ONE DUDE GALLERY: Exhibition-ready

Anonymous in Boston asks, “What does exhibition ready mean?"

I get this question from students quite a bit when I tell them their work needs to be exhibition ready. I like to reframe* it like this: "Would I know what to do and be able to exhibit this work if it was handed to me by a stranger?”

Exhibition ready means that the artist has made every effort to prepare their work to exhibit, except actually putting the nail in the wall. It helps to remember that artwork has to leave the care of the artist in order to be exhibited. And while galleries are capable of hanging almost all art, they aren't capable of reading your mind, or knowing your intention or your style.  By making all possible considerations beforehand, the transfer from artist to exhibition space is much smoother.

Excepting site-specific installations, at a certain point a work-in-progress becomes a finished piece, meaning it's capable of being shipped, stored, handled and installed at a variety of locations. There’s a danger in oversimplifying what exhibition-ready can mean. Art is an evolving discipline of different media, and art exhibition spaces and practices continue to evolve as well.

I'm going to break this down into 4 sections and try to cover as many different media as possible. Without oversimplifying exhibition ready, it mostly boils down to: “Can this work be safely stored, shipped, handled and hung?”

PART I: STORAGE
Dude's looking stacked.  For sale

You are the best watch guard for your work. When art is on your wall or in your studio, it's under your your watch and away from most dangers. When we walk away from our work or put it in deep-storage, we need to make sure it has stable packaging and placement because we won't be there to check on it as much. Water damage, temperature damage, critter damage, et al. can be minimized if it's caught right away, it can cause absolute destruction if left unchecked.

We can't talk about storage without talking about labeling. Labeling your work is critical. Not everyone can tell your work apart from others. Sign your work or include information on the back: your name and title at least, ensuring that your work is not confused with another artist or another of your own works. Labeling also ensures your work remains safely accounted for in inventories.

Another safety concern is the framing or presentation of the work. Framing and matting are not just aesthetic concerns but also are methods to ensure the security and posterity of the work. These methods will be covered in the installing section (Part IV).

If it doesn't say archival, IT ISN'T.
Flat unframed works should be layered with glassine or acid free paper. These can go inside plastic archival sleeves, into portfolios or archival storage boxes.

Flat framed works should be wrapped in paper so that the frame does not scratch. Plexiglass can scratch very easily (with only slight abrasion) so it should be covered clean plastic (poly), bubble wrap or glassine. Frames with glass must have bubble wrap or foam sheets across the glass portion - glass doesn't scratch very easy but can break with even slight pressure. Framed work should be stored upright and never stacked.

Canvases and panels are often damaged when leaned against each other, especially when a corner puts pressure on the surface of another canvas. This is especially true with canvas, linen, fiber or other sensitive surfaces that can stretch or even tear with pressure. The surfaces of these works should be covered in glassine or plastic to prevent them from dirt, debris (or wet paint!). If you have to lean works against each other, always do so front to front and back to back, placing archival cardboard between them. In professional gallery storage works are stored in slats to prevent works from leaning into each other and are usually bubble wrapped.

Dinosaurs use armatures.
How cool is that?
Small sculpture has different needs depending on different materials. Ceramics and glass are extremely brittle and fragile and should be at least double bubble wrapped. Fine or thin wood or metal objects should also be double bubble wrapped. Works that are more sturdy might only require one wrapping in bubble wrap or even paper. Use the appropriate wrap for the surface of the sculpture, paper is cheap but abrasive, glassine is archival but thin and tears easily, poly and clear plastic is strong and thick and you can see what's going on behind it, but it can create static (if that's a concern for your work).

Large sculpture is a whole different beast and can require crating or even armatures to properly store. The same rules apply here as with small sculpture, always double bubble wrap brittle or fine pieces and choose the appropriate wrapping material for each surface.

PART II: SHIPPING
NOT BAD - packaging for Sense of Place exhibition - via

If you ship your work, take care that it arrives in the same condition you sent it in. Shipping is not just by mail, but also in person. Even taking your work by foot or car can damage work if it isn’t packed properly. Once your work is at a location, it will leave your care and so needs to be packed to suit the moving and storage needs of the next exhibition space as well. Different work will require different packing methods, but always face work front to front and back to back when shipping multiple works together and never ship wet work.

SCRATCHES: easy to make, impossible to remove.
Flat unframed works that fit into a flat padded envelope are relatively easy and inexpensive to ship. Do not mail flat work that is brittle in a flat envelope. You may pack multiple works together, but be sure to interleave glassine or another archival divider between the work. All flat envelopes should have cardboard, matte board or some kind of hardened buffer surrounding the work. Bubble-wrapped envelopes will pad the work, but won't protect it from bending.

Flat framed works will need to be bubble wrapped to prevent cracking. Cloth and/or cardboard are not good buffers for glass, as they transmit vibrations very well. When packing glass or plexiglass, be sure to wrap the bubbles away from the glass, as it will leave light circle marks on the surface. Never allow anything textured to touch the surface of plexiglass or it will scratch. Bubble-wrap or glassine work well against glass or plexiglass, but any kind of paper or other textured product will rub and scratch the surface. Be sure that all of your packing materials are clean - a well-placed speck of sand can scratch plexi, wood or the surface of your art once works are in transit.

Canvases and panels should be wrapped in a clean blanket or bubble-wrap and then stored in a cardboard box or wooden crate. Crates are necessary only when the boxes would be stacked on top of each other in shpping. Shipping paintings larger than one foot in any direction in a cardboard box is not recommended, as the structure of cardboard is not significant enough to prevent pressure on the middle of the box. You can mail secure crates by regular mail or freight, but large canvases in cardboard boxes should be shipped personally or by an art handler.

Works on panels are somewhat sturdier than works on canvas, however they still need to be faced with bubble-wrap and placed in a substantive container, such as cardboard or a crate to prevent crushing.

Sculpture should be shipped with significant wrapping and should never wiggle inside of the shipping container. Works with significant 3D extensions should have an armature to support that extension. Armature can be anything from wadded paper, to extra bubble wrap to wooden support structures depending on the size and fragility of the work.  If you must use packing peanuts, pack it tightly as they can settle quite a bit.

PART III: HANDLING
No glove - no love.  Check out the Art Handling Olympics

Your work will be in the hands of many people - some more experienced than others. If your work is of such a size, weight or material that it is not easily handled without damage, than you will need to take precautions. These may include specific tools or instructions for handling your work.

Assuming your exhibition space has professional installers, your work should be in good hands once it arrives. However, no professional can account for all of the nuanced differences that each individual artist uses for their work: if something looks attached but isn’t, or if your work appears dry but is actually wet, etc. If you have special needs or information for your work, be sure to communicate them to the venue BEFORE they handle your work.

Various things to include in your instructions (note all begin with please):
Please use white gloves when you handle this work.
Please hang these ten works in a grid two high by five wide with 3 inches in between
Please display on pedestal/plinth/shelf/what-have-you
Please play video on at least 1080 pixel screen at 16:9 aspect ratio.  Please loop.

LABEL YOUR PACKAGE: THIS SIDE UP - FRONT - FRAGILE - GLASS - ETC

PART IV: (READY FOR) INSTALLING
Not so simple as you'd think

All artwork is installed in some manner – it doesn’t just appear on the wall. No matter how much you prepare your work or what kind of exhibition space it will be in, it will take some effort to place it in the exhibition space.  The following are methods to preparing your work to be installed.

THINGS MAYBE YOU SHOULDN'T DO:

Sawtooth hangers: kind of a pain in the ass
Try not to use tooth hangers; even when they are perfectly centered (and they should be) they can still wobble more than wired and cleated work and are therefore difficult to keep level. Two improperly aligned saw tooth hangers on each side can make the work aggravating to level - try D-rings instead.

Avoid attaching hardware that limits how flush the work can sit against a wall or pedestal. Works that don’t sit flat are not as secure, and most works look better flush with the wall than bumped out exposing the hardware.

Velcro is a surprisingly strong method of attaching work. However the adhesive is so strong it usually rips off a portion of the wall paint when removed. Instead the back side of the Velcro can be stapled to the wall to avoid ripping the paint. Velcro allows you to place and unplace artwork ad infinitum during the exhibition.

THINGS MAYBE YOU SHOULD DO:

Use archival tape, never sticky, scotch, masking or duct tape. Blue painter’s tape works well in a pinch for non-load bearing needs, but shouldn't be used in contact with the art. Acids can transfer and just don't put sticky things on the surface of art. Ever.

Colored matting and framing is not a contemporary best practice. Contemporary galleries favor neutral matting and framing, such as black, white or raw materials that are neutral in tone (walnut, pine, various metals, etc.). Black matting is discouraged as all but the most expensive black dyes can fade quickly. White or just slightly off-white are preferred for most places.

French cleats: simple to level and secure
Small to medium stretched canvas and works on panel have been traditionally hung with wire on the interior of the stretcher bars. To ensure that the work hangs snug against the wall.  After securing, the wire should stretch to the top 1/3 of the back of the canvas. Wire should not extend beyond the top of the work, unless it is the artist’s choice to do so. For large works (over 4 ft wide) you can attach French cleats along the top or D-rings 2/3 up the side of the work, level to one another, to hang the work. Whatever you choose, choose that same method for the entire series of works in the same manner and measurements.

Most galleries are fine with paintings left unframed, but an inexpensive way to frame is to strip frame with 1⁄4” thick wood strips. These can be left raw or painted a neutral color.


Works on paper should be matted or mounted, for safety as much as presentation. To prevent condensation damage, the surface of the work should never come into contact with glass or plexiglass, instead allowing room for the surface of the work to breathe. Polyester or mylar photo corners are also good choices, but the work can fall out of them; try using archival tape to hinge the work along the top edge under the matting.
Neodysium magnets: I find them attractive

Unframed or uncased work can be installed with magnets on top of the work, with Velcro (see above) or with L – hooks connecting the work to the wall. Caution: unframed or uncased works are susceptible to damage and often require multiple attachments (e.g four L-nails) instead of a framed work which would need one well-placed nail.

Many artists assume that sculpture is always exhibit ready, but sculpture still requires effort to install. Exhibition spaces will need to be notified in advance if a sculpture requires a specific pedestal, plinth or shelf to accommodate its weight or size. Suspended sculptures will need instructions and materials in order to properly display the work. Works that rest on the ground will benefit from a plinth, or short pedestal, to separate the work from the floor aesthetically. A plinth also helps the viewer to see where they are stepping (or shouldn't step).

Video or audio work should be more than exhibition ready – it’s needs to be “push play ready”. This includes all formatting for the appropriate equipment, so talk to the gallery about what equipment will be used. Be prepared for trouble-shooting and know that some spaces may not be able to accommodate the light and sound levels needed for your audio/visual work.

IN CONCLUSION:  Thank you to Kris Anderson and Bea Modisett for helping me write this compendium.  I know I'm missing stuff here so feel free to comment or add something below.  Thanks!

* "reframe" - that's a gallery joke.