Keeping Your Artwork Safe & Secure

 A Museum Professional’s Advice for Working Artists

by Harriett Green, Visual Arts Director, South Carolina Arts Commission

In my former life as a museum registrar, I helped overhaul the storage infrastructure of a museum that had been a mansion, built in 1908, and had much of its collection stored in the basement. This didn’t look like the ideal environment for art to survive for future generations. The basement lacked state-of-the-art heating and ventilation, lateral or pull-out storage panels, compactor shelving on tracks, or other storage amenities of the 21st century — yet it was remarkably dry. The artworks were in good condition, and are still part of the museum’s collection today.

The conditions in which many artists operate often closely resemble that basement storage approach. Most artists lack the budget to equip their studios with state-of-the art storage panels, nor do they have a registrar who can manage their collections. For many, the studio is a one-person operation — and here are some practical tips for making your studio a safe, efficient environment.

1. Organizing Your Studio

To operate an efficient studio, it’s important for artists to follow the same basic, common-sense approaches to handling and storing artwork that all museum professionals observe. In this sense, artists need to think and function as a risk manager.

The American Association of Museums defines risk management as “the overall process of identifying, controlling and minimizing the impact of uncertain events in order to reduce the likelihood of their occurrence and/or the severity of their impact.” This means giving time and energy to documentation, inventory and keeping a clean, well-maintained, safe environment — all of which becomes very important in the event of an emergency or disaster.

One practical solution is to create zones for specific functions: packing, supplies, storage, office and artwork. For example, art in progress and finished works should be isolated from cleaning supplies and other solvents, as well as packing materials. The zones created for storage and work areas should always be clean. We all eat in our work spaces, so please remember to stay away from the art at mealtime, and empty your trash can each day.

Once you’ve organized your studio into zones, there are two ways to outfit it with needed equipment — buy new, or go green by using recycled materials. A state surplus depot can be a good source for metal shelving, metal carts, flat files, metal cases that can be used for transporting art, furniture and a host of other necessities. Other sources can be a scratch-and-dent sale or a thrift shop. One quick and easy way to create a work table is to use two sawhorses and a 4 x 8 piece of plywood or similar material. This breaks down easily, allowing great flexibility in the use of the space.

2. Handling Artwork

Always have white cotton gloves in your studio, and wear them as a rule when handling art, especially works on paper. Although wearing white gloves can create handling challenges, in the long run it safeguards your work from dirt, soil and fingerprints.

Too often, arts professionals carry paintings by the hanging wire, two at a time. This may seem expedient, but it places your work in great peril. Carry artwork using both hands, one piece at a time. Carry a painting in a vertical position, never pressed against the body. Hinged works should be carried and stored in their actual orientation, to avoid stressing the hinges. Three-dimensional works should never be carried by protruding parts.

Always remember the two-hand grip and white glove rules!

3. Protecting Your Art

Never store artwork near windows, doors, vents or ceiling fans. Store three-dimensional works on padded metal shelving, placing the heaviest work on lower shelves. Vertical storage bins can be a solution for storing two-dimensional art, so long as each section has adequate space to accommodate one to two works. These bins should be padded, with barriers created between artwork. Ideally, use acid-free materials; if that is not possible, corrugated cardboard will do the job.

If you can’t afford bins, use pallets covered with scrap carpeting wrapped in heavy plastic, to elevate your art and to protect against flooding. Remember to check each pallet for insects and mold before moving it into the studio.

It’s not ideal to stack artwork, but if you find you have to stack works in storage, use cardboard barriers that are larger than the artworks, stack them front to front and back to back, and keep the stacks shallow. It is never a good idea to stack a painting that is not framed, because an unframed painting is vulnerable.

4. Documentation

Documentation in the form of photographic images and an inventory of works is essential for insurance purposes in the event of loss, whether from human causes or a natural disaster. And thanks to digital photography and user-friendly software, there is no longer a reason to avoid this process.

Documenting each piece can be as easy as storing a photograph with catalog information, or you can expand that to include the status of the piece and buyer information. Maintain a similar inventory and documentation of equipment, and keep duplicate files of all these records off-site.

These suggestions begin to scratch the surface about a few precautions that artists can take to help reduce risk to their art and improve the functionality of their studio. Implementing good, sound practices in the studio will go a long way toward safeguarding and protecting your work and being prepared for the unexpected.

Special thanks to Michelle Baker, chief registrar with the South Carolina State Museum for contributing to this essay.

To learn more:

Snyder, Jill and Montague, Joseph, Caring for Your Art: A Guide for Artists, Collectors, Galleries and Art Institutions, third ed. Watson-Guptill, 2001. An easy-to-understand, comprehensive handbook (including diagrams, checklists, and interviews with experts) to ensure your art is well protected within and beyond your studio.

Hogwart, Tim, Best Practices in Fine Art Storage, 2-DVD set. This educational tutorial, geared for individuals and institutions with varying budgets, was produced by The Education Alliance, in partnership with the Upstate Institute of Colgate University (Use this form from The Exhibition Alliance to order it.).

The Studio Protector Blog has a how-to piece on doing a studio inventory.