Galleries : When You Can't Take It with You
Aesthetic meaning is something that can be packaged and shipped; something that can be damaged on the rough passage between the mind of the artist and the eye of the viewer. But what about the more mundane journeys, the ones that brings an actual canvas from an art gallery to the home of its purchaser?
Every year on Martha's Vineyard, hundreds of paintings, sculptures and antiques are bought that need to be shipped, sometimes thousands of miles, to the homes of their new owners. "Given where we live, I ship almost everything," says Mary Etherington, owner of Etherington Fine Art on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.
A host of risks beset the usually fragile artwork as it travels to its new home. A package could be jolted, bumped or dropped, could fall off a forklift or could even, horror of horrors, be run through by one.
Luckily, an elite corps of art packers stands between artwork and its certain destruction - professionals with both a scientific grasp of the physics and the tensile strengths of various materials, and an ample imaginative capacity that allows them to picture - like NASA engineers - the full catalogue of scenarios that might befall their precious cargo.
"You look first to see what the most vulnerable part is," says Nancy Cabot, who is in charge of shipping artwork at the Granary Gallery, North Water Gallery, and the Field Gallery in West Tisbury. "If it's a sculpture of a bird, maybe it's the beak, or an outstretched wing."
Ms. Cabot doesn't take chances. She describes one job she did, packaging a mirror with an ornately carved gold frame, as follows: "I had to pack around each one of the little curly queues. I padded them with bubble, wrapped the whole thing in bubble, shrink-wrapped the whole thing, put it in a box, and then floated it [in another box filled with packing bubble]. That took several hours."
Over the years of her tenure at the galleries, Ms. Cabot says, certain hard and fast rules have developed concerning the way things are shipped. For example, if a painting or print has a piece of glass larger than three feet in any direction, it is packed in either a strongbox or a wooden crate. (Strongboxes are made of dense cardboard lined with plastic and padded with soft foam. The wooden crates are custom made of plywood and pine.) Ms. Cabot says that this is "Not so much to protect it against bumps, but to protect it against the torque. The larger the glass, the more pressure is exerted when it is twisted in either direction."
Whenever she ships anything heavy, like bronze or stone, Ms. Cabot uses wooden braces fastened to the side of the box with screws to keep the object in one place within its box. Shipping a three dimensional object, she says, "Is really like a puzzle."
Packaging art is clearly a rich source of metaphor. To Thomas Sawyer, manager of the UPS store in Vineyard Haven, packing a piece of art is "Like making a sandwich." First, he says, the picture frame is wrapped in saran wrap, to protect it from scratching. Next, cardboard is placed on either flat side, and cardboard corners are placed on the corners. "The artwork is the meat, the cardboard and saran wrap are the cheese." The comparison starts to unravel when he gets to the several layers of bubble wrap (maybe this represents bread) and the final layer of cardboard (or maybe this is the bread?). Not to worry, there is another simile waiting in the wings. Art is "like our baby," he says.
At Alison Shaw Studio, the philosophy is more straightforward. "Alison always feels it is better to be safe than sorry," says Claire Caine, the studio manager "So we over-wrap."
Ms. Etherington acquired her packing expertise early in life. "One of my first jobs after I left Kansas was at Sacks Fifth Avenue in the wrapping department." When she became an art dealer, she says, she realized "every skill I picked up along the way had some relevance."
After a painting or sculpture is packaged, there is the question of how to ship it. The UPS store provides a pick-up service to galleries that make it an attractive option, but many boxes and crates go by FedEx as well. Galleries base their decisions on the size and weight of the piece, and also on less calculable determinants, like personal preference. "Everybody's got their little favorites, like anything else in life," says Ms. Etherington, who has her work picked up and packaged at the UPS store and then shipped by FedEx first or second day air.
Ms. Cabot says she ships bigger and more expensive things with FedEx because they have a larger maximum size and weight, and that whenever she ships ground she uses UPS because, "It's easier." Over all, "we've had about the same breakage" with both carriers, she says. While incidents of damage or loss are low with either carrier, they do occur, and so galleries purchase insurance that covers the art from door to door.
Even if the money loss can be recouped, however, an irreplaceable work of art cannot. Ms. Etherington describes the time a crate with a Lucy Mitchell painting was lost by Fed-Ex as "an awful experience."
"Shipping is a very emotional thing," says Mr. Sawyer.