What does it mean to be a gallerist today, especially one who deals exclusively in art jewelry? To find out, we investigated three twenty-first-century galleries in the United States launched by a new generation of dealers. We learned that they are carrying the jewelry field forward in highly personal ways, while acknowledging the importance of their forerunners, who helped establish the concept of jewelry as art.
Many outstanding goldsmiths, whose work was first seen almost exclusively at juried craft shows in the 19705, became gallery stars in the succeeding decades. As pioneering gallerists like Helen W. Drutt English and Susan Cummins installed jewelry as a prominent, if not exclusive, component of their establishments, the gallery scene found its footing and began to expand. While craft shows have grown huge, and increasingly commercial, galleries now provide an intimate alternative venue for both the casual retail buyer and the discerning collector, whose choices are often guided by the gallerist’s vision. Aaron Faber in New York has been a notable mainstay since the 1980s, while Jewelers’ Werk in Washington, D.C., Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco, Facere Jewelry Art Gallery in Seattle, and Objects of Desire in Louisville have prospered since opening in the early to mid 1990s. These and other fine galleries notably the three profiled here provide needed exposure for hundreds of artists, while bringing a greater international presence to the art jewelry marketplace.
‘There’s a difference between selling and repping,’ says Sienna Patti, owner of Sienna Gallery in Lenox, Massachusetts. “What’s my responsibility? To represent all of the artist’s work, not just a few pieces.” Patti is speaking of her challenging role as a gallerist, which she embarked upon independently eight years ago at the tender age of 22, with a 815,000 bank loan. She could be speaking as well for the thirty-something owners of Ornamentum in Hudson, New York, and IMEC (International Metalsmith Exhibition Center) in Albuquerque, New Mexico; these galleries, like her own, are devoted exclusively to contemporary art jewelry. All three galleries were launched with a passionate dedication to and belief in the work they represent, and each reports keen collector interest and self-sustaining sales.
In a field that loves to argue over definitions, while grumbling about a “depressed” market, the gallerists interviewed for this article say that they are selling handmade and conceptual jewelry to a surprisingly diverse clientele, one that ranges, depending on the gallery, from youthful to middle-aged to even quite elderly (one of Patti’s favorite customers is 98). Not surprisingly, customers are mostly women buying for themselves and looking for unique adornment, or couples in pursuit of unusual wedding rings, but overall, these individuals share one crucial characteristic: they are seeking jewelry not available in the mainstream, and, perhaps more to the point, they are open to learning about jewelry whose “intrinsic” value is based primarily on the artists’ highly personalized design concepts, and secondarily — or sometimes not at all — on the worth of materials. It might be a sterling silver and glass necklace by Karen Gilbert at IMEC, or a Gerd Rothmann gold fingerprint ring at Ornamentum, or a steel and diamond Lola Brooks pendant at Sienna. Whatever the piece, gallerists stress the importance of presenting the work as art. None use conventional display supports associated, as Patti says, with “jewelry jewelry.” Instead the work is usually shown flat in specially designed vitrines, or wall hung. IMEC’s Luis Demetrio Lolasco mounts rings on wall panels, a separate one for each artist, while Ornamentum’s Stefan Friedemann explains that his minimalist cases, custom-made in Germany, allow pieces to be put out on dark-stained ash wood, “like paintings.”
But to sell jewelry as art, it is often not enough to simply let the work speak for itself. These young gallerists say they must be prepared to effectively communicate the work’s esthetic, or “meaning” (often an uncanny layering of metaphor, irony, and technique) — to deconstruct it, so to speak — to a customer who might be a first-time walk-in drawn to a cutting-edge gallery setting or a return visitor responding to a mailing form a special exhibition, or someone visiting one of the mega craft shows, such as SOFA (the international exhibitions of Sculpture, Objects and Functional Art). The dialogue is an educational process that can be time-consuming (Lomasco says he can easily spend a half an hour with each prospective customer) but it pays off in creating a knowledgeable clientele. At the same time, gallerists must also be able to communicate with the artists themselves, for whom representation and exhibitions provide not just validation of the work but a vitally important marketing venue.
Gallerists with a background in art and design either hands-on or academic are pre-eminently suited to the task of maintaining this dual creative dialogue that ultimately links the artist with the buyer. At the same time, a gallery’s success is also dependant on its location ideally in an area that draws a design-savvy public. Ornamentum’s co-owners, Laura Lapachin and Stefan Friedemann, both Midwesterners, met while earning BFA degrees in Metals at Wayne State University in Detroit under the late professor Phillip Pike. “We traveled together to the jewelry capital of Germany, Pforzheim, where we studied design for three years,” says Friedemann. When the couple returned to the United States, they settled first in Providence, Rhode Island, where they worked in the jewelry industry for two years while looking for a location to call home. A magazine story about the city of Hudson, in upstate New York, just two hours by train from Manhattan, intrigued them.
Hudson’s picturesque main drag, Warren Street, lined with nineteenth-century brick and frame buildings, was developing as a burgeoning center for antiques stores and art galleries and Lapachin and Friedemann were attracted to the European feel of the town. “In 2001, after September 11,” says Friedemann, “we knew that we had better dive in because the demand for property here was bound to increase immensely So we took all that we had saved and invested it into the building in which we live and have the gallery.” Ornamentum opened in 2002 with an exhibition of the work of Scott Cormier, and subsequently, the couple has featured work by artists they met abroad, such as Silke Spitzer (who became their first “artist-in-residence” during the summer of 2004), Ruudt Peters, Gerd Rothmann, and the Vietnamese-born, German-trained artist Sam Tho Duong. “As a gallery of only three years, our focus is still developing,” says Friedemann, “but as we find that our customers are increasingly interested in the more important one-of-a-kind pieces, we are able to focus more on these works, which is what most stimulates us.”
Lolasco and Patti have differing arts backgrounds, but both opened galleries on their home turf fortuitous decisions in both cases. Lolasco, like Lapachin and Friedemann, trained as a jeweler. studying Small Metals at the University of New Mexico and taking semesters at Rhode Island School of Design. A native of Albuquerque, he worked in retail at the local Crate & Barrel store for two years before opening IMEC in 1999. “Albuquerque is one of the biggest suppliers of metals, stones, and findings in the country,” he says, “but there wasn’t an outlet in New Mexico representing more progressive jewelers.” Lolasco virtually staked out the market, establishing his gallery in Albuquerque’s artsy Nob Hill neighborhood, filled with boutiques and coffee houses. He now represents about 85 jewelers, “all metalsmiths, of which about a third are local.” Lolasco’s artists are from the United States, Europe, Canada, and Mexico, and include people he’s found at craft shows, “hiding in studios and at small, random, obscure festivals,” and by reading about them, and online.
Although “production but untraditional” wedding rings comprise about 70 percent of his business, they occupy only a small portion of the 800-square-foot gallery where display cases designed like biology specimen desks hold sculptural pieces by Karen Gilbert, Todd Reed, Ford & Forlano (the team of Steven Ford and David Forlano), and other contemporary artists. Lolasco says that his gallery attracts a very youthful clientele, people in their twenties and thirties and “a huge group of local artists,” but also buyers who make the hour-long trek south from Santa Fe, and from Taos, where art galleries (and tourists) proliferate, but galleries like his are non-existent.
Similarly, Lenox, Massachusetts, the location of Sienna Gallery, is a long-established tourist mecca in the heart of the Berkshires and home to the renowned Tangle wood music festival, which draws hordes of visitors in July and August. Lenox is chock-a-block with boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries — Patti’s is unique among them — that thrive on the summer tourist trade and cater to a population of second-home owners, weekenders, and locals, typically in their fifties and sixties.
When Patti opened her gallery in 1998, she became the youngest business owner in town. Patti, who lives in nearby Pittsfield, where she grew up, says it just “felt right” to set up shop on her home turf. Patti was born into an intense artistic milieu, the daughter of prominent glass artist Tom Patti and his wife and partner Marilyn Holtz Patti. At New York University she double majored in Theatre/Film Direction and Art History, and in 1995 began working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as assistant to the curator of Twentieth Century American Decorative Arts. This experience focused her interest on handmade work by contemporary artists, particularly jewelry. “I was always interested in jewelry and costume and in the philosophy behind wearing it,” she says. “Jewelry always seemed to be pushing boundaries, the most challenging [of the decorative arts].” However, she says, “I have no interest in making. There are so many people who do it better.”
When she first moved back to Berkshire County she worked for the Berkshire Center for Contemporary Glass. “I developed the visiting artist demonstration series and managed the gallery,” she says, before deciding to go launch herself in the gallery world. Patti says she always liked the idea of having her own business and plunged in when a suitable space became available in Lenox. Today Patti represents a roster of 30 emerging and established American and international artists, including Johan van Aswegen, Giampaolo Babetto, Anton Cepka, Giovanni Corvaja, Robert Ebendorf, Noam Elyashiv, Donald Friedlich, Alyssa Dee Krauss, Jacqueline Lillie, Tina Rath, and Barbara Seidenath. Her business has evolved to the point where she now supports her artists with grants and awards, including the Sienna Gallery Award, given bi-annually to “an emerging artist showing merit, skill and innovation in their work-” Patti gives the artist a solo exhibition and a monetary gift — recent winners were Lola Brooks and Melanie Bilanker.
Exhibitions are important, not just because they support deserving artists; they also help define a gallery’s identity, thus establishing it as a destination for continually exciting work. For this reason alone, gallerists consider the cost and planning efforts that go into their shows an investment in their gallery’s future. Ornamentum has increased its exhibitions since opening. “In our first year we had one,” says Friedemann, “and in our third year we are having four.” Lolasco used to do four or five exhibitions a year but now does only an annual holiday show. “I’m taking a break because it takes so much time and energy” he says.
Gallerists must also weigh the pros and cons of exhibiting annually off site, primarily at SOFA, in one or more of its three venues — New York, Chicago, and Palm Beach. The expense of participating is offset by the opportunity SOFA offers to expose a gallery to a wider public, create word-of-mouth, and bring certain artists to greater prominence- In Chicago in 2005, both Sienna Gallery and Ornamentum (in its debut as a participant) arranged to have selected jewelry artists speak as part of the well-attended lecture series. Lolasco, however, has so far opted out of SOFA, reasoning that his time is better spent focusing on his local clientele. ‘The Albuquerque area is quickly growing and has a vast client potential,’ he says, “and I want to take advantage of this aspect.”
In their vitally important role as educators, gallerists also extend their reach by bringing design students directly to their galleries. Eventually, Lolasco wants enough space for seminars and demonstrations. “I work with about six different design schools and universities,” he says, “bringing students, 15 to 30 at a time, on tours, providing information and contacts with other metalsmIths, and technical information.” Sienna Gallery and Ornamentum do likewise, and Patti has plans to begin publishing catalogs, something she’s always wanted to do. “I really feel there needs to be documentation for students to look at the work,” she says, noting that it’s much more commonly done in Europe.
Susan Cummins, who in 1997 founded the Art Jewelry Forum, a collectors’ group that promotes art jewelry, closed her Mill Valley gallery a few years ago after 25 years in the business, and calls these small, new galleries “a breath of fresh air” for the way in which they have brought together work from Europe and America that is being curated with a strong point of view. Cummins applauds their “energy and enthusiasm, and new ideas,” citing as one example Sienna’s emerging artist competition, whose monetary award “is fantastic, unexpected for a dealer. We didn’t do that.” Cummins says that the field of art jewelry has expanded a great deal in the last decade. “When I first started at SOFA,” she says, “few people were showing jewelry. That’s changed dramatically. Now there’s quite a few not only from America but all over the world-” Another important change, she says, is the ability of these galleries to do business through e-mail and the Internet, enabling them to operate from a relatively small home base while maintaining relationships with buyers and collectors wherever they may be.
For all the complexity of the gallerist’s job — equal parts nurturer, educator, entrepreneur, and Impresario — one aspect trumps all others. Charon Kransen, the influential private dealer credited with bringing many new names In the jewelry field to America from Europe, and whom Patti cites as her mentor, puts it this way: “Sienna came to me and I gave her a reality check. I told her that people doing this kind of pioneering work have to follow their own instincts and style. You live and you show your vision.’ Kransen applies this dictum to artists as well, encouraging them not to play it safe, but to “use their God-given talent and trust that it will be recognized. The mainstream doesn’t serve us.”
Such advice resonates for the owners of Sienna Gallery, Ornamentum and IMEC, all of whom have committed to selling only work they believe in but, Patti admits, “it sometimes gets frustrating” when artists don’t take risks. “Jewelry needs to have potency in order to make people see it,” she says. Making people see is, after all, the gallerist’s bottom line, choosing what is worthy from a growing number of international artists eager for exposure. “We are open to many styles,” says Friedemann, ‘as Tong as it is personal to the artist and exciting to us.” Because, ultimately, he adds, “a gallery is a reflection of the opinions of the people running it” It is also an all-consuming way of life. As Patti says, ‘This is a career, a vocation, a calling. If you don’t see it in that way, how can you do it?”