Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Visitors to the Museum may walk through the galleries and imagine that installation of an exhibition isn’t that much different than decorating your own home, just on a larger scale. You take your photo or painting to a craft store or framer, and when you pick it up someone has carefully wrapped a piece of picture wire around the hooks on the back of your frame. You take the piece home, put a nail in the wall, you fit the wire over the head of the nail, and you step back to survey a job well done.
Unfortunate, things are not quite so straightforward for a professional art handler faced with hanging a frame with picture wire on the back. The only thing picture wire will present to an art handler is a headache.
Picture wire does not offer the level of precision a professional art handler needs. During exhibit installation the curator may provide instructions such as that the center of every frame is 58 inches from the floor, or the side of each frame should be one and a half inches from its
label. Some of the frames may need seven inches between them and others should be five inches apart. Once a curator has settled on those measurements, and the art handler has done all of the appropriate math, the curator might then ask them to hold it up so she can see it in place. Then move it an inch or so over… another half inch or so… maybe half an inch up. Now the art handler has to install the frame right in that spot, perfectly level, and secure.
With picture wire there is nothing to lock the frame into place. It can shift left to right. The wire sags in different places and getting an exact height can be frustrating. The weight of the frame can tip forward, and it can easily slip just enough so it isn’t level any more. Ah, remaining level – that’s a problem we all encounter in our own homes, whether you are hanging one picture, or a whole room!
One of the most common installation methods is to use the same rings that usually hold the picture wire to the back of the frame. These are called D-rings, because they resemble the letter D.
Picture hooks are nailed or screwed into the wall at the exact locations that the D-rings sit on the frame when it is in the correct position on the wall. The D-rings themselves are then fit over the hooks, and the frame is in its precise location, and if all of the math is correct, it is also level.
Another common method is to use bell plates. These are small, curved, brass plates. The flat side of the plate is screwed into the frame just like the D-ring would be. Then the curved side of the plate is screwed directly into the wall. There are advantages to this method. The frame lays flatter on the wall, and the art handler can see the frame up against the wall while they are working if they need to make adjustments. There are also disadvantages. The bell plates are visible next to the frame which is distracting when the visitors are viewing the artwork. Art handlers will then usually paint over the plates with the same paint used on the wall. Then they blend in, and the art handlers end up with trays full of different colored plates and screws.
For a frame that is particularly large or heavy D-rings or bell plates may not be strong enough. In that situation art handlers will sometimes use cleats to hang the artwork. As shown below, one wooden angled cleat is installed on the wall and a matching wooden cleat is installed on the back of the frame. The cleats fit together and hold the artwork securely in place on the wall.
Occasionally, sculptures or flat works that do not have their own protective covering are installed on a wall in the museum. This is the case for a large collage in one of the Museum’s current exhibitions, The City and the Young Imagination: Art From Studio in a School. In a circumstance like this art handlers will sometimes install a large sheet of Plexiglas over the artwork. This protects the art, but also provides security at the same time. The Plexiglas cannot touch the artwork, which would be harmful to the piece, so the art handlers will use small metal bump outs, as pictured below, to hold the Plexiglas in place and keep it away from the face of the artwork. This artwork appears to float on the wall, but in fact it is secured with metal clips and is protected at all time by the Plexiglas.
Another installation method which allows artwork to appear floating on the wall is hanging wire from a picture rail. This method is currently being used in the display cases in the Museum’s ongoing exhibition New York at Its Core. With this method a rail is installed at the top of the wall. Wires are hooked into the rail and then dangled down to the wall to where the framed artwork will hang. The wire is then attached to the D-rings. This method can be beautiful and appear very unobtrusive to the viewer, but requires patience and precision from the art handler, who must get the exact lengths of wire to make the frames all look level.
These are just a few common methods for installing artwork on a wall. Although every situation is unique, and each piece of art is different and has its own specific needs, most art handlers will agree (and thoroughly explain to other exhibitions staff) that almost no framed artwork needs picture wire on the back. However, we leave it up to you to best determine the needs of your home artwork installations!