Cindi Strauss is assistant-director, programming and curator for modern and contemporary decorative arts and design at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In her dual roles at the MFAH, Cindi is responsible for the acquisition, research and exhibition of post-1900 decorative arts, design and craft as well as leading the architect search and developing the program for the MFAH's new building for post-1900 art. She has curated over 20 exhibitions relating to her field, including the traveling show Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection and has authored or contributed to major catalogs on craft and design media as well as written extensively for journals.
This essay was first delivered as a talk at the Going to Extremes SNAG conference in 2010 in Houston, Texas, on March 13, 2010.
By way of an introduction, in 2002, as many of you already know, I was introduced to the art of contemporary jewelry through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s acquisition of the Helen Williams Drutt Collection – a remarkable collection of 803 international works that surveys the aesthetic and technical evolution of the field from 1963 to 2006. For five years I immersed myself in jewelry, with the jewelers from the collection and Helen as my guides. Then in 2007, the MFAH mounted a major traveling exhibition of the collection which was accompanied by a massive catalog.
I had always said that my work with the Drutt collection was the beginning, not the end of my commitment to the field. And in the two-and-a-half years since that project, I have continued to think about jewelry. While the Drutt collection exhibition and catalog allowed me to delve into the foundational history of the field and its international practitioners, recently I have found myself thinking about today’s generation of emerging jewelers, specifically in America. How are they being trained and what type of work are they making? Are there visible aesthetic, technical, or intellectual trends that can be seen? How are they – and are they – seeking recognition from the field at large?
While thinking about these questions, I happened to mention them to gallerist Sienna Patti and we fell into a meaningful conversation about how one defines an emerging artist in the jewelry world. Sienna reminded me of the differences between other aspects of the art world and jewelry in this regard. For example, jewelers more quickly move beyond the status of emerging artists than their brethren in other media. Once a jeweler secures a place in exhibitions or publications, a teaching job, or any other well-defined public role, they move very quickly beyond the moniker of ‘emerging.' Not so in the rest of the art world. Painters, sculptors and so on can struggle for decades labeled as ‘emerging artists,' waiting for their big break at a recognized institution that will launch them to established status.
Due to this conversation, I began to realize that I wanted to focus on jewelers who really were just emerging to take the pulse of the new generation. And so my plan was to focus on those jewelers who were academically trained as a way of narrowing my topic. (Since SNAG, I have received criticism for leaving out the DIY'ers and those artists who are not university trained. Yes, these jewelers also qualify as emerging, but one has to draw some boundaries somewhere in research or else it would never get done!)
Everywhere I look today there is talk about conceptual jewelry, new technologies and how contemporary jewelry relates to the larger world of contemporary art. I am complicit in this dialogue too, having written about it and having recently given a lecture at a jewelry symposium about the codification of jewelry within an art-historical construct. In that talk I spoke about how in the art world classifications are hierarchical and encourage a mentality that exerts control over the study and desirability of objects. I gave the example of how in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting, the European academies dictated the value (both perceived and real) of work based on subject matter. Historical subjects such as those referencing the Bible, mythology and Greek or Roman history were considered the most prestigious, followed by portraiture, genre scenes, still lives and landscapes. This value system was adopted by patrons and institutions and had a great effect on the type of painting that students in the academy were urged to make.
I wondered aloud whether today’s jewelry academies had erected a parallel value system where jewelry that was idea-driven and/or theoretical was considered more important than that which is practical and useful. I observed that jewelry about ideas seems to be the dominant style of work being made today. It is also the type of work that museums, galleries and collectors are gravitating towards displaying and collecting.
Is it possible that, as in the past, the jewelry academy was dictating the style of jewelry being made by emerging jewelers today? Or was what I was seeing just happening organically? In order to find out, I decided to contact the people on the front lines – the artists and academics who lead American jewelry and metalsmithing programs – and record their observations. These included Jamie Bennett, Sharon Church, Kim Cridler, Lisa Gralnick, Iris Eichenberg, Anya Kivarkis, Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, Rachelle Thiewes and Kate Wagle. For good measure, I also touched base with Bruce Metcalf, Susan Cummins and Sienna Patti for their thoughts. I asked them very basic questions about their program’s philosophy and its effect on the type of work that students were making. I wanted to know what skills they hoped their students would have once they received their degrees and whether their students sought to be validated by institutions the way previous generations had wanted.
From all of this data, I hoped to create a snapshot of emerging artists today and learn whether their jewelry was carving out new territory intellectually, as well as aesthetically and technologically. I am truly grateful for the honesty and eloquence with which the respondents answered. And because of this honesty, I felt it best to leave their quotes anonymous.
One: The Environment
Today, many students are coming to the discipline of jewelry already programmed to express themselves through ideas. And because most jewelry programs today offer more than just skill and technique-based classes, students also come to understand the role jewelry has to play as an art form. Many study history and contemporary issues central to craft, art, design and material culture. Being involved in this wide range of scholarship inherently causes them to synthesize disparate ideas and think in new ways.
Most jewelry programs have very active schedules of visiting artists who lecture, critique and otherwise spend time in the studio with the students. These visitors provide a wealth of information, engage in stimulating dialogue, provide alternative viewpoints and share their real-world experiences. This exposure to additional professional working artists is coupled with the fact that most leaders of programs today also have thriving studio practices from which their students can learn. By observing their professors balance the creation of artistic works for galleries and exhibitions (and all of the stress that comes along with it) with their teaching duties, students have a bird’s-eye view into certain career paths for jewelers. As one can imagine, the chance to engage in a dialogue about professional career options benefits the students tremendously. In most jewelry programs, the effect is akin to having a professional internship while in school.
What type of jewelry are the students gravitating towards making? The answers were illuminating.
‘Students are conscious of the conditions that surround objects within the field. They locate themselves in a range of ways – they consider the history of objects embedded in the field and the contemporary resonance of that history. They query ideas of value, commodity and luxury goods. They consider craft as a working methodology and are often interested in the intersection between the singular/one-of-a-kind object and the multiple/reproduced object and by extension they are curious about the intersection of craft and digital technology (and spaces for critical inquiry within this).’
‘Students aspire to the condition of art and those practitioners who most closely conform to the current image of jeweler-artist are those who are most emulated. In a sense, this is very familiar. Whatever is perceived as most art-like establishes the paradigm. Students function within art schools, this is to be expected. It's been true since the late 1950s. If there's a contemporary twist, it's that the best students try to tailor their thinking to the condition of jewelry, and the history of same.’
‘Most students today want to make work that seems smart and perhaps a bit ironic and that seems to participate in an intellectual discourse which has been established as the way to think about art since John Baldesari at Cal Arts decades ago. The trend towards concept is built into our students, built into the art world and is inevitable in today's work. But I feel like the climate geared towards building a sensitive and disciplined relationship with material technique is out the window.’
This shift towards concept-driven jewelry has called into question the role of skills and technique in today’s jewelry production. I found that a great deal of worry exists in the field about the development and usage of skills in particular. And by skills they are talking about goldsmithing skills. While many students at the undergraduate level are for the most part ambitious in their determination to master skills, others, as we have heard, are more focused on making ‘meaningful art,' i.e. placing concept before object, material and skill. And by the time an artist is pursuing graduate work, the pull of concept and new technologies coupled with society’s consistent devaluing of skills often results in a suppression of technique as a driving force of expression.
The results exist at two extremes, as one person articulated: ‘I encounter people who are technically skilled but have to stretch to think conceptually. On the other side, many students become over-cerebral and can talk about work but have a hard time thinking through their fingers. I notice that a certain kind of borrowed conceptual thinking is prevalent – a consumption of a canon of intellectualism that is not based on experiences or thoughts that they’ve had themselves. They’ve taken their thinking from books and this blocks them more than it enables them to make. These two extremes can make for perfectly skilled work and perfectly consumed philosophy but doesn’t leave space for an investment of time and making that is unique and meaningful.’
Contextualizing objects, experimenting technologically and otherwise challenging the traditions of ornament are not new ideas in jewelry education. As the American jewelry field matured in the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the prominent programs moved away from solely focusing on traditional jewelry forms and skills and instead encouraged experimentation with materials and new technologies. Following a European model, they invoked influences from architecture, painting, photography and sculpture in their teachings and encouraged students to place their works within larger artistic concepts. Interdisciplinary approaches were urged and students were given the freedom to pursue their own interests.
Today’s jewelry programs have built on this legacy. Many departments focus on jewelry, body ornament and sculpture. A broad range of material usage is encouraged – the field has not been just about metals for a long time. Emerging jewelers are also considering issues of design and presentation in relationship to their ideas and the execution of those ideas. Culture, history, handwork, emotional connections and context all factor into today’s teaching methodologies.
Two: The Audience
As a museum curator I am interested in whether today’s emerging jewelers want to be recognized by institutions such as galleries, museums and collectors as the previous generations did. Are they seeking this type of validation? This is what people told me.
’There are always some students who have a clear goal to end up in a gallery.’
’They are not inclined to go to museums or major galleries, as they do not perceive that these venues are part of their world. They can be suspicious of the institution.’
’There are students who see the dead-end or cul-de-sac of galleries and look for a new community that is growing on other alternatives. Our students like street fairs, clubs and underground exhibitions. I took students to Munich one year for Schmuck and they were completely fascinated by the guerrilla exhibitions in storefront spaces. They were really taken by their casual and brilliant methods of display, utilizing whatever means necessary to enable speed and accessibility within their resources, while maintaining a level of sophistication.’
’They are interested in alternative ways of presentation, which includes the internet as way for visibility. Well, they are far more informed, with dozens of blogs, websites etc., for them to participate in and these sources provide both desire and community. They like looking at work on Klimt02.’
The sentiments expressed above are nothing new and in fact, are consistent with the ideas of presentation that emerging artists have in all disciplines. Collaborative experiences, alternative methods of display and viral happenings are buzz-inducing methodologies today. The view of a museum as a place where objects go to die is an unappealing, but not inaccurate viewpoint for many emerging artists. Therefore, it is unsurprising that at this stage of their career, it is not a pressing goal. And for curators such as myself, who are trained to believe that the collecting museum (as opposed to a kunsthalle) is a worthy place of admission, this attitude can be disheartening. But, if history continues to repeat itself, as these artists attain and readjust their goals of consumption, traditional forms of recognition such as being part of a museum collection, become more important.
As a final thought, I want to share with you the perspective from one professor on what she wants her students to learn. It touched me with its power and gave me great hope for future generations of jewelry artists in America.
‘I want them to awaken their imagination, to develop critical perspective, to learn to take responsibility for the past and to hold that up to the future, to cultivate discipline, curiosity and the willingness to be wrong and fail – and hopefully, the determination necessary to build a practice that is embedded in both the pleasure and pain of creative work and to find a way to make it last a lifetime.’