Basic Principles of Art Handling
The objective of good art handling is to move artworks from one location to another in a way that no damage occurs to the work. Basic care and common sense will usually be enough to achieve your objective. If the works to be handled are of a delicate nature more than ordinary care and attention is required. Works created in the studio need to be prepared and carefully packed for safe transportation to a gallery or museum.
Good handling is fundamental to the long-term care and preservation of a work of art. The moment the work is being moved from the studio to the gallery is the time when it is at its most vulnerable. The work might well be handled by the artist themselves or by a transporter. In both cases it is best that basic principles are adhered too. Common sense and care are the watchwords here. Know the weaknesses of the work and plan your moves in advance. When moving art out of a building make sure that door widths and heights are known in advance and have the move well prepared in advance. If the work is large consider making it in parts that can be easily disassembled. You may have to move it on your own. If working with others ensure that they too are aware of the delicate nature of the work.
There are a wide variety of artworks made today and even something as seemingly straightforward as a DVD needs similar attention. It’s important to impart to any movers or shippers that you need the work to be handled properly. This might mean requesting that the work is transported in the correct orientation i.e. that they follow the arrows on the box or crate. Simple things like this makes sure the work gets handled properly.
Preparing and Packing Artwork for Transport
When preparing a work for transport it is a good idea to write out a condition report before packing the work. Damages and repairs can be noted, and when the work is returned to you any further damages can be seen. Examples of condition report forms can be obtained online or you could make up your own to suit your work. Click here to see a sample loan /condition report from the Tate.
Most condition reports follow a similar format containing detailed artwork information first – name of artist, artwork, materials, size, date; the travel information, destination, duration of exhibit – followed by a description of the object in question. This will generally focus on the surface condition of the work in text and is often accompanied by a small diagram locating the items described. The language used can be quite tricky – words like “accretion” or “scratch” can have several interpretations and applications. These often need clarification. For a glossary of these terms see Conservation OnLine which hosts comprehensive information for many media.
This task within a museum context is done by the Registrar or Conservator who will have specialised training. For those not trained in museum practices, it is good practice to include a straightforward consignment note, listing the work details along with any major flaws (scratches, missing paint, uneven surfaces, etc). Documentation is always important should something go wrong and insurance has to be called on. A copy of the condition report should travel with the work so that the gallery can form an agreement with you as to the condition of the work when it arrives.
It is also advisable to have the work transported by a reputable freighting company that has established art handling experience. Express courier services can treat art works in a slipshod manner as they may not be mindful of the delicate nature of the piece. Many prefer not to ship art because of the difficulty in assessing value after damage. Sometimes, however, there can be no option if speed is required. In this case, good preparation and packing is imperative. These companies prefer to carry small document sized packages but a small drawing, photograph, painting or DVD, once carefully packaged can generally survive the rough treatment that a package gets through any postal or courier service.
There are a number of important things to look out for when packing an artwork for transport even if you are delivering it yourself. The packing should provide adequate protection for the work while it is being transported. This should include protection from pressure, moisture, knocks, vibrations and dramatic climate changes. There are a number of ways that this can be done. Firstly aim for the highest standard of packing and transport that your budget will allow. It is ideal if you can wrap the work and put it into a crate. For short trips it can be wrapped in poly sheeting and bubble wrap protective corners or even blankets. Poly sheeting can be obtained in various thicknesses from hardware suppliers. For small quantities uses plastic drop-sheets which can be purchased from any DIY shop. Bubble wrap is best purchased in bulk – as a roll from any office supply company like Viking or Albany. It can also be bought by the metre in Evans Art Supplies off Capel Street in Dublin. Hardware mega stores like B&Q only sell it in small quantities and it is enormously expensive.
If transporting 2D work via lorry or truck it is wise to strap the work securely to the truck itself. A sheet of firm card to cover the surface can be useful. Several sheets can provide protection between each work while they are stacked together in the truck. It is advisable to oversee the loading and unloading of your work so that you can alert people to how it should be handled. Avoid clutter in the vehicle and all items travelling with the work should be properly tied down. Always label the work, clearly noting if it contains glass and which way up it should travel. 2D work is safest if it is placed in the direct line of travel. This helps to ensure that the work absorbs the least vibration across its surface.
If a crate cannot be sourced and the work is delicate, the next best thing is to make your own crate. Try to incorporate as many of the features found in museum cases such as water proofing and internal foam lining. Museums use an inert foam called Plastazote which can be purchased from UK suppliers likeConservation by Design. Polystyrene is often used – this does not have as much give but may be the only material available.
Cardboard sheeting and boxes are often used for national shipping. This offers basic protection along with the bubble-wrap and blankets which shippers usually carry in the trucks. For international shipping a tougher box is always more advisable and plywood makes a good lightweight solution, offering a hard puncture proof surface (for the most part). Triple strength cardboard can be a solution for lightweight non-fragile artworks but only as a last resort.
Works for short trips can be wrapped in poly sheeting with the addition of padded corners or edges. The wrapping of artworks is best done in a clean area preferably on large tables which have a padded surface, if possible. Ordinary tables can be covered in bubble wrap or blankets. Make sure the packing area is free from any fixings, tools or screws. A clear area on the floor can also be used. It is important not to over wrap artworks. Small delicate works can be damaged by the application of too much packing material. For example, when unpacking, excessive packing material can obscure the work and the removal of tape can put pressure on parts of the work that may be delicate.
Before wrapping make sure that all parts of the work are sound and remove or tighten any loose fixings. Loose fittings and bits can act as missiles during a bumpy ride in a truck. Some prefer the use of acid free tissue paper as a protective layer over the work before the poly sheeting is put on. A number of factors need to be considered before deciding to place any packing material directly onto the surface of an unprotected work particularly a painting or a photograph. Firstly the surface should be completely stable, dry and durable as materials can adhere to the surface and/or the surface could be abraded by the movement of that material on the surface while in transport. It is best if the packing material does not rest directly on the surface of the work. If the work has a very delicate surface a travel frame should be used. Ideally, artworks should be packed in conservation standard materials if they are to be stored for any length of time.
Conservation standard materials are considered inert which means that they contain no substances that could be harmful to the work. These are, however, expensive and can be only purchased in the UK from companies like Conservation Resources, Conservation by Design and Preservation Equipment. The least an artist on a limited budget can do is use correct materials on the inner most layer which is in contact with the artwork or if contact is inappropriate, that there are sufficient spacers or padding.
If the work is framed and the frame is raised above the surface of the painting, unbleached cotton tape can be stretched across the painting. This will help to keep the poly sheeting from sagging onto the surface. Make sure to position your tape where it will not put pressure on any vulnerable part of the frame. Place the lengths of tape so that it divides up the picture surface evenly. Use slipknots as these are easily removed and reused. Tie the knots on the back of the work towards the edge so that no loose bits of tape rest on the painted surface. Use lengths of folded acid free tissue to protect the frame from any abrasion caused by the tape.
Measure the work and cut the poly to fit. Place the poly sheet down and lay out the cotton tape and folded tissue and then position the picture face down onto the packing material. Use thick low tack vinyl tape if possible to seal the poly sheet on the back along one edge to avoid putting pressure on the back of the canvas. It is always a good idea to put a tab on the beginning of the tape so that it can be removed easily afterwards. This is both a courtesy to those doing the unpacking as well as good practice as some delicate works can be damaged while tape is being scratched off. If the work is glazed it is best practice to use specialized glass tape to protect the work from glass shards in case of an accident. Some works contain specialised low-reflective coated glass and should not be taped. Works in chalk or pastels should not be glass taped as removal of the tape may lift particles of the pigment from the work. If the packing material is opaque always mark where the top is. If there are delicate bits on the work, mark those positions on the packing material so handgrips can be placed elsewhere. If the work is not being placed in a crate the corners may need protecting. Bubble wrap is often used for this purpose and works well on most small light works. However if the work is heavy a dense foam should be used as bubbles have a habit of bursting just where the protection is most needed.
Moving and Handling Sculptures
The same advice applies to sculpture as outlined above for 2D works. Sculpture covers a wide selection of art objects. It is important to know the various weaknesses of each material or construction before the handling and moving is considered. Delicate parts that may break off should have additional supports added for protection. The delicate parts should also be clearly marked on the outside of the packing. Objects constructed from porous material or delicate surfaces should be handled with gloves. If working with gallery staff you should insist that they wear gloves or provide your own for their use. While moving small objects it is best to place them in a padded container. It is then possible to move the object about without putting any strain on it.
Handling Large or Heavy Sculptures
The frequent combination of great weight/size/vulnerable or unorthodox structures and sometimes fragile surfaces means that handling large sculptures is especially difficult. As an artist or art handler it is sometimes wise to let a specialist lifting team handle the job. The operation of cranes and hoists is a specialist task. It is however important to keep a presence there and be vigilant as the lifting team will not always be as mindful of the delicate nature of the piece as you are.
It is necessary to know the weight of a work that is unusually heavy. It is possible to guess the weight even if the work is too awkward to weigh. Most materials have a definable weight and the overall weight can be worked out by measuring the volume of the work. It is important to know the weight of the object that you are dealing with as this has to be checked against the Safe Working Load of the equipment that you are using. Often the movement of large sculptural pieces is regarded as an event in the life of a gallery or museum and careful planning is essential. Apart from the artwork the personal safety of the handling team and the suitability of the building that is going to house the work needs to be considered.
Installation of Artworks
When preparing for an exhibition it is helpful if you can get a detailed floor plan of the gallery in advance. This plan should contain information on all aspects of the space such as the placement of windows, doors and any other fixture that may intrude on the space. It is advisable also to know where the invigilator/information point will be during the exhibition run. It can be very frustrating to install an exhibition only to come back when the show is open to the public to find an information table with staff sitting in an inappropriate place in the exhibition.
Individual galleries use different systems for hanging work. Often it depends on how the walls are constructed. The general principles of installing remain the same. Always plan ahead to ensure all installation needs will be met. Any unusual fixings or material that will be needed should be ordered in advance. While installing try to keep a clean and orderly environment so that the work is clearly seen at all times. If the gallery has an installation team, work closely with them on the installation. Insist that the work is sited correctly and not placed in any danger of being exposed to heat or moisture.
In the situation where the gallery has no installation team, basic DIY skills are usually enough to get you through the installation. Unless the works are small, it will be necessary to have some help while installing an exhibition. It is good to have a plan of how an installation should look. This cuts down on unnecessary moves and avoids nasty repairs which follow moves especially when fixing works directly onto the walls. As some unplanned moves are the norm it is helpful to have a pot of paint left over from the wall painting as colour matching later is nearly impossible. Fit brackets to the work and try to select ones that can cope with the weight of the work as lengthy spells on a wall can weaken frail brackets. Different wall types require different methods for mounting work. The construction of load bearing walls, ceilings and floor areas are best left to specialised building firms.
Wood / Plaster Combination
The combination of a solid wood base with a plasterboard surface is usually standard in galleries. This surface is ideal for fixing screws directly into. Make sure that the screw used is long enough to reach the wood below the plaster. These walls can easily be repaired during installation or afterwards.
Walls that are entirely made from plaster require the use of plasterboard raw plugs. Sometimes it is possible to ‘find’ the timber structure behind the plasterboards and screw directly into that but it is limiting your options for spacing works. If a work is particularly heavy then you will need to ‘find’ those timbers as the weight of the object could rip the plaster board off. In some instances it may be necessary to put in re-enforcing behind the wall. If you need to hang works on concrete or stone surfaces, there are a range of plugs and expansion bolts specially designed for that purpose.
Common Risks to Works not Handled Properly
The principle risks to artwork not properly handled range from minor chips from frames to major loss (i.e. gouge or missing part) of the artwork. If a work is extremely fragile and not properly handled it may be crushed or broken by inappropriate handling methods. If it is not properly installed it could fall from the wall and be destroyed. Likewise if a work is incorrectly packed it could be badly damaged by any accident that occurs during transport. In seemingly more robust works frequent knocks and bumps can undermine the basic structure therefore making it deteriorate more rapidly over time. In the situation where work is left against heaters or is allowed to remain in damp conditions damage can occur very rapidly. Bad packing with contaminated materials can also result in permanent damage to works. If bubble wrap comes into direct contact with a slightly wet painted surface, for example, it can leave an impression which is difficult to remove afterwards. The bubbles should always face out. Sticky tape placed anywhere on the work should be avoided as the tape will draw dust and leave marks on the work. Works on paper need to be protected from excessive light and also kept free from contamination by non-conservation standard materials.
To summarise, always try to plan the movement of artwork in advance. Protect it adequately to make sure that you minimise the potential damage to the work while in transit. Use good quality packing materials and packing techniques. Try to use a specialised art transport company to move the work.
By Kevin Kelly with additional text by Alan Phelan
Kevin Kelly is the senior art handler at the National Gallery of Ireland and a practising artist and curator. He leads the art handling team at the Gallery and is responsible for the installation of temporary exhibitions and the movement and storage of the extensive collection of art held by Gallery. Kelly has completed the Art and Object handling course at West Dean College in England and has worked as an art handler in many contemporary art galleries in Scotland and Ireland. He holds a Masters Fine Arts degree from Glasgow School of Art and had his first solo show at the Project Arts Centre in 1997. Since then Kelly has participated in and curated many exhibitions both nationally and internationally.