Your primary goals are to prevent your shipping container from being crushed, and to prevent your artwork from banging around inside the container.
Use new boxes. They tend to hold up better to the rigors of shipping. Remember, your box will be dropped by the shippers, and it will have other boxes stacked on top of it. Consider double-boxing, with a slightly smaller box packed inside the main shipping box.
Pack the piece snugly, so that it can't move inside the box. A box that just fits, with a little room for padding, is better than an oversize box that allows the piece to shift around. If you use bubble wrap, make sure to fill all the empty space inside the box. For fragile pieces, it is often better to build a custom foam cradle that fits between the piece and the container. I use a product called Ethafoam, which is flexible but resilient and can be cut with an Xacto knife. It can be purchased at retail plastic outlets, or on line.
Delicate and projecting parts of the work should be reinforced and stabilized if possible. Sometimes I will cradle a piece "selectively," so that it's held securely in places where it isn't so delicate (the waist of a figure, for example, and the base of the piece), while more delicate areas (such as horns or ears) are left free of packing material but prevented from bumping against the sides of the container. See my sample instructions for an example.
Most exhibition venues prohibit packing pieces in foam peanuts. Shippers do not like duct tape, so use regular plastic packing tape to seal your outside container. If there is an inside container or cradle that you want the exhibition venue to reuse (either to ship the work on to another venue or back to you), seal it with blue painter's tape that can be removed without damaging the container. Put a small roll of extra tape in the box.
Label all your packing materials with your name, so they will be available for return shipping. Put a sheet of paper in the container that gives your name and address and the recipient's name and address. If the piece is complicated to unpack and install, put a printed copy of the instructions in the box. You can email the instructions as well, but often your contact for a show will not be the person who actually unpacks and installs the work.
Example of Printed Instructions
Big heavy pieces require wooden crates. Most of my work is pretty light, even if it is large, so I've only had to use a wooden crate for one piece: a five-foot-tall mechanized Ferris Wheel with a steel armature.
Shipping costs are determined by weight and size, and they can be expensive. I use lightweight plastic materials for armatures wherever possible. Designing a piece so that it can be disassembled can save a lot of space, but be sure you include assembly instructions, as well as photos of the process and what the assembled piece is supposed to look like.
Shippers are funny about insurance and about shipping artwork. If you want to insure something for more than a certain amount, they may make you unpack the box or insist on packing it themselves. I tend to insure for the "default" amount (currently a $500 limit, but check with your shipper) and pray. If I have to declare the contents, I always list "textiles" instead of "artwork."
I've been packing and shipping work since 2000, and so far I have had one piece damaged (you could see tire tracks on the box! but I was able to repair the piece) and one piece lost (the quilt show organizer wasn't paying attention to when the piece was being returned). I have never tried to press a claim. If you are really worried about a piece, don't ship it. Sometimes things happen. Remember, we could have chosen to make flat quilts!
Information provided by Susan Else and may not be reproduced without permission.
Please understand that this valuable information is intended only to illustrate how she approaches packing her work and may not be directly applicable to your particular artwork. Her suggestions are in no way meant to constitute any formal advice, or to represent the policy and/or packing methods of SAQA or of any of the venues that show our work. It is information that may be helpful for those artists who work dimensionally, in order to have a clear picture of what they should be thinking about when designing and packaging their work to safeguard it during shipping.