Robert Lee Morris: The End of an Era

Seventeen years ago Robert Lee Morris opened Artwear in the Soho section of New York City. Quickly becoming a breeding ground for the hottest new talent in the “jewelry as artform/wearable art” arena, Artwear created a market that had not previously existed – that of the jewelry designer as a collectible entity.

In the 1970s, with the exception of the Sculpture to Wear Gallery, also located in New York City, which only showed jewelry made by well-known artists like Picasso, Calder, and Man Ray; and the work of Elsa Peretti under the sponsorship of Tiffany, there were virtually no markets for the purveyors of the notion of jewelry as art to wear. Robert Lee Morris set about changing all of that when he opened Artwear, raising the consciousness of art historians, artisans, and collectors, as well as members of the fashion industry and its accompanying publications.

Artwear became a status symbol in and of itself. Artists who exhibited there did not remain unknown designers; they began to receive the kind of press attention that was once reserved for fine artists and fashion designers. Artwear acquired a reputation for quality exhibitions, showing the works by designers who were on the cutting edge of their field, and much of that work became the impetus for a variety of innovative trends. But, time and the fashion industry, coupled with the economy, have altered collecting and acquisition. As Robert Lee Morris stated, “At this time closing Artwear makes sense. Good form and grace call for knowing when to leave a party at the right time.”

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Morris pointed out that American jewelry designers no longer have the support they once had from the fashion press and have had to create a new way of doing business. Galleries were not the answer. Showrooms, agents, and artists reps took the place of galleries. More outlets were needed to provide visibility for artists, and Artwear, being a singularly small business could not possibly represent and provide the much needed visibility by itself.

Although Robert Lee Morris is saddened by the gallery’s closing, he has plans to double the size of his own gallery which is located across the street from Artwear. Also, there will be a retrospective of his work at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in the not too distant future. And last, but certainly not least, he will continue to be a strong believer in the idea of art to wear, providing support and recognition for its innovators. One era has ended for Robert Lee Morris but the entrepreneur is looking optimistically towards the future, and the beginning of a new one.

Dorothy Spencer writes about jewelry from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.