Small Degree of Validity

13 Minute Read

This article was originally posted on Userblogs on 7/2/2017.
By Donald FriedlichMore from this author

Since the postwar emergence of contemporary metalsmithing and jewelry-making in North America there has generally been a distinction drawn between objects made by academic university faculty and those made by artists in the commercial marketplace. Many in academia have viewed the market as a place where unsophisticated, and unoriginal work is rewarded, while a large percentage of market craftspeople have looked upon academia as an ivory (or, if you prefer, micarta) tower out of touch with the real world.

As a jeweler whose work bridges both camps I see a small degree of validity to each point of view. In the larger and more important picture, however, both views are destructive, divisive, and dated. Both the academic and commercial communities are critical to the future of our field and each has something of value to learn from and to give to the other. One of the primary motivations for choosing studio multiples as the focus of this year's Exhibition in Print was the curators' wish to close the gap between these two constituencies.

Responsibilities of Academia

Many dedicated university professors are coping with increasingly complex administrative and committee responsibilities while also dealing with a tightening fiscal situation. I recognize that in general they are doing a good job in a difficult environment. Nevertheless, I feel it is important to suggest that some faculty need to better understand and address the problems their students will face and the skills their students will need after graduation. Though by no means advocating turning our universities into trade schools, I do feel that providing some exposure to production techniques and to artists making a living through the sale of their work would reduce students' concerns about the viability of continuing in the field. Such exposure coupled with a strong academic grounding in producing one-of-a-kind work would be very helpful in developing intelligent production with an individual style and artistic depth.

Unfortunately, not only are art students often not exposed to the commercial world and techniques for surviving in it, occasionally they are inadvertently turned against it by the attitudes conveyed by some teachers. It would be more constructive for faculty to present production design as a challenge as opposed to a sell-out. While market techniques should not be the top priority of an academic education, neither should they be ignored or dismissed. It has always struck me as unfortunate that a student can spend six or more years and enough money to buy a small house studying metalsmithing, and then make little direct use of the experience. It is a loss to the student, a loss to the institution that trained the student, and a loss to the field as a whole.

At the same time, while I strongly maintain that schools need to introduce students to the production side of the field, I also recognize that schools can provide only an introduction to production. Students need to apply the creativity fostered by our educational institutions not only to their work but also to finding effective ways to continue their work after graduation.

One of the best ways to further an interest in pursuing a production-oriented career path is to work for a production artist; another option is to attend workshops which specifically focus on production and business issues. In addition, students should go to craft shows and take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and educate themselves about what is presently taking place in the production community both creatively and technically. Craft shows can also be sources for information concerning materials, manufacturers, and other nuts-and-bolts issues which must be addressed before galleries are approached or craft show applications filed.

No college education in any field can come close to providing students everything they need upon graduation. It can only provide an initial base on which to build. Perhaps the most valuable lesson students can acquire from college is learning how to learn.

The Perils of the Marketplace

Artists in the marketplace can also benefit artistically by adopting academia's emphasis on learning, growth, and innovation. For those who make their living marketing jewelry or other metal multiples it can be tempting to focus only on objects that sell well, and to lose sight of the artistic sensibilities and needs which drew them to the field. Financial success can cause stagnation in any art medium. Artistic growth which requires the artist to leave behind the proven seller for the new and therefore riskier work, is a daunting challenge. While the market has become more sophisticated over time, it still remains a somewhat conservative force. For contemporary metalsmithing to advance, some of us must resist this conservative impetus and fight the impulse to play it safe.

Levels of creativity and inventiveness vary from person to person. Every field has only a handful of leaders and innovators, while the majority of its members merely follow. Nevertheless, there is currently far too much derivative work at our trade fairs. Sales are not the only indicator of success in this field.

Another potential danger marketplace jewelers face is attributable to the very nature of the materials they use. Precious metals are beautiful and seductive. Some consumers will view a piece of gold in any form, even if it's run over by a truck, as the most spectacular object they ever have seen. It is very easy for an artist's head to be turned by public enthusiasm. We must be more critical of our own work.

The Production World Today

One cannot write about contemporary studio multiples and the people producing them without looking at the marketplace in which they are sold. Since its genesis in the 1960s the American craft market has experienced remarkable expansion. The shows that began in Stowe, Vermont with about seventy artists interested in an alternative lifestyle selling crafts from earthy displays and tailgates of trucks have evolved into sophisticated showcases of a thousand or more exhibitors from all over the country.

There are thousands of galleries, stores, craft shows, and gift markets as well as international fine jewelry markets. Currently, the dominant wholesale markets for jewelry and metal multiples are the American Craft Enterprises' Baltimore fair, the Rosen Agency's Philadelphia Buyers' Market of American Craft, the JCK International Fine Jewelry Exposition at Las Vegas, and George Little Management's New York International Gift Fair.

In addition, hundreds of retail shows of varying sizes and selectivity have emerged. The most competitive shows, such as The Smithsonian Craft Show and The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show have twelve to fifteen artists applying for each available space. Competition is so rigorous that it is not unheard of for someone to receive in the same year both an NEA grant and a letter of rejection from The Smithsonian Craft Show.

Despite our often-voiced frustration with the lack of respect given our field, we must remember that in a mere thirty years it has left behind its very modest beginnings and become a multimillion dollar industry with a huge wholesale and retail following. Production work has been a major contributor to this evolution.

Design Issues

"Dying is easy, production is hard."

As is the case with any creative endeavor, every artist has his or her own approach to designing production. Determining one's approach and design parameters is always a challenging task. Many start with a particular technique such as commercial photoetching or casting. Some look at production from the point of view of cost, i.e., "I need a sterling earring that will retail for less than fifty dollars." Others turn to their own one-of-a-kind work for inspiration and try to create an aesthetically connected design in a more efficient manner. Unfortunately, others visit the booth down the aisle at their favorite craft show to see what is selling.

In any case artists have to decide what their priorities are and then develop work they feel good about. The reality is that in designing production work, design decisions become lifestyle commitments. A line that is cast and highly polished is going to require the designer (or someone the designer hires) to spend a lot of time cleaning up castings and polishing. Similarly, because it can be very expensive to make changes to a production item, each inefficient choice the designer makes is likely to be replicated hundreds of times. Accordingly, every design decision must be made with a great deal of care and prescience. Working within all these parameters makes designing high quality production as difficult if not more difficult than designing one-of-a-kind pieces.

The Entrepreneurial Artist

The design of the work is only the beginning. Production artists must also be conversant with all the complexities involved in running a small business. In this capacity they wear many different hats. They must deal with marketing, displays, packaging, accounting, billing, staff management, photography, production supervision, quality control, sales, and shipping. The variety of responsibilities can keep life interesting but these responsibilities can also be overwhelming and deplete the time available for artistic reflection and exploration.

Not every creative person is suited for a career in production. While some individuals are comfortable dealing with suppliers, store owners, and the public, others find such contacts difficult. Being one's own boss brings satisfaction and flexibility; however, entrepreneurial success requires a great deal of responsibility, drive, ambition, and energy. I am reminded of the old story about the craftsperson who said, "I love being self-employed because I have to work only half a day and my time is completely flexible - I get to work whichever 12-hour shift I want."

The Two-Tiered Approach

The most obvious motivation for making production work is financial, but it is narrow and simplistic to view profit as production's sole raison d'être. A broader understanding is achieved when consideration is given to an artist's entire body of work.

In many cases both one-of-kind work and multiples are produced by the same designer, and these are generally exhibited together. Often, the production serves as a financial support system that allows the artist to continue developing unique pieces which are usually more difficult to sell.

Such a two-tiered arrangement is especially helpful to emerging designers who have not yet developed the reputation and following necessary for selling one-of-a-kind work. If emerging artists without a production line choose to exhibit at shows they are, in effect, working without a safety net. This early stage is often the most vulnerable and critical time in an artist's career. A viable production line allows new artists to show their riskier work and still meet the substantial expenses of displays, travel, marketing materials, and formidable booth fees. Ironically, the design of production is usually the area in which new talent is the least trained.

Another benefit to the two-tiered approach for both emerging and established artists is that it can provide a more reliable stream of income. Wholesale buyers are more likely to purchase production while they usually try to consign one-of-a-kind work. This practice lets buyers test their customers' responses to more unique work with less financial risk to the galleries or stores. However, for many artists, consignment tends to make for an inconsistent cash flow often subject to seasonal fluctuations. Consignment can also tie up an artist's limited inventory. In addition, artists have no way of knowing if the consigning venue is even displaying their work. Galleries often have more work in drawers than in display cases. And while many galleries sell effectively from the drawers, others do not.

Artists retain far more control when buyers purchase work outright. Because artists can set the terms of payment and negotiate delivery dates, they can control their cash flow and workload. Needless to say, predictability is of critical importance when building a business and maintaining a payroll.

It is not my intention to portray consignment galleries in a negative light. Some of the most prestigious galleries in our field work primarily on consignment. It is simply that the earnings from direct sales of production work can reduce the short-term pressure for income. As a result it is easier for artists to consign their unique pieces and make longer-term professional commitments that may ultimately benefit their careers as well as their galleries.

The Production-Based Business

Not all artists use production to support one-of-a-kind work. Many prefer to focus their efforts entirely on multiples. According to production jeweler Michael Good, "a one-of-a-kind piece is a design that is not worth repeating."

In making this statement, Good does not intend to derogate those who make one-of-a-kind objects, but to express his view of his own work and to define his approach to business. His choice has been to make only multiples, a choice made by many other craftspeople as well. Following this path frequently changes the scale and structure of a career.

A production-based career is a commitment to a larger output of work and often to the use of subcontractors and/or employees with all the concomitant paper-word, reporting requirements, and adherence to government regulations. The up-side to this approach is obvious. Since there is a limit to the amount of work a single person can produce, a craftsperson can increase profitability either by continually raising the price of the work or by hiring assistants. In most cases, the latter is the most practical solution.

As the pages of this portfolio illustrate, the term production does not necessarily signify a lower priced item nor one that is quickly produced. Many production jewelers, such as Michael Good and Whitney Boin, make labor-intensive, precious jewelry. Working in multiples allow these jewelers to develop more efficient technological approaches and to train staff, thus increasing their output. The increase in the quantity of their work builds their reputations and audiences. The added efficiency improves the profitability of their jewelry, lowers the price of their work, or accomplishes both of these things. In this manner unique, sophisticated design can better compete in, or even dominate, the marketplace.

Production's Contributions to the Field

Bringing a significant quantity of work before the public not only benefits the individual producing that work, but is also a boon to the field as a whole. This is because a larger range of works at various price points and various degrees of accessibility engage an audience which cannot afford or is not adventurous enough to wear one-of-a-kind work. In this way, production can provide an introduction to the world of handmade objects and jewelry. Over time a customer's interest and involvement in contemporary metalsmithing often increases as does the customer's confidence in wearing more unusual jewelry. What begins as a casual interest can turn into a passion and the person who began as a customer can turn into a collector. In this manner galleries and individual artists alike build their client-bases and the entire field matures and expands. While some may dismiss this as a bottom up approach, saying production and one-of-a-kind work are apples and oranges and the building of a market for one is irrelevant to the other, my fifteen years selling both apples and oranges tells me otherwise.

The production artist's interest in broadening the base of our field is often motivated by another, more human factor. For some, it is important to make work their friends and peers, as opposed to wealthy patrons alone, can afford to buy and wear. Although we are not currently experiencing the level of egalitarian sentiments that were such a force in Dutch jewelry of the seventies, these feelings are still present.

There is another aspect of the humanity inherent in this work which should not be ignored. Despite all the technology available today, such as commercial photo-etching, laser cutting, and CAD-CAM, the most frequently used production techniques are still the old standards: casting and fabrication. It seems that for the time being the use of the hand, not the machine, remains central, and that the term craftsperson still resonates with artists and the public.

By Donald Friedlich
Metalsmith Magazine – 1997 Exhibition
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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Donald Friedlich

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