A guerrilla technique for saving money on framing costs
By F. Lennox Campello
According to some stats that I read a few years ago in a framing trade magazine, the average cost of framing in the Greater DC region was $75 an hour. It’s probably more than that now.
Other than time, framing two-dimensional work is often the most expensive step in organizing an exhibition (to the artist), and it’s astounding how little most art schools prepare students (and faculty) for avoiding the trap of spending a lot of money on framing.
There are some steps that artists can take to reduce significantly the cost of framing. I will try to list the most common mistakes, how to avoid them, and more importantly, how to get your artwork framed for a lot less than taking it to a framing shop to get it framed.
First and foremost: Prepare! Do not leave your framing to the very last minute. Having said that, I know that most of you will leave the framing to the last minute and, then panic, as this is part of the average artist DNA. You will then go to your neighborhood framing shop, and drop way too much money to get custom frames made for your artwork. If you can afford it, and the price history of you artwork can sustain it – then skip this article. But if you want to save a lot of money on framing, then prepare!
Do not, under any circumstances, let the gallery or a second party take care of your framing unless you have the full costs ahead of time and in writing and they make sense to you. Otherwise you will get stuck at the end of your exhibition with a giant framing bill rather than a commission check.
First of all: If (and only if) you can, work in standard sizes. Most photographers and painters already do. But unless your compositional demands call for it (like mine does), avoid working in one of a kind oddball sizes. American and European standard sizes are different, but US sizes cover a huge range of sizes, such as 5×7, 8×10, 11×14, 12×16, 20×24, etc. If you can work within one of those sizes – i.e. do your watercolor on a sheet in one of those sizes, or print your photo on paper that size, etc. then half the battle is won, as then you should be able to buy ready-made frames that will automatically accommodate your matted work.
This is important, as a good frame from any craft store, or from any art catalog, is usually a lot less than having one built from scratch! For example, a 16×20 metal molding frame, back metal brace/clips, wire, glass, pH-balanced acid free mat, hanging wire and acid free foam core backing is anywhere from $20 – $30 in any art catalog or local art supply store (or IKEA). Having the exact same frame hand-made in a frame shop is around $100.
If your work, because of composition or whatever, doesn’t fit into a standard size mat or frame, then another tactic is to go and shop for a ready-made frame that is larger than your artwork – at least three inches all around the diameter of the artwork. Then take that frame and your artwork to a frame shop and have them cut the appropriate mat for you. Now you are only paying for the labor and materials to cut a mat – not to build everything from scratch.
If you can’t find a frame in a shop that fits your unique sizes, then shop through art supply catalogs and have them make you one. The savings over storefront framers is still significant. Once you sign up for an online art supply dealer, you get their catalogs as well, and then hit them when they have a sale going on! From any supplier you can order moldings in one inch increments, so if your work is 18×30 inches, then you’d order a set of 18 inch molding, a set of 30 inch molding and it will be delivered with the hardware needed to assemble it – all you’ll need is a screwdriver. Then visit your local glass shop for a piece of glass.
Because most solo shows involve a larger number of works, you should start thinking way ahead of time as to the number of frames that you will need. If you can decide that you will need twenty frames for your show, and you know what size they will all be, and then go shopping for information on ready-made frames in any of our local area arts and crafts stores, or other stores that stock frames, such as IKEA or Bed, Bath and Beyond. Once you find a frame that you like, turn it over and see who makes them. Write the manufacturer’s information down, and when you get home, call the manufacturer of the frame and place an order for the number of frames that you will need. You are now buying the frames wholesale and saving yourself the entire store mark-up!
Don’t let the process of establishing an account with the frame manufacturer scare you. They may require an Employee Identification Number (EIN) – you can give them your social security number– and they will have a minimum purchase (usually $250) – but by the time that you purchase 20-25 frames, that will be easy to meet. All you are doing is ordering the frame directly from the manufacturer rather than buying them through a store – it’s perfectly legal and saves you a considerable amount of money.
If you work on canvas, you may not even need to frame them. Ask the gallery owner – a lot of galleries will be happy to hang canvasses that are “gallery dressed.” That means that the edge of the canvas wraps to the back and that’s where it is stapled – rather than the side. Many galleries actually prefer to show canvas paintings that way.
Do not cheapen your artwork by choosing cheap materials. At all costs avoid using acidic mats (use only pH-balanced, acid free mats) and do not use cardboard to back the work – use acid free foam core. Using cheap materials not only damages the work eventually (as the acid migrates to the artwork) but also tells a potential collector that you are not serious as an artist to properly display your work. I am shocked at the number of badly hand-cut acidic mats that I see in galleries all over the country. This often caused by just plain ignorance of the business side of the fine arts, and the importance of presentation of artwork in a professional environment.
If you are an artist that moves a lot of work a year, then you should seriously consider learning how to cut your own mats. A sheet of museum quality archival 32×40 inches mat board is around $8-16 and you can get four 16×20 inches mats from it. To have one 16×20 archival mat cut in a frame shop will be around $20-$25. You can buy a decent mat cutter for around $150, and it comes with a video to teach you how to cut mats.
The bottom line is that minimizing framing costs not only reduces the amount of money that an artist has to invest in offering a show, but also reduces the price point of the artwork – a very important issue, especially for young, emerging artists without a sales history track.