This is the second installment of a four-part series on how to exhibit, prepare and promote your work, plus how to think about curators judging it. I have drawn on lectures, workshops, research, and nearly thirty years of twenty-four solo exhibits and over one-hundred group/juried shows in Carolina, Maine, and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Caveat: I know drawing, painting, and printmaking best and will focus much of my attention on two-dimensional work, but many of the same principles apply to sculpture, ceramics, and other three-dimensional work. I have often framed and installed my own work but I have also used professionals and have called on some for this article.

Northport artist Stew Henderson has installed artwork in a wide variety of venues and worked for thirty years in two different museums, the Farnsworth in Rockland and as Senior Preparator at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville. He wisely advises: “When you present your art to a gallery or deliver it to be exhibited, you need to be prepared. Have the work framed properly, have the correct hanging hardware on the piece, handle your work carefully. Nobody will respect or appreciate your art unless you do.”

Whatever you are presenting, first be sure to take some good, well-lit digital photos of it beforehand, maybe from different angles, in the case of 3D work. Take photos of 2D work in its entirety, edge to edge, before you frame it, images that you can straighten and correct for color or exposure on your computer. A good smartphone or digital camera can do that. You may need those images for promotion, record-keeping or submissions. Pictures of the pieces in frames also may be useful for sales. More on photographing and promoting your work in the next installment.

UMVA How to Prepare 2 Richard Whittier Evolution copy

Richard Whittier, Evolution, hand-carved stucco, 28 x 12 x 8 in., 2009.

Artist Richard Whittier once described his work as “sculpture—you know, that stuff you bump into when you’re backing up to look at a painting.” There is some truth to that in that you want any 3D pedestal to be substantial enough always to be noticed in an exhibit room or else in a corner or up against a wall so that this doesn’t happen. Henderson suggests putting weights in the bottom of pedestals and attaching sculpture in discrete ways that are barely noticeable. He also advises that, if your art requires assembly or has special installation instructions and you are not available, you have clear, concise instructions with photos to help the person installing it.

Sometimes small 3D objects like jewelry or an open sketchbook are best presented and protected in a glass or Plexiglas-enclosed display case, if you can find or borrow one. Allowing the public to leaf through a sketchbook or book art with provided white gloves is sometimes done but it is risky because of potential wear and tear. I would rather display a sketchbook in a case, open to two favorite pages with perhaps good photocopies of a few other pages shown with it. Assemblage works of found-object art may be a kind of hybrid genre in a category by themselves, somewhere between 2D bas reliefs and sculpture. They might be displayed on pedestals or hung–flat to the wall. Your craftsmanship, technical ability, and assembly skills are often very important to the finished piece and its presentation.

UMVA How to Prepare 3 KHarrisBrill Scatter copy

Kharris Brill, Scatter, assemblage, 24 x 14 x 5.5 in., 2023.

“Don’t forget the framer,” says Lin Calista, owner of Frame by Frame in Searsport and longtime framer for the public and the Penobscot Marine Museum. She knows that some work, particularly charcoal or graphite drawings, pastels or watercolors, look better under glass and need the protection from dirt, dust, grim, moisture, smudging, and sneezes. Powdery pigments may need to be sprayed with a few light coats of fixatives made for that purpose. Don’t apply so much that it flattens or changes their robust/delicate character but enough that they do not shed dry pigment or smudge with handling or stacking. They are sometimes best framed lightly adhered to a (white?) backing with a narrower mat (or frame stripping), acting as a spacer between the artwork and a second, wider mat (or the frame) to catch and keep any falling dry pigment off the outer mat and to keep the outside glass/Plexiglas off the art surface. Professional framers know how to do all this very well.

UMVA How to Prepare 4 BernadettedeCesare BlackHoleSun copy

Bernadette de Cesare, Black Hole Sun, pastel, 18 x 24 in., 2019.

Henderson reminds us that the biggest threat of damage to art is often the sun, as conservators cannot bring back faded work. Such works on paper almost always look best surrounded by a mat to allow them space and set them apart from surroundings. Works under glass without a mat often look crowded and unprofessional. If you are going to choose a mat, give it generous width and use acid-free, archival material that won’t yellow with time, particularly along the cut edges, and won’t yellow your work—assuming you used acid-free, archival materials for the artwork. Museums used to feel white or off-white was the only choice in mat color, in order not to distract from the art. However, you now sometimes find black or colored mats in museum pieces to enhance the art. If you use a colored mat, a good rule of thumb is to pick up a neutral color from the art—one not too bright nor too dull, not too dark nor too light—so as to enhance and not detract from the art. Also be aware that colors can fade under long exposure to the sun or other light, even colors in the art itself. The same rule of thumb goes for the frame itself. Calista suggests exploring different possible framing options such as floater frames, spacers, and multiple mats, including a darker color for an inside mat or a thicker eight-ply mat for a dramatic look. She says to make sure your framer does not place glass (even museum glass) directly on the work and to use spacers of museum-quality acrylic which allow air to pass through. She adds that museums are using acrylic frequently now, even on oils, and they have found most damage comes from the back, which means the backs of oils should be sealed as well.

UMVA How to Prepare 5 DavidEstey ManonGreen framedbyLinCalista copy

David Estey, Man on Green, framed by Lin Calista, acrylic on Yupo, 18 x 24 in., 2012.

Professional framers are very helpful in picking out mats and frames that immediately seem compatible with and flattering to the art. You would do well to seek their free advice, whether you decide to frame there or not.

If you decide to frame work yourself, regular window glass from a hardware store is inexpensive and usually adequate for framing most work. Plexiglas is also adequate and lighter weight, but it can be scratched or scuffed up easily. Henderson agrees that Plexiglas should not be used to frame pastels or charcoals because the acrylic Plexiglas sheet often creates static, and will draw the pigment powder and even thin papers onto it. If you must use it, then before you remove the plastic cover that protects it, you can rub both sides of the plexi with a dryer sheet like Bounce to mitigate static. He feels the best Plexiglas to use is Optium Museum Acrylic and that it is ideal if your work is traveling.

Non-glare glass is also popular, a little more expensive and favored by some who don’t like distracting reflections. Especially when there are multiple light sources shining on it, but it also can soften the focus on the work. I prefer standard glass. The best and most expensive choice is museum glass that does not reflect and offers a sharp, clean view of the work.

UMVA How to prepare 6 JaapHelder Shanty copy

Jaap Helder, Shanty, acrylic on panel, 18 x 18 in., 2022.

Some works look better out from under glass with little or no framing, especially oil or acrylic paintings with thick brushstrokes, bold textures, and strong compositions that can hold their own visually in most surroundings. Some look best with simple neutral-colored, non-obtrusive, painted or wrap-around canvas edges. Others may seem a little more “dressed-up” in a floater or cradle frame of thin edging set off with a darkened gap between the frame and the painting. This looks more finished and sets off the painting without being distracting. There again, a frame shop can help determine the best frame color, material, size, and thickness to enhance the art.

Some artists like to make their own mats and frames. That’s fine as long as you are good at using a mat cutter, miter box and squaring tools for a professional-looking job. Others like to use ready-made mats and metal frames. That’s also fine, as long as they look professional, especially since some buyers are going to reframe to suit themselves anyway. Still other artists, like the late Robert Hamilton, choose to make their own homemade frames to suit their quirky art. That’s okay too but it’s risky and requires a keen sensibility about what enhances or distracts from your art and what appeals to your public. If you are part of a gallery or in a particular show, that curator, gallerist, or professional venue may have ideas about appropriate framing, such as having a consistent, professional, look.

UMVA How to Prepare 7 RobertHamilton SameOldDream self portrait copy

Robert Hamilton, Same Old Dream, self-portrait, oil on panel, 24 x 24 in., 2004.

Write on the back (or bottom, in case of 3D pieces) or permanently label your pieces with your signature, printed name, title, year, medium, and dimensions (but not price, as it may change over time). If your 2D piece is then backed with paper in the framing process, put a label with the same information on that, and maybe include address and telephone number, if requested by a venue. Whether you sign the front of the piece is a matter of personal preference but it can make clear right away who did the work. If you do, place it about an inch from the bottom of the work or comfortably within the margins to accommodate framing or matting. Let it be fairly unobtrusive, visually compatible with and not distracting from the art.

When preparing two-dimensional work for wall hanging, be sure to use a system with wiring plenty strong enough to handle the weight, preferably with hardware attached within, rather than on the outside of, the frame backing. That way the piece will hang flat to the wall, ideally with adhesive rubber bumpers to protect the wall from scarring. Henderson prefers using “D” rings as fasteners in two places to keep the work straight, especially for heavier works. They are available at most hardware stores. Do not rely on saw-tooth hangers already attached to some inexpensive frames. When your work is ready and you are transporting it yourself or especially by others, make sure you adequately protect it from banged corners that can easily break the glass, scratched surfaces, and from indentations or punctures in canvas, by using blankets, cardboard spacers, bubble wrap, cardboard corner protectors, or other appropriate measures. If you are using a commercial shipping company, it can advise you best about necessary packaging, safety, insurance options, return labels, and fees.

UMVA How to Prepare 8 JackSilveriosoloexhibitatStudio53 copy

Jack Silverio, 2021 solo exhibit at Studio 53 Fine Art Gallery, Boothbay Harbor.

When installing the actual show, a gallerist, curator or venue will often dictate the process. If you or a group of artists are in charge, the totality of the work and the character of the venue may dictate. I generally prefer work to be grouped by artist, so viewers can put several works in meaningful context, as opposed to having the work of each artist placed apart for the look of the show. However, there are times when chronology, medium, size, style, and subject may be the determining factors. In any case, each work should have ample space around it, without distracting light switches, other wall fixtures or nearby windows to detract from it. Work is often hung with a system of an even visual line across the tops of all works or an invisible line through the middle of all pieces, regardless of size. I prefer a system that sets that invisible line a quarter of the way down each piece and at an average eye level, so that it is at the most comfortable viewing height, regardless of size. Henderson feels the most common sight lines are around fifty-eight to sixty inches from the floor to the center of each piece. Visual placement for a harmonious look might then be an aesthetic arrangement by size. It is best to use LED lighting and avoid direct sunlight.

One of the easiest and quickest ways to judge all of this is to place all the works on the floor and against the available walls until you have an arrangement you like and makes sense. Sometimes extensive shows will be hung in a floor-to-ceiling, salon style, like the famous Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia, but that tends to be overwhelming and not the best way to appreciate individual artists. Labeling is also important. I favor something unobtrusive, but big enough to read easily without going through contortions, containing the artist’s name, maybe location, title of the piece, date, medium, dimensions (of the art only), and maybe the price or NFS (not for sale) or POR (price on request). There again, the venue may determine that. When you finish, stand back and look at the exhibit from different angles and from the point of view of visitors walking in cold. Then make any final adjustments that could enhance their appreciation and understanding of the art.


The next installment in this series will be on “How to Promote Your Work,” before, during, and after an exhibit.


Image at top: Stew Henderson, 2012 solo exhibit at Caldbeck Gallery, Rockland.