Aug 01, 2023

5 Tips for Finding the Right Frame for Your Art

In the 1980s, Pictures Generation pioneer Sarah Charlesworth fostered a collaboration with downtown art framer Yasuo Minagawa. Edging her works with lacquer frames, her photographs’ backgrounds seemed to bleed into their surroundings. The results were clean-cut, monochromatic sculptural works in which images energetically popped out of their flatness through their impeccably matching frames.

Minagawa's New York Times obituary in 2015 underlined the craftsman's relationship with artists who visited his Great Jones Street store, Minagawa Art Lines, for custom framing, including—in addition to Charlesworth—Elizabeth Murray, Dan Colen, and Jennifer Barlett. Today, contemporary artists such as Shilpa Gupta, Elad Lassry, and Todd Gray continue to push two-dimensionality towards a sculptural realm by incorporating frames into their photographic practices.

Art is made to be seen, so it's no surprise that framing—along with effective lighting, intelligent curation, and smart wall coloring—is of central importance to a work's presentation. But while institutions and galleries have the professional knowledge and resources to confidently navigate the framing process, for collectors it can be overwhelming: An ideal frame must safeguard the objet d’art while conjuring a visual symphony with the work and its surrounding, all while fitting a collector's budget. And, like any aesthetic industry, framing evolves through the decades and shape-shifts in response to different trends and needs.

Below are five tips to keep in mind the next time you frame an artwork.

"Rule number one: identify the artwork," said Robert Benrimon of Skyframe, which has shops in Chelsea and New Jersey. It's important to find a fine-art framer who has an understanding of the work's monetary and intellectual value, as well as its medium. This means that collectors might need to use several different framers, depending on the kind of works that are in their collection: Framing a fragile Louise Bourgeois ink on paper from the 1950s is going to require a different approach than doing the same for a recent MFA graduate's editioned digital print, and the insight framers bring to the areas they work in is invaluable.

Galleries and museums return to established framers not only to benefit from their technical skillset, but also for their knowledge on specific subject matter. For example, Benrimon pointed out that "Andy Warhol or KAWS screen prints are always very delicate." Collectors should look for that level of expertise when searching for a framer—one reason the owner of the 39-year-old shop has clients such as Gagosian and Staley-Wise Gallery.

In addition to providing an aesthetic accent, framing shields the art. Protection from UV lights and the sun, dust, physical contact, and other outside harms is in fact the primary goal of any seasoned framer. "Look for an expert who offers conservation framing," said Daniel Beauchemin, the CEO of Chelsea Frames, which has been operating at the epicenter of New York's gallery circuit for a few decades. "Conservation framing not only protects the art but also makes sure the treatment is safely reversible—we have to protect the art from outside effects as much as from itself."

This includes mounting the art onto a surface without harming its back and corners. "Cardboard will leak acid to the paper, so support the art work with wood or acid-free boards made from cotton and avoid plastics," added Benrimon. He also explained that in the mounting process, he uses everything from pocket corners to rice paper hinges to mulberry hinging paper, depending on the piece he's working with. A seasoned framer will be able to make recommendations and explain the differences between these different methods, so don't be afraid to ask.

Haruo Kimura, who started his career with Minagawa and later opened his own frame shop in Brooklyn, East Frames, noted that the protective quality of plexiglass is constantly improving. "I recommend Optium Museum Plexiglass for those who can afford the material," he added. The anti-reflective, virtually invisible sheeting is a top choice among museums and high-profile collectors. And while it can be more expensive upfront than more budget options, future-conscious framing helps secure a damage-free lifespan for a work, which, according to Kimura, "is a way to guarantee that the art will not decrease in value."

Collectors should be sure to opt for reversible framing when having one of their pieces worked on. This allows art to have a facelift down the road—as framing trends change or to complement rooms that are redecorated, for instance—by giving it a new frame, and assures that a work isn't damaged during the process.

And while it's important to be proactive in asking for reversible options, there will likely be cases where collectors will need a work reframed that hasn't been handled as carefully in the past, whether that's because a previous owner opted for a less-than-desirable frame or a frame becomes damaged. That means it's crucial to work with framers who are comfortable dealing with the conservation elements of these more challenging cases.

For example, multiple framings of a work may result in a damaged back, which requires paper fillers for conversation, or a framer might suggest updating the way a work is mounted or the glass used to cover it—what Benrimon calls "sunscreen for art"—to better protect it. And when it comes to restretching canvases, an important but crucial detail is to do so using its existing holes rather than punching new ones.

Whether organic wood shades such as maple, walnut, and cherry, the timeless safe arms of black or white, or more experimental pastels, color options are more abundant than ever. "We have 10 shades of white," Kimura said. And there are similarly numerous decisions to be made on the materials front.

Today, many framers are trying to commit to more sustainable materials and use wood that meets the ethical sourcing standards approved by PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Metal frames exist as well, and chrome is gaining popularity as a nostalgic nod to the 1980s. With so many choices and the extended amount of time spent at home due to the pandemic, Beauchemin has noticed that now collectors "take their time to really search different styles in framing as part of their home renovation projects."

While all those choices may seem daunting at first, a good framer will be eager to guide collectors to options that work best for the artwork, complementing instead of overshadowing it. "We should listen to the story the artist has provided us—we cannot tell a whole new one with the framing," explained Beauchemin. "Our work can be a punctuation to the work." Customers may knock on his door with the vision of a yellow frame that would match the blue and yellow cushions on their sofa.

But Beauchemin thinks stepping in is crucial at that stage. "If the artist intended for more yellow, they would already have more of it in the work," he explained. "Art should not become an interior design element." According to Benrimon, muted color palettes help achieve this humble effect: "Our goal is minimum interruption." And, for Kimura, unless an artist approaches him with a specific vision about custom framing which serves as a part of the art itself, "frames must respect the art and almost disappear."

Contemporary art comes in various shapes, materials, and sizes, which may require innovative thinking for framing. Reframing a roughly handled or damaged work of art may require a surgeon's precision. Benrimon remembers cutting a zigzagged wooden frame for a Warhol. According to Kimura, who once handled a piece made out of spider nests, fragile materials with moving and/or unsteady parts are a major challenge. He also notices that artists are constantly enlarging the scale at which they work, which leads to wood-cutting challenges at his studio.

Of course, more difficult framing jobs, and the expertise to pull them off, won't be the cheapest option. On this front, Beauchemin said that customers should realize that they’re paying for a premium service: "The client must understand that more complicated intricate projects raise the cost." But even for more straightforward jobs, the cost pays dividends in the long run. A film poster which cost the collector $15, he explained, "might turn into a collector's item in a few decades.…A straight $300 framing with metal or wooden frame for $20 a foot and UV plexiglass can in fact preserve that potential value." It's better to do framing—as with many things—the right way the first time around.