Last year, I participated in the Museum of Arts and Design’s annual jewelry sale/fundraiser, LOOT. They’ve being organizing LOOT for years, and I haven’t sent work for quite a while. I got a personal invitation from Donna Schneier – who has been very good to me – and I accepted.
In the past, the galleries who represented my work did not want me to participate. First Helen Drutt and then Charon Kransen discouraged their jewelers from taking part. Typically, their argument was about competition: LOOT took sales away from galleries. Their idea was that a piece of jewelry sold in one venue causes another piece of jewelry to go unsold elsewhere. This is classic zero-sum thinking: only so much work can be sold, and no more. However, my sense was that LOOT had the potential to bring new collectors into the field, thus expanding the marketplace. And if not that, LOOT could at least encourage collectors to be more enthusiastic about studio jewelry, and buy more work from all sources.
As far as I know, neither argument is supported by facts. I never heard of a collector saying to a gallery owner, “I bought all the jewelry I want at LOOT, so tough on you!” On the other hand, I never heard anybody claim that they were motivated to collect studio jewelry because they were inspired by LOOT. Lacking data, it’s impossible to determine which side is right.
So, when Schneier invited me last year, I thought it would be a harmless way to support MAD. Not that I’m a big fan of MAD, but I’m impressed by their recent exhibitions. For reasons that elude me, the institution seems to have woken up and decided to mount interesting shows. So, wotthell? I sent a necklace and three brooches.
I also traveled up to New York to see LOOT, since I hadn’t seen the thing in years. It was an education. I’ll never participate in LOOT again.
The sale was set up adjacent to the second-floor jewelry gallery. It consisted of a series of square islands built from glass-and chrome display cases. The cases were packed with jewelry. I mean: stuffed. Overflowing. Jammed. When I found my work in the jumble, I discovered that one of my brooches was lying on top of the necklace, and all four pieces were squeezed off to the side of a case.
My impression was that the jewelry at LOOT was treated just like merchandise. A comparison to jewelry at department stores was inescapable. The density of objects was the same as at Barney’s or Macy’s. Worse still, the work was treated altogether too casually. Jewelry was lying on top of cases, unattended. And, in my case at least, it was obvious that my work had been thrown carelessly back into the case after someone had taken a look.
In a museum, I expect all objects on display to be treated with a measure of respect. And the struggle to get studio jewelry displayed properly has been annoyingly persistent. For decades, jewelry has been smushed together in undersized cases or relegated to closet-like spaces off the main rooms. I suppose the thinking was that jewelry is small, so it doesn’t need as much space as, say, a textile sculpture or a ceramic vessel. I say: Bullshit! When you crowd any works of art together, it has the effect of diminishing it all. Museums rejected the practice of skying (hanging paintings cheek-by-jowl all the way to the ceiling) long ago. Installations of contemporary art are spacious and elegant, with lots of breathing room for every painting and sculpture. In contrast, an installation of craft objects placed only inches from each other sends a clear message: this work is not important as those paintings in the next room.
No wonder studio jewelers get irritated.
By its very name, MAD makes the claim that craft is art. In a sense, MAD is supposed to be an advocate for the value of good studio craft by insisting it is as thoughtful and compelling as any work of art. And one way the case is made is to make sure craft objects are not displayed like merchandise. To do so undercuts a basic mission of the institution. Furthermore, to treat craft as merchandise is to suggest that, well, it really IS merchandise.
You can be as cynical about the art marketplace as you want. After all, galleries are stores of a certain kind. But museums are not. An art museum preserves material for posterity, on the assumption that it’s more valuable to the culture than rolls of toilet paper and golf clubs. And you can be all sarcastic about those antiseptic white rooms. It’s true they serve as frames, announcing that whatever is contained therein is art, and you had better not touch it. But the physical space also clears a mental space. Without distractions, without clutter, you are afforded the opportunity to regard works of art carefully. You get the space to consider. What you expect is that the artwork will reward your leisurely contemplation. Good work always does.
Does studio jewelry reward sustained contemplation? Like I said, good work always does. I think of Kiff Slemmons’s wonderful neckpieces made of pencils, recalling and riffing on Plains Indian ornaments made from porcupine quills. Or Anika Smulovitz’s obscured versions of historical jewelry. Or Thomas Gentille’s gorgeous eggshell inlay bracelet, with its provocative combination of intricate surface and chunky form. These great pieces of jewelry give you multiple layers of meaning or intense visual pleasure, or both.
To be properly understood, these works need room. True, they could be fascinating when placed on a body and circulated during social intercourse. But it’s nearly impossible to look closely at jewelry at a party, or walking down the street. The best jewelry will work just fine in these circumstances, but the opportunity to linger and lose yourself in thought isn’t there.
I now understand why Helen Drutt objects to LOOT so strenuously. No matter how good the jewelry might be, it cannot be experienced in its fullness if it’s treated like merchandise. It’s just another piece of stuff for sale, no better than any other piece of stuff. Under the circumstances, studio jewelry’s special value vanishes. And there’s no way that MAD should engage in the devaluation of studio jewelry. Period.
For many years, I have worked hard to establish that good studio jewelry has a unique value-added. It’s more than diamonds-and-gold, and more than costume jewelry. If studio jewelers do not insist on clarifying that value when they present their work to the public, then the public will think all jewelry is equivalent. I refuse to participate in any enterprise that feeds that confusion. No more LOOT for me.