Protecting Your Art Assets: A Collaboration Between Conservation and Custom Framing

By David Chandler, Chief Conservator of Works of Art on Paper; 
and Ryan Butterfield, Director of Custom Framing and Fabrication

(Above) Tulips by Dr. Robert John Thornton

Conservators of art on paper collaborate closely with conservation framers to be certain that all protective measures required are used while housing each work. Concerns for protecting works of art on paper are varied and frequently complex, often depending upon the paper quality or type, or the media used in the art making process.

In early topics on conservation framing, we have identified a number of problems that need to be solved in the re-housing process. The most important is the overall protection of the work while providing the needed aesthetic. Those questions of frame choice can be aided by a conservation framer with a good aesthetic sense along with the understanding of framing choices and possibilities. These talents can often help the collector in that decision making process.

The paper type frequently dictates the methods required to attach the artwork to its backboard. Hinges used by the conservation framer are most often an Asian paper with a fine cooked wheat paste as an adhesive. Hinging papers generally reflect the weight of the work that is being attached. The amount of paste and its consistency are considered on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, the hinging placement and drying process help reduce the possibility of distortion when the hinging process is completed. Weighting the hinges with cotton blotters helps to wick moisture from the hinge, through the work of art; this is a major part in keeping these areas in plane during the drying process, and provides the desired end result, since this tone is no longer the one chosen by the artist.

Improper housing can lead to a multitude of condition issues, many that may become inherent. These condition issues may include distortion, acid and adhesive-staining, adhesion of the sheet to the glazing, and sheet fading. Illustrated in the drawing by Mary Cassatt, sheet fading is seen as a result of framing with non-UV protective glazing, causing discoloration of the sheet which often in turn lessens the contrast between the media and sheet tone.

(Above) Sketch of a Young Girl by Mary Cassatt. Notice the difference in sheet tone between where the work was previously matted as seen around the perimeter, and where the light penetrated through the non-UV filtering glazing. Also, there is evidence of tape residue along the perimeter from being previously mounted to a non-archival board.

(Above) Close-up of sheet fade

Recently The Center worked closely with the private collection of Norman and Virginia Bobins. The goal was to evaluate the entire collection to ensure the works were consistently protected in their housing. Virginia Bobins, who initiated this project, commented, “It is important to constantly think about maintenance of your collection. We value input from the experts we work with. It is like having another set of eyes; they see things you may not see since you live with them. It may be an expense but it is important to protect things for the future.” These Chicago collectors have many and varied interests, among them being fine botanicals, images of pastoral moments from the past, and numerous examples which define the beauty of nature. Many of these works are printed with watercolor additions. The Center re-glazed numerous works in an effort to protect them from future pigment fading and paper darkening. The use of Ultraviolet filtering Plexiglas helps to protect vulnerable works in most instances. Below are some examples of works from the Bobins’ collection that demonstrate proper framing conservation:

(Above) Cottagers Hospitality to Travellers by James Pollard

(Above) Crinum Augustum, Painted by Mrs. E. Bury, Engraved by R. Havell

We recommend to private collectors that newly acquired works need to be opened to assess the materials used in the past, as well as works framed decades prior that may have non-archival elements and materials of housing. Artwork framed as recently as the 1980s may contain acidic materials that can cause damage to the work of art on paper.

The paper and custom framing departments at The Center often collaborate together to identify collection issues that could improve the long term care of the works. We often see a lot of the same problems. For example, several large collections we recently examined together had several repeating issues to address. The Plexiglas used was not always Ultraviolet protective and acidic foam-core backing boards were used which can cause staining after long term contact. In some instances, the work may be mounted directly to a mat with masking or scotch tape pressed against glass, mounted on cardboard, or glued to a backboard. Though these framing materials were common in the past, they are no longer standard. Updating to neutral Ph corrugated backing, new 4-ply mat boards, modern Asian paper hinges, and UV filtering Plexiglas will insure the safety of the work.

It is important for the longevity of the work to have old materials updated and to have the work examined by a conservator while unframed. These are all issues that should be dealt with before deterioration or damage occurs or accelerates. A good conservation team can assist a collector to enjoy their works for years, meanwhile you as a private collector can learn more about your collection in the process.

(Above) Detail of a conservation framing package with appropriate materials. The backing boards provide extra stability for the work of art. Mats and spacers not only provide a layer between the art and the glazing, but also add an aesthetic quality. The UF3 Plexiglas protects the work from environment and fading. Finally, the acid-free tape enclosed the package without causing harm to the artwork.