This past Sunday was one of those first pleasant, early-spring afternoons in New York--sun shining, birds singing, hipsters experimenting with warm-weather fashion. I, however, spent it in a crowded basement space in Chinatown just off East Broadway, fighting for elbow room with a mixed group--half seemed like they were there for a bike messenger rally, the other half for an art school crit. This was the Art Handling Olympics, a one-day event for the New York art world's most overlooked and underappreciated workers, the art handlers, who crate and hang and carry the art and basically do all the heavy lifting to get those pretty pictures up onto those white walls.
The event, which must have started out as a stoned joke, gave the members of this anarchic fraternity a long overdue turn in the spotlight, as well as a chance to show off their very particular skillset for an appreciative audience. Nearly seventy art handlers, comprising 16 teams, signed up, and many more came to watch. As they competed in events built around packing and hanging art, the crowd and the judges, well lubricated with Budweiser and Colt 45, shouted jokes about dollies and tapeguns and levels and gloves, and I began to understand the real appeal of the event: it wasn't a competition, it was a convention, full of the same sort of insider jokes and jargon and general nerding-out that you'd see at any other gathering of likeminded people. Not everyone saw the point: Many handlers are artists in their own right, and when I asked one artist/handler I know why he wasn't competing, he shook his head. "Why would i want to glorify the day job?" he asked. Point taken.
But most of the Olympians seemed less interested in glorifying the handler's role than in taking the whole art world--themselves included--down a peg. "I think we all go back and forth between loving and hating our jobs," event organizer Shane Caffrey told me a few days before the Olympics. "The idea is just to have fun, and poke some fun at the world we work in, and at ourselves."
I had intended to write more about it, but there were plenty of journalists on hand and no shortage of coverage this week, including these articles, this slideshow, and this video. But even with all of that, some of the event's flavor was missing, as most of the comments I heard weren't likely to be published in the Times. Like this one:
"It smells like dirty artists and pot down here."