Galerie Jocelyne Gobeil, which opened in early 1987, is the only gallery in Canada devoted exclusively to the exhibition and sale of contemporary art jewelry. Located near the Musée des Beaux Arts on a block of art galleries in downtown Montreal, the gallery represents an eclectic range of jewelry artists from Canada, the United States and Europe. Recently, Enid Kaplan, an American jeweler temporarily living in Montreal, talked with Jocelyne Gobeil about her gallery and her goals.
Why did you decide to open a contemporary jewelry gallery in Montreal?
I have always been drawn to the object, particularly to the small object and also to the perfection and refinement inherent to jewelry pieces. I must admit, though, that it took me about two years after I had actually opened my gallery to be able to express clearly why I had chosen jewelry. I know now that it was the newness of this form of expression and art jewelry itself that truly fascinated me.
I had wanted to open an art gallery for about 10 years, but I was aware that many galleries close soon after opening, so I prepared myself very well. I took a course in administration for small business and worked in a gallery to gain experience. I am artist-trained and I have taught fine arts. I have been immersed in many forms of expression (especially dance, music and, of course, visual arts) since childhood, and I have learned to trust my judgment in the appreciation of work.
Why Montreal? Because it is a fantastic city. Montreal is the most European of large North American cities. It has a mixture of French and English and a way of life that is not quite North American but, at the same time, based on North American values. Montreal is rapidly becoming an important center in contemporary arts, and Montrealers are unconventional and daring.
How do you view the artist/gallery relationship, and what in your experience has been most successful in making this a dynamic partnership? What do you expect from your artists, and what do you feel they should expect from you?
This aspect of my gallery has probably been the most difficult, as I find there is confusion in many jewelers’ minds as to what a gallery is and how they, the artists, should relate to it. The gallery system is not for everyone. It is for artists who want the freedom to create, yet who are willing to accept in return for that freedom, to leave the promotional decisions up to the gallery. This requires a great deal of trust from both sides, a sense of partnership and a strong belief in one another. This partnership is partly business-oriented but is also very personal and must be viewed as long-term.
Although there are basic conditions that apply to all my artists, it is important for me to establish an individual relationship with each one, to gain insight into the artist’s personality. And while there will always be problems or disagreements between the gallery and an artist, I believe that if each understands and respects our individual role and discusses these problems openly, then solutions are far more likely to be arrived at. I am open to hearing suggestions and requests from my artists, in fact, I encourage them, but it is important that they do not forget that I must keep these in balance with the larger vision of the gallery and its future. I have invested a great deal of time, thought, energy and money in my gallery, and artists must respect that before anything. Although our priorities may not always be the same, I feel that by compromising a little we can arrive at a common goal that reflects our mutual struggle of advancing the field of art jewelry and advancing the individual jeweler.
From my side, I expect, above all, a commitment and loyalty to the gallery. By this I mean that the artists do not sell privately, that they give the gallery a certain geographic exclusivity (the exclusivity varies depending on each artist) and that they supply me with written and visual material on a regular basis. Also, I expect my artists to create excellent work, both in conception and execution, staying true to their personal vision even if it precludes commercial salability. In return, my artists can expect me to promote and sell their work and to be committed to this on a long-term basis. This includes regular solo exhibitions (every two to three years), an assurance that I will only represent a limited number of artists and that I am always working on getting their jewelry into international art fairs, museums and other exhibitions outside of my gallery. My artists can also expect that I will have the utmost respect for their creative freedom.
I see myself as an educator in the field of art jewelry. As a pioneering gallery, especially in Canada, I am not only fighting for the success of each artist I represent but also for the advancement of the field in general through educating my clientele and the mainstream art community to this form of artistic expression.
Initially you focused on representing Quebec artists, but now you include a more international group. Can you comment on this?
After two years of running my gallery – during which time I only represented Quebec artists – I found that my vision of contemporary jewelry had expanded. This mainly occurred as a result of traveling through Europe and the United States where I was exposed to new work, through extensive reading and research and also by having been approached by interested jewelers from outside Quebec. I began to realize that I could more realistically fulfill my goal if I were to move to a more international level.
In the Winter 1991 Metalsmith, Stephen Walker wrote in his letter to the editor, “We do not need to convert art collectors to be crafts or jewelry collectors. We need to convert jewelry customers to think of themselves as collectors…” Would you comment on this from your own experience? Have you been able to convert customers to collectors?
My gallery has a wide range of clientele. Often, people assume that this work is exclusively for the very wealthy. This is not true. My clients are of all age groups and monetary status, yet they share a sense of self-assertion. They generally have a strong opinion of themselves, which they choose to display through the jewelry they wear.
I’m not sure if collectors of painting or sculpture would become jewelry collectors. Because usually people collect that which they have a strong feeling for or what they see as a good investment. Therefore, a collector of one form of art cannot automatically be transformed into a jewelry collector. Some clients of mine have become collectors. However, it is only through a long process of education and explanation that a client will develop into a consistent collector. Most clients, at the beginning, lack a base on which to judge works. The gallery is there to give them that base with the hope that they will begin collecting as they form their own opinions.
What sort of atmosphere and attitudes do you convey to your customers that can encourage them to be more daring? How important is it for you to be comfortable in wearing the pieces you sell?
There is a very elegant atmosphere in the gallery, yet it is also friendly and intimate. When someone comes to the gallery for the first time I try to show them as much work as possible to convey a sense of both sensitivity and enthusiasm. I feel I have a strong ability to “feel out” people. From there, I usually can tell in what direction they may be drawn in regards to jewelry. It is important to me to remember people when they return. Once someone has bought a piece from the gallery, I can then begin to push them towards understanding and acquiring more adventurous, stronger work.
Only that which I believe in and am enthusiastic about is shown in my gallery. The work is not there only because it is salable. And, yes, I am comfortable in wearing all the work I represent.
Are there some works you are selling that are not supposed to be worn and are of interest to collectors who will display it?
When we are speaking of jewelry as art and thereby allowing the free spirit of the jeweler to get through to its deepest feeling, there is always going to be work that is hardly wearable. I do carry some of this work, yet, for me, there is a limit. It must somehow fit on the body, perhaps it isn’t comfortable and may be very large, but it is still jewelry because it has jewelry’s intrinsic qualities. I have sold some of this jewelry that actually comes very close to being an object, and it is one type of work (and that which reaches the boundaries of jewelry) that I love to promote.
Do you find it on asset or a hindrance if the jewelry has strong emotional or political content? Do you have an audience for this type of work?
It is definitely an asset. I find that jewelry as art must have a strong emotional or political content – this is the essence of it.
And, yes, I do have an audience for this type of work.
If a customer is investing in a major piece, how important is it that the piece incorporate precious materials? Are there other vital factors that are of equal importance to the sale for your customers?
I hope that I am getting to the point where this would not be of any importance. By this I admit that the battle has not yet been won. Promoting jewelry as art means trying to change clients’ views. I teach clients to appreciate work not because it contains a stone or precious metals, but because of its emotional content, the quality of the workmanship and the integrity of the jeweler who made it. I am encouraged that some major work has sold that did not have material value.
In a recent article in Art Aurea, Reinhold Ludwig mentions that, “Nearly all of the superior quality artistic jewelry available is grossly undervalued when compared with graphics, photography, paintings and sculptures.” We can also observe that when compared with other media such as clay and glass, art jewelry is generally undervalued. Can you comment on this tendency – how it affects you as a gallery owner and how it might affect the field at large?
Jewelry still lacks a strong critical language relevant to its own unique character. We still don’t know who is who in the field, especially in North America. By this I mean that there is a need to clarify who are the artists making jewelry who carry a true unique feeling in their work and do this without compromise. I think that this is more true of North America than Europe, where we have seen some established credibility in the art field due to a coherent movement such as the work that came out of Holland during the late 1970s and through the 80s.
Another problem facing art jewelry is that many jewelers try to be too many things at once. I have not come across a jeweler who has integrity in her or his one-of-a-kind work and then produces a completely different kind of production work. This seems to be an accepted approach for jewelers, and I believe it can be destructive to the integrity of the good work. This doesn’t mean that I disagree with production work that is a continuation or forms part of the artist’s creative process.
I feel there has been a mistake in promoting art jewelry in relation to the jewelry industry. This attempt to use the business of jewelry in promotion of artists, such as we saw with the “Ornamenta” exhibition, has only created even more confusion and less credibility of jewelry as an art form.
All of these problems create an underlying uncertainty concerning what this work and the movement in general are about. Because it is difficult to understand the movement, it also becomes very difficult to promote it at the same level as other forms of artistic expression.
I find that most jewelers and promoters of jewelry as art try to get to “art” through “craft.” I believe that the views and objectives of the two are quite different and not necessarily compatible. In the promotion of my gallery, I have conscientiously made the decisions not to straddle both worlds.
It has been frequently mentioned that jewelers demonstrate a lock of self-esteem as compared with artists in other media. Is this something you have observed?
This is a very difficult question, because there are as many answers as there are individuals. However, from my own experience I have developed a number of ideas as to why this lack of self-esteem may exist. I have noticed many jewelers wanting to create sculpture. Again the answer as to why varies greatly, but very seldom does this work – neither as a jeweler creating sculpture nor the reverse. There is an insecurity in jewelers, which, I believe, brings on this desire to create sculpture – in a field that has the recognition, respect and admiration jewelers are looking for but have difficulty finding in their own field.
Jewelers face a great challenge in making their work; it requires a certain state of mind in working with the small scale – a great sense of discipline. Unfortunately, at the moment, the rewards for this are not comparable to those of other media. Jewelers cannot get the prices the work deserves for its artistic value. At the same time as having to believe in themselves and the validity of their work, they must also believe in this field and the validity of it as an art form. Believing in the eventual acceptance of both their own work and the field in general is something that does not concern artists in most other media. This is something I can easily relate to as a gallery promoting art jewelry – other galleries are not in the position of defending two things at once: the individual artists and the field as a whole. There is an insecurity we all share and self-esteem is difficult under such circumstances.
Artists have a drive that goes beyond monetary considerations; there is a vital urge to say something to the world. Often great sacrifices are made to accommodate that urge. Many painters and sculptors deal with this by taking a different kind of work, often teaching. Many jewelers, on the other hand, tend to divide themselves between too many kinds of jewelry and therefore put their integrity in jeopardy. If jewelers want to hold onto that integrity, they cannot be making work purely for commercial reasons, work for which they have no true feeling. Rather, it is imperative that art jewelers take a different job that would allow them to do the jewelry that they truly desire and need to make. Much lack of self-esteem comes from making this work that you do not really want to be making.
What are some of the changes you have observed over the four years you have had your gallery concerning the acceptance of this work by your customers and by the general art community?
One of my most notable achievements since opening the gallery is to have been accepted into the Contemporary Art Gallery Association. There are only 16 galleries belonging to the association out of a total possible 150 in the province of Quebec. The criteria for acceptance include a strict exhibition system and showing work by living artists. The most difficult one for me, but most rewarding, was to have been accepted by my peers, and for this I had to work hard. I tried to show the art community what it is I meant by art jewelry, to show my credibility and my integrity. At first they did not believe in the work but have since come to accept it.
I can definitely say that now my clients are buying much stronger work than they had when I first opened. They are far less reluctant to look at the most daring work, and this is a change that makes me very optimistic.
Do you consider it your role as a gallery owner to place works of art jewelry in museum collections?
Yes, this is a vital role played by a gallery owner. Right now I see it as the museums who need to begin believing in this work, understanding it and, of course, trusting me and the work I represent before they begin to buy. At the moment, as a young gallery, I feel I am not there yet. However, this is a very important development I see approaching.
Starting with Donald Friedlich’s interview with Garth Glark in Metalsmith, and continuing with Reinhold Ludwig’s article in Art Aurea on “Why there’s no market (at the moment) for artistic jewelry,” a list of “evidence” has been presented to us as to the enormous and almost overwhelming obstacles to the promotion, sales and acceptance of this art form. While there is some acknowledgment of the progress that has been made over this decode, the general assessment is negative. What is your response to the information presented and how does it compare to your own personal experiences?
There is no doubt in my mind that jewelry will eventually be accepted as an art form within the fine arts community. I find the art jewelry community is in a real hurry, and it also amazes me that some are willing to give up so soon. Many artists, for example, involved in the strongest and more radical movements throughout history struggled all their lives before gaining acceptance and being understood.
I think it is important to mention, with regard to jewelry’s acceptance, that what has been the trend in art for the past few decades has been large and bold work, and there has been very little admiration for small work of any kind. With contemporary ceramics, for example which may have more credibility than jewelry and has more contemporary criticism than jewelry, much work has been made on a large scale, making it more accessible and better understood by the fine arts community.
In the process of promoting my gallery, I found that the majority of people in positions of decision-making within the fine arts community come from a similar background – generally art history and musicology. These people are taught to appreciate and decipher the work of artists belonging to the same periods and schools of thought throughout history. Jewelry, of course, has a tradition as well, but it does not necessarily belong to that of fine art. So, generally, in museums we find jewelry acknowledged by history, or jewelry designed rather than made by prominent artists.
In general, I can say that I have encountered a barrier of snobbery from the fine arts world toward jewelry, but throughout the course of art history there have always been people there to make minds and opinions change.
What are the greatest obstacles you must face in operating an art jewelry gallery?
The most obvious obstacle, I must admit, is the financial difficulty of trying to run a first-class gallery with as few compromises as possible. As a gallery, I am expected to sell for my artists and, of course, to pay the rent. The promotion of the work for me is very exciting. However, because of the newness of this art form and the many barriers facing us, I feel it is imperative to operate my gallery on a very refined level, for which the costs are extremely high.
A problem that I have difficulty understanding and even less in accepting is one that involves the jewelers and the jewelry itself. I find some jewelers often forget that their work is going to be handled and worn. I have experienced too many mishaps with pieces breaking in the gallery or shortly after being sold, not because of a lack of respect towards them, but simple problems with findings and poor technique. This is a problem that simply cannot continue – it is damaging not only to the jeweler’s reputation but also to the gallery’s. We are entirely dependent upon each other and our reputations go hand-in-hand.
This brings me to another problem that at times I think could be considered the most difficult. I find with some jewelers, in their lack of understanding the gallery system, there is a problem in developing a sense of belonging with the gallery. Some jewelers do not see that cooperation with the galleries and a long-term relationship are the grounding for progress. I have experienced jewelers who are too quick to want recognition and who increase their prices prematurely. Again, this is damaging to both of us.
The last of what I would call an obstacle in operating my gallery is my problem with customs. There is so much traffic in terms of importing and exporting in the jewelry business and I have found it difficult to be recognized differently from the mainstream, primarily due to the lack of written material to convince the officials otherwise. Although this has been an ongoing problem, I hope that eventually it will be solved.
Given that we both agree that long-term acceptance of this art form is inevitable, what is your vision for this field over the next five years?
In Europe, with the open market in 1992, I believe there will be an advantage to the field, as jewelry will easily travel without customs problems. However, I think the eventual acceptance of the field into the fine arts community will be seen first in North America. This is mainly because the social structures, as compared with Europe, are less acute and the breaking of tradition is more accepted here. New York is still seen as an important center in contemporary art. I must add that in the gradual acceptance of the field we will more than likely see individual jewelers being integrated into the fine arts community before the field as a whole. Right now, what is important is the need to organize strong exhibitions in the best museums. We need well-informed curators who base decisions above all on artistic integrity and strength of participating jewelers.
Along with more of these exhibitions we need to continue to increase written material, catalogs and criticism. By this I mean more in-depth explanation of art jewelry on both an intellectual and psychological level, not mere description. It is important to realize that by advancing towards the fine art community, we are also inviting an onslaught of harsh and potentially destructive criticism. We must be prepared for this and be ready to defend the work on a comparable level to that of any other artwork.
Although the recent criticism from promoters and makers is sometimes seen as negative, I think maybe it is a sign that we are beginning to discuss among ourselves that which has not been clear in the minds of both jewelers and the fine arts community: Who are the jewelers deserving credibility in the art world? Let’s clarify the categories of artists, artisans and fashion designers in jewelry. These, at the moment, are often mixed together in large exhibitions and in jewelry galleries without explanation. I am not saying that one is of more value that the other. However, it is misleading to be promoting these works together.
Unfortunately, at the moment, it is very easy to promote jewelry in a boutique situation, stressing what you think will sell, but in the gallery you promote the work of the artist in whom you truly believe. For this, it is of utmost importance that galleries maintain a clear and consistent message to the public. The acceptance of art jewelry lies in the understanding and the solving of this confusion that exists about the different approaches to jewelry in general.