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Meet the people who get to touch all the art

Miami Art Week ended Sunday night, and by Monday night the halls of the all the fairs will be stripped bare, the artwork packed up in crates and loaded into tricked-out trucks specially outfitted to transport millions of dollars of art.

This moment, when all the parties are over, is when the art handling companies swoop in. They spend months moving artwork in bit by bit for Basel, hanging it perfectly in galleries across the city.

But when it’s over, they’ve got at most 48 hours to get it all out of here.

“Sunday night the fair will end. At 6 p.m. they close the doors. By 1 or 2 in the morning on Sunday, the convention center is bare. Everything is down and in crates and everyone is heading back home the next day,” says Leonardo Valencia, the owner of Logicart Miami, one of the few art handling companies working Art Week that was founded by Miami natives.

“There may be some stuff left to do Monday, maybe half day Monday… but by Tuesday the walls are coming down. On Tuesday the carpet is rolled up, it’s gone.”

Making it happen

The planning for the next year begins pretty much as soon as Art Basel ends. The first galleries to lock in exhibit space are usually the Swiss and German ones, says Valencia (cliches exist for a reason). That happens as early as January or February.

A couple months out, the transportation begins – very, very carefully.

Art from the continental U.S., Canada, and Mexico mostly comes by land, in giant trucks set up specifically for this purpose. They’re climate controlled with air-ride suspension systems and filled with custom-built crates that further protect the high-end cargo.

Most of the international art work comes in by plane first. Some art handling companies charter entire flights to move the art. They’re not taking any chances.

For one company, it’s basically, “Hey Lufthansa, I need an entire plane just for us’,” Valencia says. “It’s pretty amazing.”

This year, Logicart broke a record. They got the contract for the installation of  “Looking into my dreams, Awilda” by Jaume Plensa at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), a giant sculpture in Museum Park looking out over Government Cut. It’s the largest piece they’ve ever installed.

It traveled here in pieces, in several different shipping containers, from Spain, taking about two months just to get here. It took two weeks for Valencia’s team to install it.

“It was a massive sculpture by an extremely well known artist. It was pretty difficult and intense. It was definitely one for the books.”

Installing a piece like that is… stressful.

“There isn’t really a lot of room for mistake. … When you’re talking about art handling, you’re talking about moving and transporting masterpieces worth more than the plane that they’re on,” Valencia adds.

Most of his employees have arts degrees, because they have to get what it is they’re dealing with. But this kind of job is a very specific thing, because you have to have not just knowledge, but the brute strength to break down the crates and load and unload artwork… and “finesse and sensitivity” to make sure you don’t mess it up.

Sometimes, there are pretty massive screw-ups and Logicart is called in to fix them. This year a client used a new company to transport a piece. Turns out they couldn’t do it, and the company just left the expensive painting baking in the sun.

“You have to be strong… enough to throw a crate on and off a truck… but as soon as you open the crate, you have to put on white gloves and become a museum professional. That’s a huge contrast to find together,” Valencia explains.

In on a secret

The handlers also get a weird, awesome perk – a chance to see the art scene from behind.

“We get to see and touch what people pay money to go and look at from a distance,” Valencia says. “There are small pleasures. I love looking at the back of old paintings. They always tell a really beautiful story.”

What do they find? Well, Valencia knows that Frida Kahlo painted on recycled canvases because when he took down a showing of one of her paintings, he found that the flip side of all the canvases were paintings of Mexican folkloric art, the kind of cheap paintings you might buy at a local market.

And her husband Diego Rivera used to leaves notes to the women whose portraits he would paint partner on the backs of his canvases. One of them, Valencia recalls, said “Hide this and never show this to Frida.”

The backs of the paintings provide a whole second, alternative history, essentially.

“When you look behind a Monet and you see the stickers and labels from every place it’s been exhibited, it’s pretty rewarding.”

Insta-worthy

He really enjoys watching how people interact with the art after it’s been put on display. A lot of the time it’s on Instagram, which is totally changing the way people see and share art.

“I’ve been going into hashtags for pieces we’ve put up… Just kind of getting lost in that cyber world of hashtags and seeing how people interact with the things we do is really rewarding in some weird way. That’s something that’s very new to me because I’m a very low-tech person. I went from a flip phone to an iPhone 6,” he says.

More than almost anyone else, Valencia can attest to the fact that Miami’s art scene is booming year round nowadays (something The New York Times finally discovered). Logicart is now busy every month of the year, not just the couple months leading up to Basel.

“It used to be that the [local] art handling world kind of hinged on Basel every year. Now it’s more permanent. We have year round work and Basel is just something that happens.”