Australian Fine Artist

Tour of the McClelland Gallery Archives and briefing on methods of storage, archiving and transport of artworks

I was very privileged today to be allowed a tour of the archives in the McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park. As a practising artist and art student the understanding of not only how to produce art but how to store materials and artworks is of major importance if pieces are to outlive their creator. Unless you are studying curating or conserving you may not have the opportunity to look into how to best take care of works on paper for example, so I thought an editorial about the subject might be a good start.

I will be using McClelland’s methods as my prime example for this story so will start with a little more information about their role as a public gallery.

The Role of a Public Gallery such as McClelland is:

  • To promote the gallery and the visual arts by engaging and developing relations with the community through public programs and education. This may include guided tours, workshops, school holiday programs, artist in residency programs, lectures and art chats.
  • To exhibit and display art work from the gallery’s collection or works loaned from other galleries, private collectors or the artists themselves.
  • To occasionally commission artists to create a specific work for their collection.
  • To collect artworks (collection development) through the purchase or acquisition of work.
  • To maintain artworks in their collection (conservation) to ensure works to not deteriorate and will be there for future generations.
  • To research artists and artworks and share knowledge.

The Values that Underpin McClelland are:

  • Excellence – in all aspects of exhibition presentation and preservation of the collection and natural surrounds.
  • Innovation – in programming to inspire, educate and engage a variety of audiences.
  • Identity – to contextualise community involvement and engender a sense of place.
  • Integrity – in accountability to deliver against all areas of strategic plans.

With these things in mind there are various roles for the trustees, employees and volunteers in the gallery. A major one concerned with conserving art works is the Curator.

The Role of the Curator:

  • Management and care of the artworks in the gallery’s collection.
  • Developing the themes and concepts of upcoming exhibitions.
  • Writing catalogue essays, wall texts and interpretive information for the exhibitions.
  • Designing the layout of exhibitions.
  • Organising loan documents for works coming into the leaving the gallery.
  • Identifying works requiring conservation treatments.
  • Maintaining registration information about all the works in the gallery’s collection.
  • Liaising with installation staff about the handling and care of the artworks.
  • Researching information on artists and works.
  • Developing budgets for exhibitions, conservation and acquisitions.
  • Added to these may be researching new and better methods of conserving and storing artworks for the collection.

Conservation of Artworks

Conservation in contrast to restoration aims to restore work in its original condition for as long as possible. Preservation aims to do this by correct storage, handling and display of times. Restoration or remedial conservation is sometimes required to stop further damage to repair damage that has occurred.

To ensure the optimal conditions for the safe storage and display of works that gallery has a number of controls in place relating to temperature, humidity and lighting. These conditions preserve our collection but also ensures that other galleries know these requirements are being met when works are on loan from them.

Note that conservation today means that anything done to an artwork needs to be easily undone. This may mean that for example, an oil painting has a protective layer put on it and only archival acrylics colour matched and painted on to present a painting in a gallery. Technology changes and improves so anything done needs to not damage the materials on the original work. This would also include repair of any rips or tears in the canvas or paper used in the original work.

Temperature and Humidity

Maintaining the optimal temperature and humidity inside the gallery is important as fluctuations can cause the expansion or shrinkage of materials and may cause surface materials to crack or warp.

McClelland Gallery has a climate control system that maintains the temperature at 21 degrees Celsius and humidity at 50%.

The climate control system also has an air pollution filter to reduce particles in the air and dust as these can be very abrasive. As such carpet in the gallery is not the preferred flooring as it creates dust. Where it is used it is 100% wool and not synthetic.

Lighting

Both the type and level of lighting is also controlled in the gallery as dyes and pigments are vulnerable to damage by light. McClelland uses halogen and tungsten lighting that creates a yellowing light which helps to protect works and has little or no UV. A lux meter measures the amount of light in any given area, the optimal lighting depends on the style of work, such as works on paper in contrast to an oil painting or a sculpture.

Sculptures are often made from materials that are not light affected so storage and display lighting is more thematic.

Works on paper are very vulnerable to light damage. They are shown at 50 lux or less and are not displayed for long periods of time. They are often rested at a ratio of 3:1 meaning that they will be stored for three times longer than they are on display. Direct light and sunlight will damage paper and the pigments used on it.

Paintings are often shown in lighting up to 200 lux. You will notice that the lighting in a gallery for an oil painting will be brighter than for works on paper.

Handling artworks

When handling artworks is is always a good idea to wear protective gloves. This prevents oils and dirt from hands damaging artworks. Even the cleanest hands will have some oils on them.

Works on paper are carried by the side of the frame and supported underneath, they are never carried but the top of the frame. When resting against walls they are never allowed to touch the floor.

Vessels and pots are lifted holding the sides and supported underneath.

Vermin Control

Insects and vermin can damage artworks by gnawing and leaving droppings. Regular checking of stored and displayed artworks will minimise this happening. Insect repellant and chemicals can damage artworks so the obvious methods used in our homes is not the way to protect art. Sometimes the works are frozen to kill off insects and their eggs. Before using any chemical you need to check that it is safe to use near or on your art.

McClelland also regularly checks all their works on display in the sculpture park. Being exposed to the weather and human interaction means that cleaning and repair are required. Some of the works have a protective coating for dealing with the elements.

Management Reports and Infrastructure

Condition reports are filled out when an artwork enters or leaves the gallery to ensure that no damage has occurred during transit or whilst on display. These reports often accompany artworks as they travel.

Transport of valuable artworks is handled by a professional and experienced group that specifically handle art for galleries. Transportng art may not occur to many but it has to be done as carefully as storing and displaying. The vehicles are specially designed to protect art from weather, heat, cold, damp and damage as well as security from theft. this is much more than the art courier that may take a local artist’s work to a local exhibition.

Security and fire protection are also of major concern to any gallery holding valuable works. Most of this is computer controlled these days with links to central locations that monitor the gallery 24 hours a day 365 days a year. McClelland also has the advantage of live in grounds people so there is always someone on the property looking out for all the artworks.

My Tour

I know all the above is a lot of technical information to take in but more important, I feel than my own personal impressions and feelings about touring the archives, which was, by the way, amazing.

I saw how the works on paper are stored, the oil paintings and sculptures. My plans for my own studio have been enhanced and in some cases confirmed which is good. I already use map drawers to store my pastels, water colours and drawings. I use archive bags from Seniors, but may have to rethink this with the addition of either glassine or tissue paper included over the works to help prevent static build up pulling any of the medium off the paper. I had noticed this happening to a few of my pastels in particular, so may invest time soon in going through the drawers and fixing this issue.

I had thought of making up pull out wire racks (not as big as McClelland) to hang framed or wired oils from as well as building some racks for frames and other paintings. Storing back to back in the racks is done at McClelland and I am happy to say I already do that. I am now looking forward to having my rack system as well as it makes access to works so much easier for brief inspections.

Imogen also showed me Solander Boxes. Black boxes to store smaller works on paper. They also look like a good idea if you have shelves handy. All the works on paper are stored with acid free materials around them which is what I aim to do as well.

The big part of the tour on a personal level was left until last. A small McCubbin oil sketch and a bonus of an E. Phillips Fox painting. All I can say is WOW. How many of us are allowed to get so close to an original master’s work? I was able to closely inspect nearly every brush stroke by these two Australian icons. Having just finished reading a book about McCubbins’ final years from 1907-1917 and his methods of painting and how they evolved as he learnt from other artists and developed his own style right to the end of his life, I was able to really “see” what he had done to get the effects in his work. Similarly with the Fox painting. Such simple areas of paint leading to that gorgeous face of a lady looking into a mirror. What was she thinking, how did she feel? So many questions as the artist led me around the painting.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the studio after this experience to talk about everything I had learnt.

What this all means for me

There are a few of aspects and reasons why I was so keen to have this tour of the archives.

  • One is that I feel I need to build a studio that maintains and protects all the materials and completed artworks in it.
  • I now know that I need to create an assets register. This will mean a stocktake and inventory of the studio but better done before the collection gets even bigger and during summer whilst I have the time. This is more than just the files I have already started, it will be a database for quick reference for insurance as well as control and preservation of assets.
  • Another is that I think I should be advising clients on how to care for their purchases so that they get the best experience and longest “service” from it. A handout when a work is sold is feeling like a good idea and well as a value added service.
  • Another is better understanding of how to create artworks that will last by selection of materials.
  • The final one is to pass on information to other artists about this important part of our practice. We need to know how it all works, the transporting, the storage at venues and the hanging at venues. We can then judge if a place will care for our work properly before we send it there and how we send it.

It’s all about being more informed. If we understand the whole process we can appreciate what galleries do to preserve the major works we see when visiting them. We can make better decisions about our own practices and who we deal with as we exhibit and sell.

I hope this has been an interesting article and has given you some things to think about or helped to improve your practice or interest in art.

Special thanks to Imogen Good at McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park for the tour of the archives, her valuable time in talking over the practices of the gallery and for use of the notes which I have drawn from to produce this article.

McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park is open:
Tuesday to Sunday: 10am – 5pm.
Closed on Mondays and some Public Holidays. There is a lovely cafe in the gallery for snacks or lunch.

The address is: 390 McClelland Drive, Langwarrin, Victoria.

The gallery can be phoned on: International: 61 3 9789 1671 Australia: 03 9789 1671

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