Gallery Directors’ Role on Metalsmithing

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By Deborah NortonMore from this author

In the world of fine art, galleries wield enormous power. Galleries such as Castelli, Knoedler and Marlborough, through the artists they choose to show, dictate which artists and styles are "in" or "out," which work will receive the most publicity, thus establishing the artists' reputations, and, ultimately, which pieces will be sold to museums and private collectors willing to pay top dollar for paintings and sculpture. As William Rubin, director of painting and sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, said in an article in The New Yorker magazine "The history of modern art would have been very different if it hadn't been for the work of some enlightened (gallery directors)."

Currently in the craft world, this is not the case. Reputations of crafts artists tend to be made through nonprofit institutions such as universities, craft schools, museums, grant programs and journals. However, as the crafts population increases, with more and more practitioners trying to make their livelihood by selling their work, rather than teaching, this situation is likely to change. I feel that in the future it will be galleries that will be the arbiters of taste in crafts. They will decide which artists and which styles will thrive, and they will create the history of crafts in future decades. Consequently, it is important for metalsmiths, as well as collectors, to be aware of what the directors of the more outstanding metalsmithing galleries are thinking.

To undertake this survey I first compiled a list of galleries that either show metalwork exclusively or have a strong emphasis on this craft. To them I sent a questionnaire to solicit the directors' ideas on such topics as emerging trends, changes taking place within the craft, conflicts inherent to metalsmithing, quality of today's metalwork and the education of metalsmiths. The responses provide a telling profile of each gallery, stressing the similarities and differences between them. Those responding to the questionnaire (with the director's name in parenthesis) were: Artwear, New York City, established 1977 (Robert Lee Morris); Concepts, Carmel, CA, 1977 (Douglas Steakley); Contemporary Artisans, San Francisco, CA, 1978 (Elaine Potter); The Craftsman's Gallery, Scarsdale, NY, 1973 (Sybil Robbins); Etienne, Camden, ME, 1975 (Etienne Perret); Graham Gallery' ta Jolla, CA, 1980 (Scott Graham); La Jolla Gallery Eight, La Jolla, CA, 1978 (Ruth Newmark); Mindscape, Evanston, IL, 1974 (Ron Isaacson); and Precious Objects Gallery, los Gatos, CA, 1979 (Walter Soellner).

All the gallery directors see metalsmithing in a state of flux and feel that this constant evolution is exciting and positive. Some galleries feel that they are influential in the development of new styles and trends, while others feel it is not their role to try to influence the artist. Robert Lee Morris boldly states, "Artwear and the five to six years of constant publicity, has definitely influenced the look of metalwork." Etienne attributes the change in the work shown in his gallery as "mainly due to my asking more of my designers." Douglas Steakley seems to feel his influence more subtly when he says, changes within Concepts "reflect the type of jewelry we choose to show, but I also think the designers have changed their attitudes."

However, Elaine Potter, in discussing developing trends, is satisfied with "whatever the artist wants to do, as that is the thing that is most successful if they do it well." Walter Soellner adds, "Whatever happens, happens—that is the joy of life. . . . There is nothing right or wrong, positive or negative, about discernible trends." Sybil Robbins's unwillingness to influence trends almost strikes me as a trend in itself. She prefers "the notion that each person follow his own inclinations. I'm not sure I like to see too many trends develop."

But regardless of the source of influence, what are these trends that directors see emerging within their own galleries and within metalsmithing in general? The three most often mentioned are towards greater sophistication, new materials and more technical prowess. Ruth Newmark of La Jolla Gallery Eight observes that work has become "more sophisticated, less organic." Ron Isaacson of Mindscape attributes this increase in sophistication to "more concern for technique and experimentation." To Etienne this sophistication comes with designers' increased knowledge over time, "of the essence of jewelry and what people appreciate in it." Steakley attributes it to the rise in sophistication of the people judging museum and juried exhibitions. "Before (seven to eight years ago), designers made large and sometimes funny-looking objects that were designed for these exhibitions. American jewelry designers are passing through adolescence into a more mature phase."

Conversely, Robert Lee Morris reports that "work has gotten larger in scale, cleaner and more graphic." Artwear no longer shows jewelry that is decorative but rather work that has a "pure approach to design." He is supportive of the trend towards more complex, intricate and precise work. Ruth Newmark sees jewelry as becoming more humorous, less serious. Contemporary Artisans' Potter is pleased to see "more concern with developing technical ideas and following inner instincts."

Numerous galleries mentioned the use of new materials such as titanium, tantalum, plastic and paper as a discernable trend. At the two extremes, Elaine Potter would like "to see more use of nontraditional metals and stones," while Etienne has found that "there are no materials that are superior to gold, platinum and precious gemstones." Morris would "like to see more work done in ferrous metals, stainless steel and gold, mixed." Although Scott Graham considers titanium a "flash in the pan," Newmark and Steakley agree with Mindscape's Isaacson that "it depends on the use of the materials, not the materials themselves."

Sybil Robbins of the Craftsman's Gallery sees the use of "new" techniques such as mokume-gane and other Japanese metalsmithing techniques, as well as the use of new materials, as commendable as long as they are not taken up by too many people. Then "they seem ordinary and routine to the viewing public." There is also a danger "that the use of technique or material is only 'trendy' and has no esthetic validity or quality in design and workmanship."

As would be expected, innovation is valued by all the galleries, but often with qualifications. While Mindscape, Gallery Eight and Concepts are wholeheartedly on the side of innovation, Artwear's Morris, along with Etienne, "would like to see more nontraditional and innovative work done based on the great tradition of integrity and quality craftsmanship of the ancient goldsmith." The other galleries take more of a laisser-faire attitude, expressing no preference for either innovation or tradition, but rather for "whatever the artist can do well," as Contemporary Artisans' Potter says.

Although one often hears metalsmithing students debating the issue of wearable versus nonwearable jewelry, this is not something that concerns galleries. Most agree with Walter Soellner of Precious Objects that "It's irrelevant. If it's not wearable, it's not jewelry." Steakley, backed by Robbins and Etienne, takes a more tolerant attitude. "Nonwearable jewelry is fine, so long as it is done as an exercise in composition or something else. It does not have much of a place in a gallery. . . . Often things done in school by students are totally valid in this environment, but these people must realize that these pieces will find little acceptance elsewhere."

A more subtle issue that does concern many gallery directors is the conflict between interesting pieces that are jewelry and interesting jewelry. Although Potter and Soellner are in agreement with Robbins when she remarks, "I don't look for conflicts in any of these situations. Each artist ought to make what interests him," others disagree. Steakley and Morris share Etienne's attitude that "effort should be put into interesting jewelry. I am not really interested in sculpture that can be hung around the neck." However, to Isaacson, "Interesting pieces that are jewelry is the direction we would like to see. It encourages individuality and experimentation and is not dependent on trends." Although not quite as emphatic as Isaacson, Newmark finds "there are times when interesting pieces . . . need to be modified to make them more wearable, but I like the attempt to design new forms."

Many directors have strong ideas concerning outside influences on metalsmiths. Like Morris, Etienne is disappointed that "very little influence of fine arts is felt in jewelry. My feeling is that very few jewelers go through the process of an artist." Conversely, Potter is pleased with metalsmiths' lack of interest in fine arts because "painting today is awful and sculpture has become nonhuman." Steakley thinks "that in a period of strong design, such as Art Nouveau or Art Deco, all media reflect the same antecedents. I would like to see such a movement occur now." Graham hopes that metalsmiths are "influenced by everything esthetic. " Soellner adds that goldsmiths are not only influenced by the other arts but by "television, politics, economics and life in general."

It is commonly agreed that fashion has a strong influence on jewelry. As Isaacson explains, "Jewelry is wearable art and therefore cannot ignore the rest of the wearable industry." Graham attributes this influence to survival, decidedly a positive factor. Most agree with Morris that "it is good to be influenced by fashion trends in order to stay current and not repeat what has already been done." But again, Robbins emphasizes that it is "disappointing to see too many individuals following trends," fashion or otherwise.

This influence of fashion has led to the division of contemporary jewelry into fashion jewelry and art jewelry. Etienne defines the former as "trendy jewelry, meant to appeal to the current fashions," while the latter "is a piece of an artist's conceptualization that can be worn." In the opinion of all the gallery directors, the two complement each other and, as Soellner says, "Both can be good art." Steakley believes "the same type of consciousness goes into both types of work. Fashion jewelry and art jewelry are both aspects of a creative effort and they show that a person is attempting something new and different."

Although all gallery directors are interested in trends and influences, their prime concern is quality, both in design and technique. Fortunately, all have found that the longer they are in business the higher the quality of work they sell. Robbins realizes that "it takes most people quite some time to trust a gallery . . . (both) the makers of the work and the buying public. The longer a gallery is in business, if it achieves a reputation for fine work and fair dealing, the better artists it can attract, and the more people willing to buy high quality (i.e., expensive) work."

To many metalsmiths just beginning their careers, the conflict between quality versus salability is confusing. Gallery directors have little trouble resolving this issue. Steakley observes that "probably 50% of all people in any profession are not very good at what they do and this includes artists and designers. So when an artist considers the salability in his design a lot of the ultimate success depends upon whether or not the person is a good designer, not upon whether or not they have considered salability." Etienne feels "an artist should be concerned with making art. The mistake is that too many consider themselves to be artists." Morris considers the whole issue to be irrelevant. "Salability is like fashion, impossible to predict or control. All quality work combined with free artistic expression should be salable."

Morris's philosophy is reinforced by all but one of the galleries, confirming that the best quality work sells best. According to Isaacson, collectors especially "respond to quality. Midrange pieces—price and quality-wise—have not been selling well. But Newmark admits to having more concern with salability than some of the other galleries. Because of this concern they have avoided nonjewelry metalwork. And although Gallery Eight is drawn to the innovative work now being done, it "fears for its salability."

The conflict that most galleries see is not between quality and salability, but between quality and price. Both Robbins and Etienne agree that it is important for work to be fairly priced. As Etienne points out "High-quality, low-priced work almost always sells.'; Graham adds that because "people will often not wish to pay for two weeks of labor" artistic expression can be compromised by the time one can reasonably devote to a piece and still price it so that it will sell.

The last issue addressed by the questionnaire was the education of a metalsmith. The following colleges were mentioned as currently producing the top graduates: Rhode Island School of Design, Tyler, SUNY-New Paltz, Skidmore, Carnegie-Mellon, San Diego State, Purdue, University of Wisconsin and Southern Illinois University. Newmark finds that "certainly people from (the latter four schools) show very professional work." To Soellner recent graduates "are getting better all the time, really much improved compared to the presentations we saw four years ago when we opened Precious Objects Gallery."

However, some galleries are quite dissatisfied with today's graduates. Steakley is "not aware of any colleges that are doing a particularly good job. . . . I have been very discouraged with younger students just out of school. It takes them a couple of years to develop their own sense of design and make a personal statement. I don't think that schools encourage individuality and this is the most important trait in an artist." He attributes the unpreparedness of new graduates to work with galleries to the fact that college instructors often have not dealt with galleries themselves, so they "have no notion of what to tell the students."

Morris thinks "most schools are producing frustrated craftsmen with little design or marketing training. The freshest work is not coming from academic institutions." While agreeing with both Steakley and Morris, Etienne acknowledges that "some schools will be more advantageous to meeting people that will help later in one's career." Isaacson sees a need for business courses within the curriculum.

At one point in the questionnaire Steakley remarks, "There have not been that many (metalsmithing) galleries in the past, so we are not talking about something that has a long history." This lack of longevity is one of the most important distinguishing factors between fine art and craft galleries. Many fine art galleries have been in existence for decades, while the oldest craft gallery in this survey is 10 years old. By the time craft galleries have celebrated their 15th and 20th anniversaries I am certain their importance and influence will have greatly increased. This craft is fortunate to have such intelligent, contemplative and articulate directors in these galleries to forge the history modern metalsmithing.

By Deborah Norton
Metalsmith Magazine – 1984 Winter
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Deborah Norton

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