The art of trucking

TORONTO — There’s an art to transporting art. While simple supply-and-demand economics would leave most people wondering what benefit there is in going to all the trouble, Mark Starling and his family have made a living out of the specialized sector for over 40 years.

His company, Pacart, provides the art community with a vehicle to ship paintings, sculptures and artifacts in a safe and specialized manner. Working as a contractor for Eaton’s in Toronto in the ’50s, Starling’s grandfather delivered and hung paintings for the department store’s Gallery Division. When the family moved to Vancouver in the 1960s, the family patriarch launched Pacart to provide the same service.

The art scene continued to develop during the next 25 years, and today, the 15-truck carrier has grown to offer cross-country and international art transportation service — a claim made by less than a handful of carriers.

"It’s a very, very thin wedge of the market in terms of transportation volumes," says Starling. "It’s not a growth industry and if there were more carriers, there wouldn’t be more exhibitions."

A recent federal government announcement to cut subsidized shipping services to the art industry, however, could lead to a lot more business for Pacart. But there’s one problem, says Starling: The art community just isn’t used to paying anything close to market rates.

Run strictly as a cost-recovery program, Ottawa launched Exhibition Transportation Services (ETS) in the ’70s to provide art galleries and museums with cheap transportation of exhibits.

But in April, the wheels came off when the Canadian Heritage Dept. suspended the program. Now, with the costs of transportation, handling and delivery said to be three to four times more, Canada’s art community is as sombre as Picasso’s Blue Period.

"We heard rumors last fall and the whole museum community was astounded and upset by the problem," said Catherine Crowston, deputy director and chief curator of The Art Gallery of Alberta. "It will have a huge impact on us, not only for scheduling, but financially as well. It will fundamentally change the way we do business."


Not even the government could make a go of
the art hauling business.

Since museums and ­galleries operate mostly as non-profit organizations, they don’t have the budgets for the additional costs.
Also, ETS provided straight-through, expedited service, "because you can’t just park a truck anywhere when there’s $10 million worth of art in it," Crowston explained to Today’s Trucking. "There is also a maximum volume of service, for insurance purposes, and you may need to break up exhibits."

That, however, shouldn’t be a problem for the for-hire sector, says Starling. "You won’t find any trucking company that won’t go somewhere. It’s just a ­matter of price in making it work."

For the past few months Starling has been busy helping this niche sector realize solutions.

"It’s a crazy business [ETS] probably shouldn’t have even been in; they’re a government not a trucking operation," he says. "Regardless, ETS was definitely a benefit to the museum community. Can we replicate that? Well, we’re trying and having some success. Consolidation is especially key for costing the smaller exhibitions."

As it sits now, though, set budgets could play a big role in what the public will be able to view at their local galleries.

"In the short term the big challenge will be providing a low-cost service," says Starling. "Most galleries have their budgets set now until 2010, so they only have a finite amount to move exhibits."

What has also helped Starling along the way is hiring people who understand the art community. He has 16 drivers in his fold and about half work as artists.

"We try and hire from the artistic community, even though you might think it would be like mixing oil and water," he jokes. "Our drivers understand what’s in the crates. It’s really not insurable because it’s one-of-a-kind; I mean, it’s a work of art. So, it’s really unique to our field."

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