Monday, June 09, 2008

Curating Art at Home

As a museum curator, I get a lot of questions about the art in people’s homes. In this column, I’ll be addressing some of the more common questions. For example, I am often asked: “How do I take care of an artwork I just [bought/inherited/had framed]?” Ideally, artwork should be installed in a climate-controlled building with 50% humidity, low or zero UV light, and a 24-hour security system. What’s that, you say? You don’t live in a museum? Okay, here are the basics. Artwork should not be hung in direct sunlight. When framing, choose acid-free matting and UV glass or plexiglass. Ask your framer for specific advice on materials and methods. Make sure the nails are well-anchored in the wall and the hanging hardware is solidly attached. Use a stud-finder (available for $10+) and a level when installing. A laser-level is a nifty gadget, but only necessary if you find yourself doing a lot of rearranging.

What about rules for decorating with art? Ideally, hang with the center at eye level or as near as possible without butting up against the furniture below. Slight asymmetry is better than strict symmetry. Think in terms of color families, composition or subject similarities rather than rigorous matching. You may want to group all of your pictures of flowers, for example, or everything with red in it, or four or five square things. These would make good groupings with perhaps unexpected results. I often find that I see an artwork differently when I hang it with new companions.

Don’t be afraid to rearrange when you get tired of your current look. You can often redecorate by shopping in your own home. Just take everything off the walls of one or more rooms and look through closets and behind doors for framed things or plaques or anything you may have stashed since you last decorated. Lean the works against the wall and start playing with them or use a large table to arrange groups. You could also measure each object, cut out a piece of craft paper in the shape of each one and tape them on the wall in the arrangement you’re considering. Rearrange until you’re happy with the look and only then start hammering nails.

You can also look for beautiful or sentimental items in your cabinets or on bookshelves and highlight them. You may have a plate or a jug hidden away that would look terrific on display. If you have a collection, honor it. Buy or make display shelving and bring out your collection of antique teacups or your family collection of embroidery or cross-stitch pieces. Children’s artwork can also be charming and need not be elaborately framed.

On the other hand, if you don’t love a piece of artwork, put it away for a while. You can always bring out that picture of a lighthouse again if you find you miss it terribly. It’s better to have a small quantity of artwork, decorative arts and photos on display that you really love to look at than a clutter of things you don’t care if you ever see again. Don’t be afraid of open spaces!

Framing doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You can certainly spend on custom framing, acid-free mats, and UV glass if you are framing a one-of-a-kind piece that is meant to last forever. In fact, I highly recommend it for original works of art. It’s sort of like making insurance payments on your new car; consider quality framing an insurance policy for your new work of art. However, if your budget is low and you’re framing something inexpensive, such as an LRMA exhibition poster, you can also find simple, reasonably priced frames at big box hobby stores. Sometimes I will buy inexpensive frames but pay extra for a nice custom mat that really suits the artwork, which is my frugal compromise. Here at the Museum, we tend to use simple frames in subtle metals or wood, painted black or white, with acid-free mats in neutral tones for contemporary works of art. If you use colored mats, you may find you need to re-mat the work in 10 or 20 years, as color trends will go in and out of style. On the other hand, at LRMA we are framing for posterity, and you are framing to please yourself.

If you are looking for art but don’t have a big budget, shop at the local frame shops, the LRMA Museum Shop and arts festivals such as Day in the Park, where you can support your local artists. You can often buy original works of art for less than the cost of framed poster-prints sold at outlets and decor stores. You can also buy inexpensive art at student shows such as those at Jones County Junior College and the University of Southern Mississippi. Above all, buy art that you love, and live with it for as long as you love it.

Jill R. Chancey, PhD
LRMA Curator

[originally published in the Laurel Leader-Call, 6/8/9]

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