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  1. Arts & Entertainment

A frame of reference for displaying art

Published Jul. 8, 2014

How you frame art, whether it be posters, photographs or a rare oil painting, can enhance the look of your home. Details matter. Just ask Mark Leithauser, senior curator and director of design at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Day in and day out, he oversees the design of exhibits and presentation of the great works on display at the gallery. He analyzes how to make a work of art look its best, from the color of the exhibition walls to the kind of frame or choice of mat and frame.

It's the same role individuals play when deciding how to display art in their homes. "Display of art is subjective," Leithauser said, unless there is historical precedent for it.

The work of art is paramount. When it comes to displaying art, he said, "There is no right or wrong way to do it." But "you always think about the work of art.

"Most people have prints, drawings — things with mats and frames," he said. "You start with your object, with what you own. You want the work of art to be the strongest possible thing." If you use a frame "that is stronger than the work of art, then you've detracted from the work of art." The purpose of the frame is "to enhance it."

Contrary to what many people believe, Leithauser said, "There is no neutral color. . . . Gray, black, white. They're all making a statement. We never use white like the stark white of this paper," he said, pointing to a document on his desk. "Paintings get little cracks in them as they get older. They look grungy, a little bit sad, a little bit dirty" next to a stark white. "They pop on a gray much better than on a stark, stark white."

Getting the details right

Mats: Stick to a shade of white, creamy beige or latte. "Get 50 whites, fan them out and lay them against your image," said interior designer Dana Tydings, owner of Tydings Design in Laytonsville, Md. "Choose a white to complement the art." Avoid colored mats that will compete with the image. To prevent discoloring or staining, choose archival or acid-free mats.

Frames: Typically, cost for a custom frame is figured by the linear foot. Aim for the best you can afford. Keep in mind there might be a frame that looks just as good for $15 per linear foot rather than $45. Cost will depend on the type of mat, frame and glass you choose, as well as the size of the piece. If you've spent $500 on a piece of art, expect to spend at least that much to frame it, Tydings said. More elaborate mats and frames cost more. Expect to pay more for a hand-painted frame than one painted at the factory.

Glass: Options are regular glass, nonglare glass and museum or preservation glass, Tydings said. If there is any risk of a work fading, either over time or from sunlight or moisture, she recommends museum glass. Nonglare glass tends to have a "milky tone" that can interfere with the image. Rely on an expert framer for guidance.

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