Framing artwork is a pain-in-the-ass. If I had my way about it all my artworks would be sold matted but unframed. Let the buyer get it framed, then they can choose any frame of their liking. I’ve actually lost gallery sales because the buyer didn’t like the frame, as if the artwork doesn’t exist independently of the frame. Framing is expensive –especially at the frame shop. I’ve had buyers nickel-and-dime me to death on the price of an artwork only to take it down the block and pay two times the price of the artwork for a frame at a price they don’t even try to negotiate. It’s like they know the value of wood and glass but are entirely clueless on the cost of the actual art. When I have to frame art for an exhibition I have to factor the cost of the frame into the retail price, which increases it dramatically. Imagine a two-hundred dollar artwork in a two-hundred dollar frame. That’s four-hundred dollars without any markup. If the gallery sells the artwork for four-hundred, and remits fifty percent back to me I make exactly nothing because the two-hundred dollars I get goes to pay for the frame (the gallery does not share framing costs). So I have to double the price to cover the cost of framing and make a little profit. Now the artwork is eight-hundred dollars at the gallery and I get four-hundred when it sells and that nets me two-hundred after I reimburse my expense for the frame. And this is simple math because it’s frame-only, I’m not factoring in my expense in making the print nor my time to create the artwork. Framing is a major factor making art costly (buyers don’t seem to understand this). Because frames are expensive artists try to economize. You’ll see more ‘contemporary’ (simple) frames on modern artwork because they are less expensive than more ornate frames. And the purchase of a simple frame is ‘safe’ in the hope that it appeals to a wide audience.
In an effort to expand upon my ‘standard’ framing practices and still economize I’ve been buying used (‘vintage’ is more impressive term) frames at second-hand shops, garage sales and estate sales. At my local second-hand shop I can get a decent sized frame (16x20 to 20x24 inches) with glass for under ten dollars. Because the price is low I can also take a ‘risk’ and buy a frame that’s more ornate than a ‘safe,’ simple contemporary frame. Over time I’ve developed a list of reliable second-hand frame suppliers.
The new-old frames are brought to my studio for cleaning and refurbishment. As part of my photographic education I was taught all the proper ‘standards’ for print presentation, framing and archiving and I’m often shocked at what I find. First I disassemble the frame. Usually the frame’s glass is intact but filthy. I won’t buy frames with non-glare glass –that stuff is terrible! Often the glass is so dirty it requires cleaning with soap and water in the sink. Once the glass is clean enough for re-use it’s set-aside as I remove and discard other framing materials. And most often those framing materials are awful. I’ve found particle board, chipboard, corrugated cardboard and all kinds of other distinctively non-archival materials used. None of these materials are ‘safe’ for ‘archival’ presentation and are thrown away and replaced with buffered foam-cor or one-hundred percent cotton rag boards. There are specialized tapes used in framing utilizing adhesives that don’t discolor that I use when re-framing. I never find these tapes in used frames; instead I often find regular masking tape or duct tape which leech chemicals into the artwork. ‘Points’ or clips are standard for holding prints and mats in frames but in the used frames I disassemble I often find staples or nails, and frequently the nails are rusted. Recently I disassembled a frame to find no less than forty nails in the back of the thing, four of which were actually holding the artwork!
Frames are rather fragile items which are damaged easily. I’ve found that regular, contemporary wood frames are good for three to five group shows until they sustain so much ‘gallery damage’ (wear and tear, dents and scratches, etc.) that I really can’t in good conscience sell them because their state of decay devalues the artwork. Those frames are tossed in the garbage and replaced (and the cycle repeats). So I won’t buy a used frame with damage I cannot repair. I often repaint and re-glue used frames to refurbish them. Sometimes there are mats or double-mats that can be reused with the proper artwork. Often, a good cleaning is all that’s necessary.
The artworks I remove from the frames are usually awful! I never find original art in the used frames I buy. And no, I’ve never, ever, found a million-dollar ‘lost’ Picasso or Dali! Most all the artworks are reproductions, offset print posters, and that sort of thing. I never find original signatures or certificates of authenticity or anything showing provenance. Usually the artwork is generic garbage, meaningless drivel that’s hardly more exciting than plain sheetrock walls. This is low-end stuff. Dentist office art. No expensive, high-end, art from galleries (a highly manipulated market) ever finds its way to a second-hand shop, at least not on purpose.
Based on my findings, Bed, Bath & Beyond must be the largest art-retailer in the world. (They’re not. With the acquisition of the online seller, art.com, WalMart is actually the largest art retailer in the world!) Although I don’t see a lot of WalMart art in the used frames I buy I do see a lot from Bed, Bath & Beyond and other retailers like: Michaels, Hobby Lobby, Pier 1, World Market, Urban Outfitters and even IKEA. These are actual stores where the consumer can browse physical art (often pre-framed or framed on-site), buy it, take it home and hang it immediately. For this stuff, and my purpose, the frame really is more valuable than the art it contains.
If I’m to infer anything about the consumer tastes in wall art from what I’ve found in the resale shops it’s that most people don’t give one whit about aesthetics, the artist’s vision, or subject-matter (aside from decorative and non-confrontational). I think they’re just filling spaces on their home or office walls and they hardly even look at their collection of space-filling wall art. Lucky me, I’m in it for the frame only!
Despite my forty years in the art business I’ve yet (and likely, won’t) break into the high-end art market but I don’t sell to those of the dentist office aesthetic either. My ‘collectors’ are mid-level. They actually do care about the art, and they’ve got a budget bigger than the Bed, Bath & Beyond crowd but considerably lower than the Jeff Koons/Damien Hirst collector. Actually, I think, the type of person who buys my art probably sources their art from online sellers like: Etsy, Saatchi, Fine Art America, Art Finder, Image Conscious, or Turning Art, etc. And they buy direct from the artist as well as from smaller, local galleries. I’m quite comfortable knowing this is my own collector base. They’re not elitists looking for ‘investment’ name-recognition art nor artless wall-filling consumers. They actually like the art!
I don’t think a lot of consideration is given to the art that finds its way to the second-hand shop. I can imagine some disinterested person, probably cleaning out a recently-deceased person’s home, or maybe a storage-unit, giving the piece a cursory glance at most. Non-artists don’t think about picture frames much and if they don’t see an instantly recognizable artwork in that frame then it’s considered to have little value and either trashed or dropped off and the resale shop.
New art in an old frame works for me –especially when the frame is cheap!
September 5, 2020
Covid-19, Week #25