Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of AJF and California College of the Arts.
Throughout its 20 years of existence, Art Jewelry Forum has had the same mission: encouraging the appreciation of art jewelry by supporting artists, galleries, collectors, and curators through education, critical conversations, grants, and sponsorship. We have emphasized different ways of getting there from time to time, but at base we have always wanted art jewelry to be as desired and beloved as we believe it should be. Because the art, design, and jewelry worlds weren’t eager to claim it, we’ve produced a lot of original content which makes the argument for its credibility and value. Of course, when we started 20 years ago, we didn’t necessarily know what we would end up doing. In honor of this important anniversary, here are some of the highlights from the journey so far.
In the beginning were the breakfasts. In 1995 I was a dealer doing the SOFA Chicago fair, and I invited some of my most engaged collectors to a breakfast one morning during the fair. While they were eating, American jeweler Bruce Metcalf and I stood up and talked about the importance of forming a collectors group. The idea to do this was not original. Most other craft media (fiber, clay, and glass) already had collecting groups, and I could see how effective they were. I figured that I couldn’t start the group myself because I would be perceived as having a conflict of interest, so I needed someone to take the lead. The first year no one would volunteer to start it. I held another breakfast the following year and appealed once again. Barbara Waldman and Judy Bloomfield raised their hands, and we were off and running.
Judy Bloomfield immediately organized a trip to NYC in the spring of 1997. That was followed by sponsoring American jeweler Kiff Slemmons as a speaker at SOFA Chicago in the fall. The first newsletter came out with information about the trip, and with an article by Bruce Metcalf called Standards. This dense and thoughtful article was reproduced from Metalsmith magazine and tried to lay out some of the ways that handcrafted jewelry can be used, worn, and judged. So from the very beginning AJF produced articles AND organized trips, both of which we are still doing.
In the spring of 1998, AJF organized a trip to Seattle in conjunction with the SNAG conference called Settings. The key speakers were Otto Künzli, Keith Lewis, and Jamie Bennett, among others. By this time there was an actual AJF board, consisting of Sharon Campbell, Susan Beech, Barbara Waldman, Donna Briskin, and Judy Bloomfield. Bruce Metcalf and I were the newsletter coordinators. In the first few years, the newsletter came out three times a year. It reported on the trips and on fairs like SOFA and Collect, listed gallery and museum exhibitions, and published interviews and articles by writers and curators. The membership stood at 53 and the membership fee was $135. We now have more members, but the membership fee is lower than it was in 1997. Amazing.
The trips have continued over the years. Everywhere we traveled we tried to visit galleries, personal collections, museum collections, artist’s studios, and schools with metalsmithing programs. We also learned a lot about the history of the country in general and metalsmithing in particular, with lectures and talks especially arranged for the group. These are incredible opportunities for collectors to buy work they otherwise would never see in person and to have access behind the scenes.
The trips were usually organized around celebrating a new collection opening at a museum, like Daphne Farago’s collection at the Boston MFA, Helen Drutt’s at the Houston MFA, Donna Schneier’s at the Met, and Lois Boardman’s at LACMA. Or they were connected to a fair like SOFA, Collect, Schmuck’s Frame, or the Collective. The first 15 years we stuck to the United States and visited San Francisco, Chicago, Boston (a couple of times), NYC (several times), Milwaukee, Madison and Racine, Wisconsin, upper New York state, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Phoenix/Scottsdale, and Los Angeles.
Then in 2012, after we had decided to expand our membership to an international audience, we went to London, Amsterdam, Sweden and Estonia, Barcelona, Padua and Florence, Italy, Munich, and Paris. We went where the artists, galleries, and museums were most exciting and engaging.
In addition to the trips, we have sponsored dinners and walk-throughs at fairs or museum collections, and exhibitions as one-off events. These allow the community to have an opportunity to exchange information, gossip, and generally enjoy each other’s company. Usually this has been in partnership with SNAG, the Seattle and San Francisco Metals Guilds, numerous museums, and fairs. In 2013 we started an annual dinner in Munich in conjunction with the Schmuck fair. This was held every year at the Georgenhof restaurant, with about 50 people each time until 2017, when the organizers of the fair and Galerie Marzee asked us to partner with them to have a dinner at the fair grounds. These are wonderful opportunities to catch up with people in the community who you already know and to meet people you have only read about.
From time to time we also set up panel discussions and workshops. One such panel discussion took place in Munich at Villa Stuck in 2016, for example, and there was a workshop in conjunction with SNAG and at Pratt in NYC in 2015, where we attempted to encourage people to add text about jewelers and organizations to Wikipedia.
For many years, volunteers from AJF sacrificed time enjoying themselves at fairs to sit at our booths and talk to passersby about the organization, sell our latest books, and encourage donations. For a few years, Linda Peshkin and I were the guests of SOFA, and for the past four or five years Galerie Marzee has been kind enough to give us part of their booth space at Frame, the fair set up around the Schmuck exhibition. Mostly we have relied on our Executive Director Rebekah Frank and volunteers to be present at this event in Munich.
Given our desire to engage the intelligent people of this field in dialogue, we have also sponsored speakers and panels at various events, and once we got a website we published their texts in written form when they provided it. Artists were the ones most often invited to speak about their work, although some curators were also given a chance to explain a collection. This is also a way to significantly contribute to the knowledge base of the field. Over the years the speakers we have supported have included Kiff Slemmons, Keith Lewis, Jamie Bennett, Sondra Sherman, Lisa Gralnick, Bruce Metcalf, Clare Beck, Tina Rath, Giovanni Corvaja, Mia McEldowney, Nancy Worden, Liv Blavarp, Don Friedlich, Linda MacNeil, Lucy Sarneel, Steve Cabell, Lori Talcott, Vera Siemund, Felieke van der Leest, Noam Elyashiv, Ruudt Peters, Elisabeth Argo, Catherine Truman, Kelly L’Ecuyer, Jeannine Falino, Ursula Ilse-Neuman, Gerd Rothmann, Rock Hushka, Namita Wiggers, Cindi Strauss, and more.
Almost from the beginning, AJF felt the need to support artists in a practical way by creating an award that would give the recipient some money to help their career. This is also something we continue to do to this day. The amounts have grown over time, from $1,000 to $7,500 for young artists, and now $20,000 for mid-career artists. In 2000, the first Emerging Artist Award was given to Yeon-Mi Yang.
In the years that followed, the award winners were Mark Rooker, Mindy Michelle Hawkins, Yuyen Chang, Amie Plante, Sergey Jivetin, Natalya Pinchuk, Andrea Janosik, Masumi Katoka, Sharon Massey, Agnes Larsson, Farrah Al-Dujaili, Noon Passama, Sooyeon Kim, Seulgi Kwon, and Lynn Batchelder. And this year we announced a new grant for a mid-career artist, which went to Cristina Filipe.
In 1999 the AJF board decided to start a granting program in addition to the artist award. Our first intention was to help museums acquire pieces for their collection, and then we started to help fund exhibitions. Our first museum contribution was to the American Craft Museum (now MAD) for Brooching It Diplomatically: A Tribute to Madeleine K. Albright, curated by Helen Drutt. Other grants followed, to Tacoma Art Museum toward the purchase of a Mary Lee Hu necklace; to the Oakland Museum to support Elegant Fantasy: The Jewelry of Arline Fisch; to the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco for the exhibition of Valuables: Jewelry in the New Millennium; to the Fuller Craft Museum to support Jamie Bennett: Works Since 1977; to the Houston MFA to support the purchase of Neckpiece for Zymrina, A Prostitute of Pompeii, by Keith Lewis; to the University of Wisconsin for the Women of Metal exhibition and catalog; to Rowan University for Decorative Resurgence; to the Fuller Craft Museum for Atelier Janiye and the Legacy of Miye Matsukata; and finally our last grant went to ourselves, to help pay for the Geography exhibit in 2011.
From 1997 to 2009, AJF was run solely by volunteers, namely the board. During that time, we managed to do everything I discussed previously and also develop a website. In 2009, Sally von Bargen, a board member, helped us revamp the website, and a year later we decided we were grown up enough to hire some staff part time. The first on board were Nancy Yoneyama as an administrative assistant, and Damian Skinner as editor. Early in 2010, the board consisted of Mike Holmes, Ron Porter, Sienna Patti, Sally von Bargen, Susan Kempin, Trish Rodimer, and Susan Cummins. We decided to take the bold step of becoming an international organization. Our focus had been entirely on America previously, but globalism couldn’t be denied, and as an organization we were feeling more ambitious. An editorial committee was formed with Ron Porter, Mike Holmes, Karen Lorene, Jennifer Cross Gans, Ahna Adair, Elise Winters, and Rachel Carren to oversee the newsletter and the blog, which had just started in conjunction with the website. It was a moment of transformation, when AJF turned into the powerhouse you know it to be today.
Damian Skinner was a force. He was a fast worker and a good writer. He was the editor, but he also acted as a kind of unofficial ED to help shape the organization. He participated in many decisions about what we should be doing, and devoted considerable time to shaping the website, along with Sally von Bargen and Mike Holmes. Soon he also suggested that we produce a wide-ranging, comprehensive book, and the seed of what would become Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective was planted. The board liked the idea, so we applied for grants and got two of them for a total of $75,000. Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective was a wide-ranging publication that involved a number of other smart writers, including Benjamin Lignel, Namita Wiggers, Liesbeth den Besten, Suzanne Ramljak, Monica Gaspar, Helen Carnac, Kevin Murray, Elyse Karlin, and others. The launch of the book in 2013 was accompanied by a Speaker Tour, which had more than 10 stops and involved as many of the writers as possible within the United States and Europe.
Meanwhile, back at the website, the articles were flowing out of not only Damian’s brain but many others as well. There were book and exhibition reviews, interviews with artists, galleries, curators, collectors, and educators, as well as opinion pieces. Some of my early favorites are Diary of a Jewelry Colonial Abroad and Vanity Fair on Jewellery. At the end of 2012, Damian left AJF, handing over the role of editor to Benjamin Lignel. Marthe Le Van became the director of communications and proofreader. Joy Martin was hired as bookkeeper. Nancy Yoneyama also left and was replaced by Rebekah Frank, who started as a volunteer, then website uploader, and has transformed into a full-fledged executive director.
Ben started out with a bang and quickly organized a team to attend Schmuck in his first few months on the job. He also planned a six-part series with criticisms on the exhibitions and events in Munich called In Sight Series, with articles from Aaron Decker, Marthe Le Van, Liesbeth den Besten, Ben, and myself. It was a meaty series and a promising start. He also shepherded through another six-part series on Criticality with other thoughtful writers like Pravu Mazumdar, Garth Clark, Clare Finn, Suzanne Ramljak, and Moyra Elliot. Too many other articles and interviews were developed under Ben’s eye for me to list them all here, but one of my favorite series was Media Sightings. This series indicated a editorial decision to try to tie jewelry to culture in general and showed up in articles like Monica Gaspar’s Juste Un Clou: Cartier’s Nail, or the Domestication of Revolt, Liesbeth den Besten’s Darling, You Look Mayor-velous, and David Beytelmann’s Kiss the Rings, Bitch. It was an incredibly fruitful time.
To continue the tradition of book publishing, Ben edited and designed our next book, called AJF Best of Interviews, which presented 21 of the interviews (selected from the many) we had published by that time on the website. It was followed in 2015 by Shows and Tales, which took a historical dive into past jewelry shows and added to our compilation on the website of the history of contemporary jewelry. The next year, Ben pushed the subject matter even further with the publication of On and Off, which picked up on the theme of wearing jewelry and reproduced texts from the website as well as new and innovative ideas about sex, domination, self-identification, territory, and death. All these books involved numerous writers, many of whom we were trying to nurture.
We continued to add new board members. In 2013, Bella Neyman (whose first exposure to AJF was on a trip to Munich), Jenni Sorkin (who left shortly after), Liesbeth den Besten, Raïssa Bump, and Sofia Björkman (of Platina Gallery) all joined. The choices of board members from other parts of the world now reflected our international reach. The following year we added Bonnie Levine (of Hedone Gallery), Sharon Berman, and Jorge Manilla into the mix. The addition of these board members allowed for a wider dialogue, and on top of that Sofia Björkman generously gave the AJF award winners a place in her booth at Frame to show during Schmuck. The dedication and enthusiasm of these individuals over the years has been remarkable.
As social media began to be the premier mode of communication between many people, AJF realized that it needed to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. We asked Martha Le Van, who was doing our proofreading, to also provide direction in this area. When she moved on to open her own gallery, we hired Kevin Murray, an Australian PhD and writer about craft. Kevin was very industrious and highly interested in including the voices of people throughout the world who were just developing their knowledge of contemporary jewelry. In an effort to promote these voices, he started a program called Ambassadors, and asked them to contribute something about what was going on in their communities. We now have 44 Ambassadors from 43 different countries. It’s a wonderful group of volunteers.
At the end of 2016, after an excellent run, Benjamin Lignel left as the editor of the website. Instead of hiring a new editor, AJF opened up the editorial process to the public with an Open Call for Submissions. Some other changes in the content of the website appear at the beginning of 2017. The Monthly Report began as a way for members of AJF to report on the promotions, awards, exhibitions, deaths, and numerous other topics related to the field that we can’t cover in articles on the website but which everyone wants to know about. We also started a very popular section called On Offer, which allows all the AJF galleries to present a piece of jewelry for consideration as a museum acquisition, an emerging jeweler, or just an especially important piece they currently have in their possession. The number of articles and interviews has slowed down to a pace we believe is more sustainable and allows us to pick only the best submissions for publication.
And so we come to the end of the story of Art Jewelry Forum so far. We have grown and developed substantially in the past 20 years. The field is more robust than ever, and we have every intention of being a valuable and informative addition to every jewelry lover’s resources for the next two decades. It has been an exciting and amazing journey, and one I have been proud to be associated with.