After months of desk work (or years in the case of larger exhibitions), the reward for curators comes at the moment when the artworks are finally installed in the space. With most Gallery displays and exhibitions, alterations to the way works are hung (minor or radical) can still happen at this moment; but, with others, the process of hanging can be quite technical. The skill of the art handlers is paramount to ensuring these installations run as planned.
The last display I installed was Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised in one of the smaller rooms on the Ground Floor – room 38a. The display comprises three works, each of which is made up of nine individually-framed prints. National Portrait Gallery art handlers Neil and Danny worked on the installation of this display and, speaking about the hang noted, 'unusually, these works are polyptychs, and each individual frame had to butt-up together. To accommodate this we had to use a specialist fixing which attaches to the back of each frame and remains hidden from view once hung, and which also allows for a small degree of adjustment.' This room for adjustment was key because, as is always the case with wooden frames as a natural material, slight variations in size and shape were inevitable.
Another challenge was the substance of the gallery walls – some of which are plaster on board and some stone. Danny and Neil recall, 'Once the positioning and placement of the work was agreed we then plotted points on the wall where screws will be located, onto which the fixings attach. This requires very precise measurement and marking, or else gaps start to appear between the works. Any slight inaccuracy at the beginning can cause a chain reaction where gaps become more pronounced the further you proceed. A potential problem made worse by the fact that one of the walls on which we hung is of a masonry construction, which is much less forgiving of slight inaccuracy than the wooden board walls on which we normally hang.' The process of measuring and marking was repeated for each print and the art handlers began by hanging the bottom row of three, proceeding upwards one row at a time. One ingenious solution to mask slight natural bows or gaps between the wooden frames that Danny and Neil came up with was to use black vinyl to create a shadow – meaning that the overall appearance was flush.
The Gallery’s Collection includes other multi-panel works, for example Darvish Fakhr’s 2008 portrait of Akram Khan (NPG 6847) or Gilbert and George’s 1997 self-portrait (NPG 6489), so the art handlers were on familiar ground with Susan Aldworth’s display. In this instance, the installation was completed in a day and so we were able to open the display to the public early.
Photos courtesy of Inga Fraser