When I first began collecting art, the primary group of artists I patronized were the ones I grew up with at Memphis College of Art. We spent countless late nights creating work together while laughing or listening to music on the top studio floor of our dormitory at Metz Hall. After our mandatory year-end reviews, which were the last stop to pass on to another year of school, we’d organize an art trade or we’d sell a large piece for as little as $50, because we never realized how much we could monetize our work. Sometimes when a friend moved away I’d receive an entire collection of work that they didn’t want to take with them. Six years after graduating from MCA I’ve collected such a large amount of artwork that I can’t fit all of it onto my walls!
An inside look at the Museum's frame shop, where some of your favorite pieces have been framed.
Once lockdowns began and I was seeing more of my apartment than I thought was possible, I called on the help of a friend to assist me in curating my walls. Her first comment was that I wasn’t thinking about my walls as a one large composition. “Your work is just haphazardly thrown onto the walls and there’s no room for the eyes to rest,” she critiqued. “I don’t understand the spacing of your work or why you have certain pieces grouped together.” I’ll admit for someone who works at a museum and prides myself to be extremely knowledgeable of art, this critique stung. Maybe I didn’t know as much about hanging work well as I thought I did.
This need to understand how art is hung and preserved correctly led me to Paul Tracy, the museum’s Chief Preparator. The Brooks was Paul’s first job out of college in 1982 and, with the exception of leaving for grad school in 1988 and returning to work at the museum full-time in 1990, he has been with the museum for nearly forty years. Out of everyone on staff, Paul has spent the most time with our museum’s collection of nearly 10,000 pieces. When I asked him what his favorite part about working at the museum is, he responded, “I love being so close to the art and I love all of the problem solving involved in mounting an exhibition.”
What you might not know about art preparators is that there is a true science to their job. Museum preparators leave nothing to chance. Odds are your favorite artwork has been through hours of preparation and conservation before it was even hung on a gallery wall for your eyes to feast on.
“When art isn’t properly stored in the correct conditions, the environment will wreak havoc on the item,” Anthony Conetta, Vice President of Dun-Rite Specialized Carriers, wrote in Art Fuse magazine. “Paint may begin to discolor, canvas may contract and expand which will distort the original work and dust can embed itself onto it.”
Paul Tracy in the Museum's Print Room, where all prints are housed.
Paul told me an anecdote while we were in his office that reinforced Conetta’s statement. “Once the museum received a Hans Hoffman crayon drawing,” he said. “It was a really beautiful piece, but when we took the frame off, the image came right off the paper and onto the glass.” The reason this happened? “Glass is (or can be) porous,” Paul explained. “It becomes porous through the acidic components of the glass.”
It might seem obvious that we want to preserve our art, but most of us don’t take the active steps needed to ensure art’s care. The preservation of art pieces or memorabilia might be akin to the preservation of stories and histories of our families and friendships. Art that we consider “treasures” hold similar meanings in our heads: We have an emotional connection that begins with a spark. In her book Optic Nerve, writer Maria Gainza introduces readers to a narrator who is obsessed with art. “Art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing,” the narrator muses, “and that which captivates you.”
An example of how the museum stores prints. Image credit can be found at the end of the article.
Think about the art you own that gives you butterflies. How do you preserve it? Is it hung in a way that makes you stop and admire it? If the answer to either of these questions is, “I’m not sure and I need help,” then continue reading for our tips on preserving and hanging works of art!
Before you think about framing, begin with protecting the work. While your art work is kept in storage, think about using non-acidic tissue to protect the work from other art pieces or external conditions that could damage the work.
Once you are ready to hang your piece, start by matting your art. Mat board keeps the art from touching the glass in frames. This will help you avoid your own Hans Hoffman debacle.
If you want to truly preserve your art work like a museum does, don’t permanently mount your piece. Permanent mounting involves attaching a piece of art work to your wall or to a frame. This can damage the art work because it can puncture holes into the work. "We never do anything to the art work that can't be undone," Paul told me.
There are several alternatives to permanent mounting, but one that I found most interesting is using hinges. Hinging art work secures the work either to the backboard of a piece or to the mat board. Hinging does not permanently alter or damage the art work. Hinges should have enough strength to hold the art work in place, but will tear off if an art work falls. If you would like detailed instructions on how to build hinges, click here. TIP: Next time you’re at the museum and want to see hinging in action, find our Rembrandt works on paper.
If making hinges is intimidating to you, try using acid free paper to create corners which will secure the art work in place to the mat board.
If you’re stuck on whether to use glass or Plexiglas for a frame, Paul recommends Plexiglas. Plexiglas acts a barrier between dust, dirt, and chemicals which would damage your art. Plexiglas also has higher impact strength than glass, which means it would take greater force to shatter it when dropped. Perhaps most important for visuals is that, unlike glass, Plexiglas has very little glare. The only exception to using Plexiglas is with chalks, pastels, and other loose media that could be drawn to the Plexiglas' static charge.
When selecting a frame, there are a number of local framing shops that are wonderful options that will allow you to support small businesses. I have supported several over of our local shops over the years and have some of my best work framed by them. However if you want to take the DIY route, I recommend starting with IKEA. Their frames are sturdy and inexpensive so you won’t break the bank if it’s something you decide you aren’t crazy about after a few weeks. I used an IKEA frame for a Palladium print a few years ago, and it works great.
Perhaps the most difficult part about hanging your work is keeping it level. If you are concerned about this, start by using painter’s tape to map out where the piece will go on the wall. Painter’s tape won’t damage your wall and can be easily removed once the art work is hung. You can use a bubble level to ensure it is straight. If you have a smartphone, you can download an app like the Measure App which will tell you if your art work is level.
Make sure you have the right hardware for framing! This includes brackets, bumpers, spring clips, hooks, and nails. You can find a detailed hardware checklist here.
Keep the framing hardware on the upper part of your frame. Take care to ensure that the frame wiring is not dead center or too low. If it is either the former or latter the entire piece will flop over.
Keep your hook as centered as possible along the wire of the frame. This will keep your work level and centered so it won’t appear lopsided.
Remember the four elements that can damage an art work: Acid, adhesives (such as tape), UV light, and moisture. UV light is your art work’s biggest enemy. If you plan on placing art in an area that gets a lot of sunlight, consider swapping out the work throughout the year so it is not exposed to continuously exposed to UV light.
Think about how you want to display your work. Do you want a gallery wall? Gallery walls can take many shapes and forms, but I tend to like the ones where art work is stacked on top of each other, creating a mound of art that encourages you to come closer and analyze the different pieces of art. Do you have any common themes within some of your frames? If you have a group of white frames, try hanging them all together even if the work is visually different. What about the placement? If you want to hang only one piece on a wall, consider color blocking, the action of placing colors that are from the opposite side of the color wheel together to create exciting, vibrant color patterns. Remember: your walls are the canvas to display your art on.
An example of mounting that is not permanent.
Once I took in my friend’s critiques and began re-arranging my art, I found that the gallery wall, in all of its chaos, actually was the best way for me to display some of my pieces. Curating your walls and preserving your art work can also provide comfort in a time of unending uncertainty. This was one of my favorite projects midway through quarantine and it completely transformed my space into something I’m extremely proud of. While we can’t all have museum-quality hanging, we can still use the techniques from museums to create a space that is peaceful and inspirational for us, just like the art spaces we visit.
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IMAGE CREDIT: Jack Grue, American (b. Russia), 1896-1956, Plate #8 from the portfolio The Caliph and the Sinner, 1954, wood engraving, Given in loving memory of Marcus W. Orr by his daughter "Missy" Fuehrer, her husband, David Fuehrer, and their sons Lucian Orr Fuehrer, and Tyler Semmes Fuehrer 2012.13.13 © Estate of the artist