to take it down in six months, can you make it so it’s easy to remove this?” It’s built into the wall, but can you make it so it’s easy to undo. There’s a lot of that that goes into it. You’ve got to be considerate of the next person that’s going to be handling that work.
AG: Are you a member of a union? There’s been a lot of news coverage recently about union efforts amongst art handlers.
MD: I have never been a part of a union. I think that in environments like the Whitney or the New Museum it is important because there’s a history of larger institutions taking advantage of very important resources, which includes art handlers, not really giving them the proper respect and recognition of the fact that they do have very longstanding experience in construction fields or in art handling. A lot of these people have been doing this for ten or more years and they’re still getting paid $25 an hour, it’s really skilled labour. If you’re handling a four-million-dollar work that requires super attention to detail, you are almost a conservationist. Conservationists get paid like four hundred dollars an hour to do their job and it requires a PhD.
You’re stressing about moving a million-dollar piece but you’re so broke that you can’t really afford lunch that day and you feel awkward.
I think that is where it gets lost in translation. If you are doing conservation work, you are required to go through eight to ten years of schooling in order to even be considered for a position like that. Whereas people in an art handler position are often just working as artists, and they are often undervalued because they’ve spent more time in the field than they have in a classroom, and it doesn’t translate into the actual valuation of that person’s experience in the field.
I think it is important for people to unionise and to be able to ask that of larger institutions, because even for smaller projects, everyone is working together. The standards are super, super high in the art world. Without the proper resources, it puts all of the responsibility on the art handler, and if you’re not giving them the resources to do their job properly, it ends up creating a really toxic environment where you’re on the line for all this stuff when all of the other people that are signing everything off to you are being well compensated. You’re stressing about moving a million-dollar piece but you’re so broke that you can’t really afford lunch that day and you feel awkward. Then you’re kind of like the poor guy working with all these rich people that have these really particular demands about how to accomplish this. They’re like, “Oh, why don’t you have all the resources to do this?” And you’re like, “You’re only paying me X amount to get this done and I’m kind of the last person that you think is important to pay, but in the meantime I’m the one making it all happen.” I think we do need unions because individual voices are often unheard in the art world, and it’s hard to get that point across to people that are thinking of you as a disposable labourer or something.
ALEXANDRA GERMER is Spike's Digital Editor Emeritus.