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Ask a Conservator: Frame of reference?

January 31st, 2013

Antique frames in storage. Photo by Scott Cameron/AGO.

A visitor asks: Do you receive artworks with frames or do you construct them to fit?

Margaret Haupt, deputy director of Collections Management and Conservation at the AGO, replies:

Frames are an integral part of every art collection — they serve to protect and enhance the artwork. The best frames can be works of art themselves. Most of the paintings you see on display at the AGO are exhibited in the frames that were on them when the pieces came to us. Generally, original frames are considered a valuable attribute of the artwork.

A frame protects the picture that it surrounds — it gives us a means of hanging the picture, and protects the edges from damage. When the frame incorporates picture glass in front and a backing layer behind, it can actually provide a sealed microclimate for housing and display. We do upgrade the frames as necessary to ensure that they are structurally sound, they won’t rub the front edges of the paintings and that they are sealed.

AGO framers do make frames whenever an artwork arrives without one, or when the existing frames are inappropriate — in some instances, they can’t be upgraded to be fully functional or they are visually incompatible with the painting.

The Gallery’s framing workshop. Photo by Scott Cameron/AGO.

The work of the Frame Shop is focused on pieces that will be displayed in AGO exhibitions. Staff also ensure that works loaned to other museums for exhibition are presented to their best advantage and that they are framed to withstand both the rigours of travel, as well as any differences between environmental conditions at home and away.

The staff sometimes perform minimal conservation treatments such as stabilizing the structure and surface decoration through consolidation; light cleaning, such as removal of dust; and toning out any distracting losses. More complex interventions are undertaken in consultation with our conservators.

Unknown Italian, 17th century; gold leaf over gesso over carved wood; 220 x 158.2 x 6.2 cm; Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 2000; © 2013 Art Gallery of Ontario.

The AGO has a large collection of historic period frames, many of which are important decorative arts objects in their own right. Those are separately labeled when installed in the galleries with an artwork. We also keep original frames from the Canadian historical collection, as well as any frames that represent a conscious and deliberate choice of the artist for the presentation of his or her work. There are frames in this collection that can even be considered an intrinsic part of the artwork.

We reframe paintings using historic frames when we find a good match. Period frames provide the viewer with a broader sense of the original physical context or environment in which the work was intended to be displayed when it was created.

As a “mat”ter of fact…
Notes from Works on Paper conservator Joan Weir

Works on paper are usually displayed in frames that are fabricated to standardized sizes in the AGO framing shop. As a space-saving measure, because the AGO works on paper collection contains more than 20,000 items, most of the works are only framed up when needed for exhibition. When not on display, the works are stored in their protective acid free mats in boxes in the Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Centre.

A variety of museum matting styles are used for displaying works on paper. Some factors we take into consideration include the date of the work, the type of image, the media being displayed and the artist’s intent. For example a 19th-century etching print may have a window mat that comes up to the printing plate mark, while a contemporary print might not have a window mat at all and may be “float mounted” instead. Some works are artist framed and we would not alter them for display or storage.

Thank you for your question!


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