Stop Handling Your Art Like It's Homeless

Take a look at this 1 min. 51 sec video from the Museum of Modern Art, which features the artist Polly Apfelbaum installing one of her works.

Did you catch it?
It starts at the 17-second mark.
Notice the special box that Apfelbaum created for the separate pieces of her installation. The box is divided, numbered, and–no doubt–archival. Each component of her work has a home that keeps it clean and retains its form.
Apfelbaum didn't bring her art to the museum in leftover plastic grocery bags. She treated her art as if it belonged in a world-class institution.
Are you doing the same for your art?
Don't excuse yourself by saying, “Sure, Apfelbaum is in MoMA. I'm not!” You have to start caring for your art like it belongs in a museum. Now. If you don't, no one else will.
There's no time to waste.
Many thanks to Barbara Wisnoski for sharing this video with me.

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33 thoughts on “Stop Handling Your Art Like It's Homeless”

  1. Thanks, Alyson. Always a good reminder. BTW – have you ever done a post on how to properly catalog your work? Electronic vs. paper? What info goes in it? I have no clue how to do this right and I’m sure there are others who don’t either.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jackie: We go over inventory cataloging in the Get Organized class. It’s also on pages 20-23 in my book.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Michelle: Thanks for sharing that post. I know it will help out a lot of people–especially those who don’t sew!

  2. A great post, Alyson and I enjoyed Polly’s video. She handles each piece of her composition with respect also. Just another example that the persona we present to people is the persona we become — successful artist vs starving artist.
    It is interesting watching artists drop off their work for exhibitions. The more professionally the “drop off presentation” is, the more careful and respectful the staff seems to treat artwork.
    I’ve brought my own work in a few times and it seems that those artists who bring their art in as if it is packaged for shipping (wrapped and protected) have much more careful handling, placed in a safe location such as a table or separate room. Other artworks that are brought in like it was just taken off the wall seem to be stacked in a corner against a wall along with other works sometimes one on top of another.
    If we treat our artwork as something that requires careful handling, I believe our artwork will be treated that way and we’ll have better outcomes of not having scratched or damaged work returned to us.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jean: I love this: “The more professionally the “drop off presentation” is, the more careful and respectful the staff seems to treat artwork.”
      It really goes back to the heart of my point. People will treat your art the same way you do. You model behavior and response.

  3. Great advice, Alyson! I enjoyed the video too.
    It’s also important for artists to treat their work professionally after it has been sold. The time and care we put into creating our work should extend to how we ensure it arrives at its new home safely. At the art shows and festivals I do, I’m always surprised when I see customers carrying artwork they’ve purchased in either non existent or inadequate packaging. The worst recently was a medium-sized stained glass piece being carried without any packaging at all, around an outdoor festival where the customer had to load it onto a bus to get to his own car. That artist missed an opportunity to show how valuable his piece was by protecting it properly, as well as a marketing opportunity for his work by having his name on the packaging.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Good point, Michelle. I keep a box that a painting was shipped to me in. It was made especially for that piece and I would never transport the painting any other way.

  4. Very good post Alyson. I noticed too that not only was the art work packaged well, but Polly also presented herself professionally. She came neatly dressed, no ripped or painted clothing. Those crucial few seconds to make an great impression came off to her advantage.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Yes. Of course, let’s assume that she knew she was going to be recorded. And there’s the possibility that it was edited. But still, she articulated herself very well.
      Lesson: If you make a video, dress appropriately, practice, and be willing to edit until you sound really good.

  5. My artwork typically has fabric elements that can be rolled up as well as rigid elements (wood, metal) that could be damaged. To protect the elements during shipping and storage, plus keep all the pieces together, I always create custom padded cases for each work. Here is a blog post written by one curator which shows how one of my works was stored and installed, with pictures of the storage bags.
    One thing I have learned over time is to label each protective bag, no matter how small. One time, after returning home from installing a solo show, I realized that I had no idea which artwork went with which small fleece bags. The moral of the story is to protect everything and label everything.
    To me, the custom case is the finishing touch and shows my professionalism as an artist.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Nice, Jill. I’m guessing the work isn’t stored in the plastic bags. I think that’s important to mention. The work needs air circulation. But using those giant Ziploc bags is a great way to protect during shipping–I would think. I bought some of those bags years ago and I rarely find use for them.

    2. You are correct, Alyson. The plastic bags were just for protection in the shipping process in case the box got wet and I do not use them for storage. I wondered if I should have made that clear!

  6. Guilty as charged. I could do a better job with my photography installations. Thanks for this whack on the side of the head! As usual!
    I find it interesting that the artist says (at 1:18), “to walk around the piece is really important…” but then makes that impossible as she continues into a corner. But… surely she was aware and wanted that specific amount of exposure as one walks about the piece.
    THAT is the part about art and artists and art installations that is so empowered: the artist can control our vision (or not).
    I love this piece.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Sorry for the whack, Mckenna.
      You can walk around half of the piece. Usually, an installation artist is constrained by the space. And I would argue that the frustration of not being able to get into that corner supercharges your experience of the work.

    2. Yes! No argument from me! I agree and that is why I stated: “But… surely she was aware and wanted that specific amount of exposure as one walks about the piece.”
      That is the power of her installation. I had just heard her personally encouraging and inferring that walking around the installation was important, but then did not let it happen (completely) and THAT was intriguing and fully sides with your observation that it would supercharge the viewers experience.
      I love your whacks!

  7. Claudine Intner

    Uh oh. I will admit it… I have transported art in black trash bags.
    Does anyone have recommendations on how to transport canvases? Where do you buy boxes or other appropriate transportation materials for art?

    1. In a word, ULINE. I ship four paintings a week all over the country. ULINE has pretty much whatever you need.

    2. Alyson Stanfield

      Thanks for sharing that, Patricia. Between you and Michelle, we have great instructions for making sleeves.

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  9. I have taught drawing and painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art for many years now. At the middle and again at the end of each semester I require each student to come in and set up a formal display of all their work. One of the things that hits you over the head watching this is how a minority of the students bring their work into the review is mint condition. Most of the art students take some care of their work, but the ones who take a little extra care really stand out. Almost but not always, they are the most talented and hardest working students. But even when their work isn’t quite as strong, the impression it makes in its clean and undamaged condition speaks loudly that they are going places in the art world.

  10. I repectfully submit that, while handling artwork properly should be de rigeur, there are a LOT of other factors that some into play: what level of artwork are you creating? Does your customer want to PAY for archival materials? Do they CARE if your work is archival? I consistently ask my clients for whom I do commissions what kind of substrate they prefer when quoting the work – 99 percent of the time the response is “I don’t care if it’s archival; by the time anything happens I’ll be dead!” For the one percent who does care, of course, I do a 100 percent archival piece, but they do pay extra for that.

    1. Jan, I appreciate your position, but must disagree. I submit it’s not simply about the level of art you create, but the level of art you want to appear to create. What you’re saying is that since you drive an old car you needn’t take care of it because it’s old. I may drive an older car, but I take really good care of it to hold the value, since it may become a collector’s item one day.
      To not use the best materials or to not hold your work in high esteem – and treat it so – is shortsighted and will probably short circuit your efforts to grow your artistic career.

  11. Again, while I used to have that ideal; stretching my own linen canvases, multiple coats of rabbit skin glue, oil primed with sanding in between the coats, copper nails, and all that – in this day and age with the economy we have, there are choices to be made. I need to make a living.
    I received my BFA in Industrial Design years ago, and of course, in college you are taught to have a purist view of the design aesthetic. I found out that while having a purist design “morality” as it were, most of the world operates under other constraints, and compromises need to come into play or you will starve and go out of business. That’s just the way things are. Thus, in order to price my work competetively so that I have a good ratio of dollars and time spent to dollars earned, producing and selling enough work to pay my bills, I have found that same system of compromises, to the extent I can keep my work as archival as possible while still being able to produce enough of it and at a price point that will allow me to sell 4-5 paintings per week, there are some things that have had to be compromised – I use ready-made canvases, for example. All I am saying is that of course you should treat your work with respect, but, I recognize all too well exactly where my work fits in the “big picture” of all the millions of representational artists out there, and I accept that; yes, perhaps I am jaded, I truly do enjoy what I do, but being a purist is not something that I can afford to do.

    1. Meant to interject that I found out about having to compromise during my 12 year tenure as an Industrial Designer, prior to my foray into the fine art world.

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