The Secret Power of the Artist Playing the Curator

I concluded my discussion of three roles of the artist advising the artist to wear the Curator's hat. Any artist who's been at it more than a few years tends to take really good care of their work.

Above is a photo of the four paintings I wrapped up in bubble wrap yesterday in preparation for their trip up today to Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, Maine. I wanted to make sure they arrive in mint condition so I make an overly sturdy box and then carefully wrap each piece so it can't wiggle around during the trip and get nasty scratches anywhere.

I learned all this the hard way.

Below is a picture of my flat file where I store work on paper that hasn't been framed yet. I purposely keep it out of my basement, which has been attacked by the water gods several times in the last fifteen years I've lived here. (I also run a dehumidifier in the basement 6 months a year to keep the paintings stored down there dry and toasty).

I've a unique vantage point as an art instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 1973 (actually my title is Professor, but I don't think it fits. "Artist who Teaches" would be more accurate, but that doesn't sound sufficiently fancy). I've watched many hundreds of young artists and am fascinated by how they handle their work once they've created it. Honestly I'd say the clear majority are either neglectful or down right abusive of what they have created. By the end of the semester you'll see in all but a handful of portfolios significant or egregious damage. And lots and lots of "lost" work. Did their work get up and wandered off in the night when it couldn't sleep?

I have two rules for myself:

-Don't lose any work.
- Take care of my work.

They work like a charm.

The neglect of one's artwork I think is indicative of an unconscious ambivalence about either succeeding or a fundamental lack of confidence that one has a genuine talent worth preserving.

The reality is actually very different I feel. One has to find one's talent and then develop it. Talent isn't static or absolute. It has to be loved and nurtured, fertilized, and exercised into something durable and dependable. Musicians practice, often unimaginable long hours a day.
The more they practice, the more talented they sound. Isn't there a lesson here for visual artists?

The talent of a visual art isn't an idea. Rather it is something one sees. It has a physical presence. Paintings sure do, and they are as easy to scratch or dent as butter on a warm day. Remember people turn to art as a release from their routine. They want to be transported to another realm and swept with new emotions. Damage to artwork short circuits this magic. So does keeping your art locked away in a vault. You have to send the work out of your studio to be looked at. When it moves its vulnerability skyrockets. Your job as Curator is to learn everything you can about how to move work safely and how to pack work for shipping.

One thing that helps enormously is putting a frame on the painting if you possibly can. A frame is first of all a bumper (like they used to put on cars). It protects the work from the inevitable collisions it will face. Wrapping paintings in heavy transparent plastic sheeting wards off scratches, and putting heavy cardboard over the front and back of a stretched canvas cuts way down on the pokes and punctures. This is an incredible hassle for the artist. But doing this hastens the day when your work will be so valued by museums that white-gloved attendants lovingly cradle its every move like it's the Mona Lisa.

Then there is a deeper side to the Curator's role.

Growth and success as a painter are tricky things. We've all had days where we've been remarkably effective at solving some thorny problem. Painting is legendarily difficult, yet sometimes we're able to perform like genuine masters of the art. Other days no. My own explanation for this fickleness of results is that creating on the highest level requires the active cooperation of our whole personality. This includes that mysterious realm of ourselves that we can't control, often simply labeled "the unconscious." I think it is quite real and is perhaps the biggest part of who we are. I also think it's where a big part of our "talent" resides.

The unconscious is funny. It sits back and watches us. Sometimes it decides to help us out with what we're doing, other times it refuses. Classical mythology is full of stories of the mortals pleading with the Muse to come to their aid. Those tales accurately describe our psychological predicament. Our creativity and deepest insight often seems to behave like the Muse of old- it (though I think of it as she) wants to be wanted and valued. And I think she waits to be invited into our studios as if she wants reassurance we will value her contributions. Surely demonstrating that we will care for the results of our joint labors together in making a painting are going to help her get in the mood to come to the party. This means caring for our work once it's done. Treating our work like it is important and is worthy of care puts us in a better frame of mind for making work in the future. It opens the door to possibility. Neglecting your work, letting it get stained or scratched or whatever pushes that same door shut.

Make the Muse feel welcome in your studio. Take care of things to show her you value her creativity. Treating your work well is going to make you a stronger artist because it gets the Muse on your team. I think you'll make a beautiful couple.

Here's the crate out on my door step right now waiting for the nice FedEx woman to come and whisk it to the great north of Maine to Isalos Fine Art in Stonington.

Bon Voyage!


  1. I seriously covet that flat file!

    Everything I ship goes in a crate- one of my galleries refers to them as "Fort KnoxY". Worth it in piece of mind and also sends the message that I value what I do!

  2. Hi Deborah,

    Yes the flat files are great. The wooden ones are handsome too, and why not go for that.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hello =)
    I was just wondering how you store the work in your basement? Thank you for writing such a wonderfully informative (and beautiful) blog, by the way!
    - Kaitlin Gray

  5. Hi Kaitlin,

    Over the years I've had a series of different wooden racks with dividers (also wood) to keep the larger paintings from leaning against each other. Also the racks are there to keep the work several inches off the floor, a precaution against flooding (fortunately I have a walk out basement so it can't flood more than an inch or two before running out the sliding glass door).

    I grew up in a house in the deep woods along the shore of Lake Ontario. My bedroom was in the basement and everything stored down there (me included) always smelled a touch musty. I certainly don't want my work smelling that way, so I run a dehumidifier pretty steadily May - Oct. It keeps it nice an dry down there.

  6. Okay, cool. Thank you for replying! =) What do you do when you run out of space?!

  7. Kaitlin, I try to design the storage space efficiently, with shelves for smaller pieces suspended over the larger paintings. With forethought, you can store quite a bit of work and stretched canvases, panels, etc. Also I try hard to get the work out of my studio and into galleries around the country. That way the work gets seen and more of it gets collected. I figure nobody benefits if the work just sits in my studio. I'm proud of what I've accomplished and want other eyes to see it.

    Also from time to time I go through my racks and get rid off pieces that no longer seem strong enough to me. It's tremendously important for artists to keep their standards high.

  8. Thank you, again. =) I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions!


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