Art Term Tuesday: Matting Artworks

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate & Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections and Archives

When we visit art museums we often take for granted that art will be there, hung up on the wall for our enjoyment. In the last few weeks, FWMoA has experienced multiple galleries being deinstalled, prepared, and installed with new exhibitions. Exhibitions at FWMoA change every 6-8 weeks so we are constantly taking art down, putting art up, and storing art. It wasn’t until I came to work at an art museum that I realized that it requires a team of people to prepare an exhibition for the public! A collaborative process between artists, galleries, curators, registrars, and technicians, the artworks go through multiple stages before they are displayed for all too look at and enjoy. One of those stages inspired the art term for this Tuesday: Matting.

Prepared in-house by our Associate Curator of Special Collections and Archives for artworks in the permanent collection or by our Technical Director for artworks in exhibitions, mats are a thick cardstock material that separate the art from the glass. The matboard we use is an archival quality, which means the mat acts as a barrier against contamination and won’t deteriorate over time.

A matted work on paper by Chuck Sperry. Notice how the window mat frames the artwork. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

Most of the artworks come to the museum loose-leaf, which means they are not matted. Artworks can be matted by two different processes: hinge or photo-corner. The two processes are what sticks the artwork to the matboard. After hinging or photo-cornering, a “window” is cut to the size of the artwork (see above) and the piece is stored flat in its matboard or framed. Hinging requires making glue, putting the hinge on the back mat, and letting it sit and dry so the hinges don’t stick together. A hinge functions similarly to the front and back cover of a book, with the artwork as the pages inside, but is made out of linen tape (see photos). The glue we use is water-soluble, allowing us to quickly dissolve the hinge and release the artwork. Unhinged mats can damage the artwork, for example, if the hinge gets caught on the matboard the artwork could get creased. Hinging the mats ensures the artwork does not move and is not damaged.

A hinge. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.
An example of a hinged matboard. If you look closely, you can see the piece of linen tape running down the middle, forming the hinge between the back mat and the window. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

Photo-cornering is a simpler process that involves creating triangular slots for the corners of the artwork so it in. To take the print out of its mat, the corners are released! The chosen matting process depends on the material of the artwork. We typically photo corner artworks where the image doesn’t “flood” to the edge. This means that the artwork has a border and does not extend to the edge of the page. We also photo corner any artwork that could be damaged by the water we use for the glue, like photographs. Prints that flood to the edge of the work, for example, get hinged. Which process do you think we would use to mat the artwork below?

Photo-cornering requires an artwork with a defined edge that can be slipped into the pockets. The secured corners ensures the artwork does not move. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.
A closer look at the corners holding the artwork in place. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

What gets matted? Matted art, whether hinged or photo-cornered, includes works on paper (prints, intaglios, lithographs, silkscreens, and woodblocks), drawings, photographs, and paintings on paper. Paintings on canvas, pastels, and charcoals stay framed because they are more sensitive and need that layer of glass for protection when stored. In addition, if a work on paper is past a certain size it is framed because it is too large and unwieldy to move securely in a mat. This ensures artwork is not damaged from routine handling.

Why mat artwork? We mat our artworks so they can be stored flat; otherwise, we have to buy and store frames which takes up a lot of space. We can store around 15-20 prints in a flat file, which is more efficient. Matting also ensures we do not handle the artwork directly. Instead of handling the print itself we are handling the matboard. Remember when we printed our pictures out to show friends and family? You might have warned your friends to “Only touch the edges!” so the photographs don’t smudge.

Do all museums mat artwork similarly? Yes, to some degree. FWMoA has a standard size with our framestock, which means that artworks are matted to fit specific frame sizes. This streamlines the process because we know we have a frame that fits the artwork. If you come to the Print and Drawing Center, located in the Loretta Foellinger Teeple Gallery, you will see prints that are up to a specific standard size (24×30). The only reason an artwork is taken out of its mat is if the standard size changes or if it needs to be conserved.

We mat our artworks to a standard size, shown here with study drawings by Chuck Sperry that a bit different in shape and size. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

Where does the artwork come from? Artworks come from various places! We can receive artworks as donations, purchase them through online or live auctions, and purchase them directly from galleries and artists. If the artworks are bought from an auction they may come matted, however, they may not be matted to fit our standard frame sizes. This means we can either trim the matboard to fit our frame sizes if it is too big or the artwork is rematted to fit our standard size.

Want to mat at home? It depends on the materials you have at home! Will your artwork fit in a standard size frame from a store? Do you have a mat cutter? Matting supplies can be expensive and the process involves some math, as artworks come in various sizes and shapes.

The next time you visit the museum, look closely at the artwork! Is it matted? Since prints can only be exhibited for 3 months before they start to deteriorate from lights, examine the lighting in the galleries. A low lit gallery indicates works on paper. Once the artworks are taken off exhibition, they have to be stored for a least a year before they can be shown again to fully give the paper a resting period.


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