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Jury Roundtable: The Acquisitive Eye
It is the tenth annual edition of the Exhibition in Print (EiP). Alternating between juried and curated issues, this special edition has served as a vital showcase for the field of contemporary metalwork. For this year's juried EiP, the jurors-Sharon Church, jeweler and professor, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia; Susan Cummins, former owner of Susan Cummins Gallery, Mill Valley, California; and Ursula Ilse Neuman, curator, Museum of Arts and Design, New York-Viewed the slides of some 300 applicants to make their final choices. After the selection process, the jurors met to discuss this year's EiP submissions and related issues, including their desire to see metalwork gain broader representation within museums. The discussion was moderated by Mary Douglas, metalsmith and curator of collections at the Southern Highland Crafts Guild. A current member of the Editorial Advisory Committee, Douglas also wrote the seminal essay, "Metalsmithing: State of the Art," for the first EiP a decade ago.
Mary Douglas: I'd like to start by getting your response to the works submitted to this year's "Exhibition in Print." What did you think of the pool you had to choose from?
Susan Cummins: The majority of submissions were jewelry, and we felt that there were areas of the metals field that were left out. All of us commented on the lack of architectural ornament. There was very little holloware, and very few pieces that one could call sculpture. The entries also seemed to be rather defined and conservative.
Ursula IIse Neuman: As Susan said, there were some forms that were totally missing, not only architectural works but also metal furniture, tabletop implements like cutlery, and holloware. It is amazing to see the degree to which silver holloware has decreased in popularity. We also missed seeing examples of blacksmithing; there are so many interesting things happening in that area. In addition, I noted the complete absence of ecclesiastic pieces. From a jurying perspective, the open competition placed very accomplished works by easily recognizable artists alongside those by students. We had to keep shifting gears and criteria, making it somewhat difficult for works by emerging artists.
Sharon Church: If the EiP is to be a snapshot of what is going on in metals at this particular moment, then we are not really sure that this body of entries reflected that particularly well. We stated at the beginning that our intention was to select the most fresh or innovative work and we did that as best we could. In looking for things that were fresh we were presented with work that might not be developed enough, and work that was so established that we were very familiar with it.
Douglas: You are given a hard job, in that your criteria may be one thing but you can only choose from the given entries to form a cohesive exhibition. Can you elaborate on the criteria that you developed for your choices?
Neuman: What I was looking for was both workmanship and concepts. Having both present cleared the first hurdle. Since most works were designed with functionality in mind, I also looked for works that acknowledged that tradition while adding some new twist or innovation as products of the twenty first century. In addition, we hoped to include the latest technology and were very glad to see computer-designed jewelry and even some virtual pieces.
Cummins: Sometimes the tradition was there without the innovation and sometimes the innovation was there without the tradition and without the workmanship. We did go both ways, and you'll see things that maybe weren't as worked as possible but at least the concept was interesting and we tried to give that credit.
Church: The work was largely conceptual, or content-driven, which is something different from when I was starting out in the field. And we did not see a lot of pieces with precious materials.
Cummins: I have to say that I was extremely surprised at how few people we juried that I knew. Given the fact that I've been in the field for a long time and know quite a large number of artists, there were probably only 10% of this group that I actually recognized. That's kind of exciting in the sense that people were submitting who had not come across my view.
Neuman: I also wanted to note that the majority of works submitted, and those we selected, were jewelry. It may be that the most interesting things are indeed happening within jewelry today. I think explorations that cross over into fine arts are increasingly visible in jewelry, which is being discovered as a very innovative form that is both full of ideas and extremely collectible. So jewelry is very deserving of the attention it is getting now, especially since it has emerged from the shadow of status jewelry, where the value was in the use of precious materials or the designer's name.
Douglas: Sharon , you had commented earlier about why jewelry might not make it into public collections as easily as other art forms. Do you want to expand on that?
Church: One of the primary reasons for jewelry's being is that it is a personal art form. Someone chooses to wear it because it identifies them or amplifies some inner persona. When one purchases a really unique and singular piece of jewelry, these reasons are even more vital. If somebody truly values a piece, and wears it a lot, it acquires an identity and they want to give it to a relative or loved one because it is a representation or extension of themselves. So, for the most part, jewelry stays within families. It may be a wonderful art form but at the same time it has acquired many trappings of the person who has bought it or who has worn it. When jewelry like that is acquired people are often reluctant to give it up to a museum.
Douglas: Susan, coming from your experience of running a gallery, and Ursula from that of a museum curator, do you find what Sharon has said to be a problem? Does this put the onus on museums to buy jewelry directly from the artists as opposed to getting it through donations from private collectors?
Cummins: Sharon 's point is really well taken; a lot of jewelry has been traditionally handed down through generations and still is. But I think many of the artists that are making jewelry now are not making work that necessarily falls into that category; they are making jewelry that would be geared for viewing in a museum setting. It might not be a totally recent phenomenon, museums have collected jewelry for centuries-that of kings and queens or really grand pieces-but the kind of jewelry that ended up in museums in the past is very different from the kind of jewelry that someone would wear every day and hand down to their children.
Church: I think commissioned work is very special. And there are pieces of jewelry that reverberate so strongly with content and meaning that they are not easily parted with. As a jeweler, I hope that such a bond forms between an owner and my work. Preciousness of materials perhaps precludes some jewelry from being collected by museums. jewelers are the original recyclers. If the use of valuable materials dominates a piece, then people might have it remade at some point in order to reuse the precious stones or metal. This type of jewelry might not have a great chance of making it into a museum collection. Whereas I agree with Susan that there is mother sort of jewelry that frees itself from valuation through material use and is valued solely as art, This jewelry stands a better chance of having an extended life, rather than being recycled into a new design.
Neuman: In terms of museum collections, it is important to establish the museum's mission. If they are more of at) art-oriented museum, then concerns such as aesthetics and the concept are primary to them, with craftsmanship less of a consideration. If it is a material culture museum or historical museum, then the preferred jewelry is less cutting edge or conceptual. So it depends on the scope and type of collection you want to form. Ideally, a museum collection should have a continuum of everything from historic to conceptual. Even a very contemporary collection without some contextual pieces is less meaningful than one where you have historical pieces or ethnic works to establish a continuum or relate design to contemporary jewelry.
Cummins: Regarding the importance of this continuum, I think that the work we looked at here could not have existed without the experimental work of the 1980s, especially British jewelry of that period. That work radically questioned the use of materials along with taking a kind of post-modern approach to object making. So the idea of having a collection and representing the continuum would be very important to understand what you are looking at now as opposed to 100 years ago.
Douglas: That ties in to the issue of building an audience for metalwork. I am especially interested in museums, because I work in one and have to make the connection between historical and contemporary art so that the public sees the progression of cultural expression.
Neuman: Audience building is a general challenge and task for museums, but with jewelry it is more difficult because it hasn't received much exposure until recently. The only way you can build audience is through educating and exposing them to new things. I certainly think more museums should present jewelry shows and I am very surprised that, given the strong studio jewelry movement in this country, there is no jewelry museum here. The only such museum I know of is the Pforzheim Museum in Germany , where they have everything from ancient Etruscan and Greek jewelry to contemporary works. A jewelry museum in the U.S. would do a great deal of good for the field. In the meantime, you have to educate the public with everything you can muster-public programs, lectures, demonstrations, interviews, maybe even getting into more mainstream art journals like Art in America . When was the last time they published an essay on jewelry? That sort of thing is slowly happening, but too slowly for MY taste.
Cummins: It is happening, but the thing that is curious in the craft world is that a lot of the audience building has been done by collector groups. Most of these collector groups have been organized by an individual, and it hasn't been institutionally driven. Within the fine arts there are several collecting groups that are part of museums, but most of the collecting activity in the crafts seems to have started in a grassroots way with these independent groups. Those are the people who have planned trips, done studio visits, sponsored lectures at SOFA, and made a group of people enthusiastic for a particular media. Several years ago I started one for jewelry that is still going strong. And two of the people who were involved in that group early on have become members of museum acquisitions committees and are helping the process of increasing the collections and exposure of jewelry through their very active support. For me, as a dealer, audience building involved taking your most interested clients around and educating them and then they would just take off. Besides, some of the most fantastic artists that I've encountered in my media happen to make jewelry, so it is not that hard to find some great people to introduce your clients to who can open their minds to a whole new way of thinking.
Church: Susan, your gallery was very well respected throughout the entire field for showing some of the best art jewelry made in the 1990s. You were clearly able to cultivate a wonderful audience. How did you go about that?
Cummins: I have to give a huge amount of credit to the SOFA exhibitions because right when they started I opened my gallery and had a booth at every single show they did, except for the first one. So the audience that I developed was national, although my best supporters were still from the Bay area. I also think it was an interesting combination of showing paintings and sculpture and jewelry all together. There was maybe a greater ability for people to see what the jewelry was about. Rather than coming in with an expectation it was going to be a jewelry store because there was some jewelry in it, they came in thinking they were entering an art gallery. It means that people have different eyes when they come in. It was dumb luck that I decided to show both things at once, but it really worked in a very positive way.
Church: That is interesting, since as an artist growing up in this field in the 1960s, we felt barred from the fine arts field. There was a real need to become an art form with our own history and our own agenda and to show that we had something no one else had. And in some ways that isolationist attitude may have done us some harm. I still think we are struggling to become an art form and I am not sure that we have developed a singular audience for our work.
Douglas: Now, for those readers who might not really understand the process of collecting, perhaps we can describe it in more concrete terms-how work goes from the studio into a private and then a public collection. I am continually perplexed by the lack of metals collections in museums, and being a metalsmith myself I am very much interested in changing that.
Cummins: There are a couple of things going on here. The idea of collecting jewelry as a collector would collect ceramics or glass is delayed, and it is only in the last few years that people have begun to think of themselves as jewelry collectors. There still aren't too many of those people, but there arc definitely more and more who are happy to identify themselves as such. Large collections get into museums by somebody collecting in a field and giving the whole group to a museum, so it is still a little bit early since there are so few collections that are very well developed.
Neuman: Also, private collectors do not put jewelry on a shelf. You can show off your collection more easily if it is lass or ceramics; it is much more visible in one's home. Plus I think the revolution that Harvey Littleton and Peter Voulkos started in glass and clay made people aware are earlier on of these other art forms and they were written up in Craft Horizons, and consequently the groups organized themselves more readily than in jewelry. Jewelry was a personal thing and oxen if people bad pieces by Sam Kramer or Art Smith they weren't as much of a draw I also think that designed silver by Alessi, or Memphis , or Michael Graves-has become much more visible and collectible than the crafts holloware today. Designer works have become the show-off pieces in the metals field.
Cummins: It is a dilemma of the jewelry collector to determine bow to show jewelry within the context of the other things in their living room. It is now something that collectors have begun to struggle with and have conversations about. There is another point I want to make related to Voulkos and Littleton; many of the artists who worked within those other mediums besides jewelry entered the larger pool of art galleries long ago, and there aren't any jewelers that I know of who have shown in such galleries. That is something that still hasn't happened fully, and when it does a jeweler's work can be judged on imagery and concept, rather than just materials or format.
Douglas: Perhaps we could speak further to the state of contemporary metals in public collections and even cite some success stories.
Neuman: The jewelry collection at the Museum of Arts and Design is certainly a success story; we have one of the largest jewelry collections in the country. Of course there are gaps, but we are constantly getting new things in, not only through donations, but also through purchase. Holloware is a little bit less popular at the moment. Although we acquired some great metalwork recently, we are really geared to having a jewelry collection that is recognized all over the world. We will have an entire floor devoted to jewelry in our new museum building, and the collection will be on permanent view, and we'll also present various thematic traveling jewelry exhibitions. So we are certainly leading by example in terms of jewelry, especially in view of the lack of a jewelry museum in this country. We want to fill this gap and I think we are on the right track to do that. I should add that, in terms of collecting contemporary art of am, kind, it is somewhat difficult because it is not a proven thing. Some contemporary art museums don't collect at all, they just show. We are already pretty brave. Most museums try to collect things that have at least a 15-20 year lifespan, they are not sticking their necks out buying current pieces, whereas we do take our chances.
Cummins: I have been busy researching jewelry in public collections and putting together a list of museums that either have jewelry collections or are potentially interested in showing jewelry exhibitions. So far I've come up with about 60 and counting. I am also trying to gather lists of what is in all of these collections and that is very impressive. I was disappointed to find that hardly anyone has their collections online. But on a positive note, I was just at the new Racine Art Museum and they had a major part of their jewelry collection on view right there when you walk through the door. This was a happy surprise to discover that they are willing to put a lot out and announce up front that they are committed to showing jewelry. We have a tendency to think that museums are not doing much with jewelry and I'm happy to report that this is not true at all.
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