I am downsizing my home and will be storing several large works of art for a few years, decades … who knows at this point. They will be stored in my new home, but I haven’t decided exactly where yet. There are a couple of options. What is the best way to prepare a painting for long term storage?
Q in Raleigh
Thanks so much for writing in with this question! This is a great topic that a lot of collectors must reckon with at some point. Whether you have a high-dollar art collection or one filled with sentimental works that you want to save for future generations, it’s worth going above and beyond to make sure each and every work is guaranteed to survive the long-term hibernation. Er well, you know, as guaranteed as anything ever is.
First things first: where you store these works is the most important decision of all. You said you are storing them in your home, so you need to give some serious thought as to the best location. I suggest testing the average humidity of your potential storage space to make sure it’s moderate. Moisture is detrimental to paintings, so you need to find a cool, dry place — as in around 70 degrees. Chances are, if you’re feeling good, so are your paintings. And you want to make sure it’s a steady 70-ish degrees. Fluctuations in temperature can cause expansion and contraction of materials, which can lead to a host of problems like warping, discoloration, and mold growth. So if your basement is damp and muggy in the summer but cold and dry in the winter, then nope! Find somewhere else. Additionally, continuous sunlight is bad for basically everything — even you, my delicate flower — so aim for somewhere dark and preferably windowless.
Next, clean! If you’ve got a bunch of frames, do yourself a favor and make sure everything is free of dust and general gunk. Use soft, fresh microfiber cloths for this step. No harsh or wacky products.
SIDE NOTE: if you’re storing a recently purchased an oil painting, make absolutely certain that it’s dry. That’s right, some oil paintings can take up to a year to dry, especially those with thick impasto passages or an overall dense texture.
I consulted a professional paintings conservator — Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation Center — about this matter specifically. (Full disclosure: I work as her assistant at CACC.)
“When it comes to wrapping the painting,” she said, “it has to be framed and NOTHING should come into contact with the painted surface. An unframed piece should be prepared for storage by a professional art handler or conservator.”
For framed paintings, you can wrap the work in tissue paper or another breathable material. Ensure you have appropriate padding and support to protect any delicate or ornate parts of the frame: bubble wrap, styrofoam supports, etc. work well here.
Contrary to popular belief (i.e., the Internet), you don’t want to wrap the painting completely in plastic. An airtight seal can create what is essentially a little greenhouse around your artwork. Have you seen The Martian yet? Well, spoiler alert, Matt Damon grows potatoes in space! All it requires is a plastic bubble, his own excrement, and some science magic.* It’s very impressive, and a vivid illustration of the capabilities of an airtight seal.
“The use of plastic really depends on the storage situation,” Stow said.
Once your framed paintings are wrapped appropriately, place the works into a cardboard box. You should use a thick, sturdy box like a moving company would supply. Individual cardboard boxes are ideal, but if you need to consolidate, separate each painting with a cardboard divider. The cardboard boxes and tissue paper both allow the painting to “breathe” while still being protected from the elements.
If you can’t get a full box for each one, sandwich the wrapped work (framed or unframed) between two sheets of cardboard or foamcore, and secure with tape. Again, just make sure that nothing touches the surface of the painting.
Once you’ve got them all snug and settled, snap a photograph of your paintings in their storage location. This is purely for (my own) paranoid insurance reasons, but in the event of a disaster, heaven forbid, it’s nice to have proof that you had 20 (or however many) valuable paintings in whatever space they are in.
Good luck on your move, Q! I hope this helps. To be on the safe side, I’d definitely recommend asking for assistance from a professional to help you tailor the storage specifically to your collection’s needs.
*This is a rough summary. For full details, see a botanist.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.