Despite India being an emerging art market, a virtual absence of professional art packers and movers results in shoddy handling of precious art work

When the veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon saw some coolies moving a mammoth M.F. Husain’s uncovered paintings from Delhi airport’s Terminal 2 to New Udaan Bhawan a few years ago, she was “horrified”. The paintings were too precious to be so callously handled. It is not clear whether the GMR (that operates the airport) or the Airports Authority of India was responsible for such rough handling but the fact is that India still doesn’t have professional art porters or packers. Therefore, either regular truckwallahs carry these art works with their drivers multi-tasking as packers and deliverers, or daily wage earners, even neighbourhood ‘boys’ do the task.

Veteran artist Satish Gujral has bad memories of how several years ago, in the absence of professional art handlers, one of his historical sculptures titled Sakshi was sent abroad by National Museum “with its face mutilated beyond repair”.

These days, however, established artists rely on art galleries for the purpose, while struggling artists with no gallery support either do it themselves or seek unprofessional help.

Earlier artists themselves used to carry their art works to the exhibition venues. Even M.F. Husain carried his own art work “to Kolkata from Mumbai wrapped in plastic sheets in the early 1970s, and so did I,” recalls veteran artist A. Ramachandran, who now relies on art galleries for porting and packing his works. “I used to carry my huge paintings and sculptures by passenger trains’ luggage bogie all by myself.”

Those who hired ordinary transporters or professional carrier or courier companies even in the recent past have had horrible experiences. Shares artist Sudip Roy, “Unfortunately, most transport companies don’t understand the value of art. When I tell them the art work I am sending is worth lakhs, they laugh on my face. It is insulting and embarrassing. To top that, they send their ‘field boys’ to collect the art works from my home. These highly art-insensitive field boys often double up as drivers, porters, packers and movers. In order to save time, they often try to bind all art works in one ‘bundle’. At such a time, if the artist is not present, his labour of love is most likely to be ruined.”

Every art work from oil to water colour, delicate glass to metal works, videos to object installations — needs different handling. For instance, oil on canvas which normally takes 15 years to dry completely, has to be packed keeping a considerable distance between the bubble sheet and the canvas, otherwise the bubble spots may appear on the canvas on close contact. It is sheathed in brown paper or acid free paper, then supported by thermocol sheets and kept in wooden crates. But the porters don’t do it meticulously. Mr. Roy recently had a major fight with a reputed courier/carrier service which separated each of his oil paintings “by breaking its wooden crate and thus damaging their frames beyond repair.”

Some time ago, artist Seema Kohli got her oil painting back with newspaper wrapped around it. The paper was stuck on the canvas. It had to be scratched not without spoiling the painting though.

Peter Femfert, the founder of the 32-year-old Frankfurt-based Die Galerie who brought European masters like Picasso, Andre Mason and Salvador Dali to India during India Art Summit early this year, had a harrowing time finding professional packers and porters in India. He recalls, “In Germany, we have specialised art transporters. They pack and unpack, deliver and even mount art works in galleries, if instructed. I just give them the address of pick and drop venues and go for a drink. By the time I come back, my works are hung in the gallery. They even insure them. But In India, I had a bad time. Here I and my son handled somehow by seeking help from ‘boys’ moving around. India is an emerging art market; such impressions will make them lose quite a bit.”

Mr. Roy adds, “At the Art Summit, I bought a painting from a London-based gallery. The gallerist told me that he can only deliver the painting from London. I got it delivered at my place safe in a box that contained beautiful drawing on how to hold and unpack it. Such professionalism is nowhere to be seen in India.”

Under these circumstances, now framers have learnt the art of packing and moving and private art galleries have started honing the skills of their employees. Vadehra Art Gallery has trained a set of people over the years and now does not outsource packers/movers. After having gone through several harrowing phases, Sunaina Anand of Art Alive Gallery, too, has created her team of experts.

She says, “It’s not only about not having professional packers and movers but also about the clients not willing to pay for the packing and moving. So the galleries cut corners and get the jobs done in cheapest possible ways. Packing art works requires separate skill and speed to move. I trained my long time transporter’s boys and gallery’s in-house team. It took me over five years. It is easy to train them but not make them art sensitive. Art sensitivity has to be inherent. Chances of mishandling increase many fold when you send works outside the country. So, we keep on calling our clients to find if they have got them safe. Regular follow-ups during transit time or at local level make them responsible if not art sensitive.”

If Ms. Kohli forgives the unprofessionalism by saying that art is still in a nascent stage in India and it will take time, Ms. Anand adds that a French company (Santa Fe) has come up at Mahipalpur and is doing a good job of packing, porting and even installing art works. “It is very expensive as it monopolises the market,” she says. She also suggests professional couriers like DHL, Fedex, First Flight, etc dedicate a section separately for art handling. It will be lucrative business for sure.