September 9, 2019
Washington, DC may be the only city on the planet that contains more museum staffers than artists. There are more than 70 museums spread across the nation’s capital with some of the most prominent ones along the National Mall belonging to the Smithsonian Institution. The organization — tasked with stewarding the nation’s cultural heritage — employs around 6,000 people and holds nearly 137 million objects within its collection.
With such an immense catalogue, the Smithsonian must hire a small army of art handlers to whizz their works around the world. And with few opportunities to sustain a creative professional life in the DC area, many local artists ultimately join the prepatorial field to make ends meet.
That’s how Calder Brannock found himself traveling in a truck with what initially appeared to be an empty vitrine and a laptop bag from the National Archives within the first three or four months of his career. After graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a sculpture MFA in 2010, the then-24-year-old found it impossible to find a job in the competitive art industry. Eventually, he decided to begin working as an art handler with a shipping and installation company that frequently worked with the Smithsonian.
In New York, where rates typically fall between $20 to $40 per hour, art handlers describe Washington DC as the industry’s big white whale. Because the Smithsonian Institution is a public organization, federal wage rates calculated according to the Office of Personnel Management guidelines would net them upwards of $60 per hour depending on their employment classification, though most employees with art handling skills are likely to still make within the $20 to $40 per hour range. But in reality, most of the nation’s museums save money by contracting with art handling companies who pay their employees substantially less. Only a few art handlers remain on staff.