What's the Best Frame for My Art?

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Allan McCollum, Collection of 480 Plaster Surrogates, 1982/1989; gray frames, enamel on cast Hydrostone.

I’m in the market for a frame. It’s for a piece of art I bought recently, but there are so many options and decisions to make. I had no idea. I’m a little overwhelmed, to be honest. What’s the best way to frame a work of art?
Frameless J.
A selection of Ikea frames; a perfectly acceptable solution if the art isn't pricey.
A selection of Ikea frames; a perfectly acceptable solution if the art isn’t pricey.

Dear Frameless J.,
For the sake of my response, I am going to assume this is a dreamy, desirable original work of art. If it’s an inexpensive piece of art (poster, inkjet print), I’d say just get an IKEA frame with regular ol’ clear glass and be done with it. What I’m going to discuss here is how to choose a good frame that will carry an original work of art through the years. Framing is not cheap (which people always seem to forget …), so you want to do it right the first time!
For starters, let’s talk frame style. You want to match the frame to the artwork in terms of time period and overall aesthetic. Contemporary works and photographs looks great in sleek all-white frames or minimal natural wood frames; mid-century paintings and prints may look best in darker wood or metal frames; 18th and 19th century painted portraits often need their frou-frou gold-leaf frames. That’s just the way it is. And that’s the number one rule: honor the art with the frame. Think of it like dressing a human. You don’t want to see an old man wearing a tank top, or an old woman in a mini skirt–it’s unbecoming, unsettling, and kind of creepy. Likewise, don’t put an ancient piece of art in a minimal contemporary frame, or vice versa. Let it be age-appropriate.
Also, be wary of choosing a frame that is specifically tailored to your decor. Your home and design tastes may change, and you don’t want to have to change the frame every time that happens. Allow the frame to go with the art and everything will be roses.
Next, mats! Why add a mat? Well, it’s not just an aesthetic accessory, it’s functional. It creates space between the art and the glass, so there’s airflow and over years of muggy springs, hot summers, and freezing winters, the art won’t magically, mysteriously adhere itself to the back of the glass. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, assuming good decisions are made about the mat color, all small works look better matted. Unless it’s, say, a print on paper that has impressive edges, or if the image extends to the very edge of the paper surface; in that case, you wouldn’t want a mat, you should just float it in the center of the frame with plenty of free space around it. Additionally, large-scale photographs or works on paper can hold their own without a mat, but anything under 11-by-14(ish) will almost always look better matted.
Thomas Struth, Art Institute of Chicago II, 1990, chromogenic print.

Now for the glass. You’ll need to choose between clear glass, non-glare glass, and UV-glass (museum quality). If it’s a big piece, definitely opt for non-glare glass; this will make hanging the work in different spots much easier, because you won’t have to fuss with calculating where the infinite number of disruptive reflections might occur. If it’s an expensive artwork, or something fragile that needs safeguarding, spring for museum-grade UV glass. It protects against harmful indoor and outdoor UV rays that can fade pigment and damage the work over time.
Most decent frame shops will only use archival materials, but always ask to make sure. Acid-free everything is the way to go. That’s right, angel face, spend the extra money or else you’ll be dealing with jaundiced mats in no time!
Now, if you are doing the framing yourself, here’s something to keep in mind. When securing anything in place, do not use masking tape or scotch tape or spray adhesive or glue or whatever else you have lying around the house. These can be very destructive over years of being in contact with paper. Instead, use linen tape. It’s reversible and easily removable with a bit of heat.
Last but not least, do not drymount anything, no matter who tells you it’s a good idea. It’s not; it’s a cheap and lazy idea, which is why it’s being suggested to you instead of linen tape, which is more costly and tedious, but infinitely better. Not to mention, drymounting a work of art onto cardboard or some other surface will destroy its resale value, if that’s something you’re concerned with. The drymounting process is permanent! Don’t do it! It’s just all-around bad for the work, bad for you, bad for me. Linen tape only, people!
So there we have it, those are the major points to consider when framing; the rest largely comes down to your own aesthetic preference. Just remember that the frame affects the impact of the artwork in a major way–so don’t skimp on it. Happy framing!
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected] 

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow. 

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