Helen Britton is a free ranging Australian jeweler, currently based in Munich.
In her article on the closing of Galerie Louise Smit, jewelry historian Liesbeth den Besten painted a rather unflattering picture of the contemporary jewelry market and what she feels is an unbalanced relationship between galleries and their artists. Citing the mounting pressures exerted on makers, den Besten ends her article with an appeal to galleries for more transparency, more accountability, and—why not—a charter of fair conduct between galleries and artists.
Ornamentum co-director Stefan Friedemann soon addressed den Besten’s remarks. He argued that galleries are businesses trying to survive in tumultuous waters and that successful working relationships are built on trust, not contracts. Fearing that her original remark may have been misunderstood and her point too briefly made, den Besten developed her argument in a reply to Friedemann.
We thought that those two contributions on the subject of good practice (artists, galleries, and their relationships) would not be complete without a maker’s perspective. The article below is Helen Britton’s contribution to the conversation.
You know that Tom Sachs video on YouTube called Ten Bullets? It is a helpful model when trying to understand professional practice—clear, concise, to the point, but nevertheless, fun. That’s how I like to work with my galleries, and that’s how they like to work with me. I expect it really, and so do they. So, now I have been asked to make my contribution to a discussion about professional practice. Thank you AJF. I have read the letters written and considered the themes therein.
The worthy words of Liesbeth den Besten and Stefan Friedemann are a good start to a more complex conversation. However, rather than responding to their comments and concerns in a formal way, I have chosen to tell the story from my perspective, and I am happy to do so for many reasons. The first is that for a while I have been sniffing around for a place to start a discussion about a "Code of Ethics" for all participants in this big, Amoebic Jewelry Family. Why? Simply because it doesn’t exist, and so often in my many years of practice, I dearly wished there was something to refer to. Simply because a lot of the problems that occur between galleries and artists are a total waste of energy for all concerned. Simply because I work with some of the best galleries around, and I think we could all learn a lot from them. Perhaps also because I am a practitioner that lives solely from my work and I have no time and no patience for nonsense in my professional relationships. Also, because I really believe in my field of practice and have watched it grow over the past 20 years into a worldwide phenomenon full of remarkable, intelligent individuals, the combined effort of whom facilitate my professional life. So, why not find a space where those interested can help construct a code of ethics to advise and guide professional behavior? It would simplify life immensely for generations to come, for new galleries opening up, and for the sake of diplomacy, to cut the bitching and get on with the real work. For the sake of clarity.
Why do I find clarity necessary? Well, I spend a lot of time in the creative abyss, sifting chaos. It is an uncomfortable, intense, endless business, and I have dedicated my life to this process. The bridge between making work and showing work is a long one. If upon reaching the public end of that bridge I was also confronted with unstructured, shifting ground, my exhaustion would be complete. Not to mention my limited patience with other members of my species. This is, of course, very personal, but that is perhaps also the crux of the relationship I have with my galleries. My gallery relationships are professional friendships based on trust, respect, an intense interest in the well being of the other party, and the pleasure of the work itself and of working together once the pieces enter the public sphere—from both sides. As Stefan Friedemann rightly says, if this relationship doesn't exist in the first place, no contract will ever provide it, nor would I ever sign one. This is no more complicated and mysterious than any human relationship.
My first and most saving principle: I keep the private world of my studio and the public world of my galleries separate. I only work through galleries. I do not have private clients. It is my job to judge my artistic decisions and then to deem them ready for public exposure. I do this job constantly, and I do this without compromise. This is what I can deliver. It is intense, and I expect the exact same level of intensity and dedication when it comes to business practice.
This Is Business
I am a business professional. It would be naive and absurd at this stage of my life not to be. I cannot work with anyone who does not respect this. It is also about energy exchange. Monetary compensation is the least one can expect for the effort it takes to do what I do. Without delay. —without delay. I do not tolerate people for very long if they start to lay stones in my creative path, and not paying artists promptly is the Mother of all Stones. This is, of course, is not something an intelligent gallery would ever want do to their artists.
It is only when it is clear that a gallery has the potential to work with a minimum of interruptions that I am prepared to pass along my pieces. It is a process working with each other, and sales can never be the first motivation only a very pleasant byproduct. You have to get to know each other, you have to discuss the ground rules openly, and you have to understand and agree to what each other means. Confusing situations will always arise, but talking about them is no problem when trust and respect exist. Settling into a good gallery-artist relationship can take up to five years. Sometimes these relationships simply do not work for whatever reason, and one must say goodbye.
I love the idea of handing over more responsibility to my galleries. But this also means that galleries must take on a degree of professionalism toward each other, which they are of course starting to do— respecting boundaries, negotiating representation. Which brings us to the “F word”—Fairs! The bane of my existence. A necessary evil, perhaps. I totally understand why some of my galleries participate. I praise their efforts and am in awe of the money that they sometimes lay on the table to do so. A way of building a new customer base? We can only hope so. Fairs bother me because they don’t fit into my working pattern. I make concentrated bodies of work over a period of approximately two years with the purpose of being shown in their entirety to form a coherent statement. Fairs are fragmentation in every sense. Considering their outlay, galleries rightly expect new signature pieces for each fair from each artist. The trouble is that now there are so many fairs in so many cities where great galleries already exist, who gets to show whom? How can we solve this so everyone is cool about it? I have no idea. I'm handing over the responsibility on this one as recommended, and I hope my galleries can find a good solution.
My responsibility is to make sure my galleries are informed and involved. I like making projects with other artists in different spaces outside the classic gallery spaces. I include my galleries in the conversation and happily use their publicity machinery if they want to get involved, they get their cut—simple. I often host clients in our workshop, and here the rules are simple too—no photography, no touching, no throwing of foreign matter in the toilet, no sales. If a client likes something they see, they go off to their regular gallery and make inquiries. The pieces usually make their way into the right hands.
Whether participating in fairs or not, the different nature and style of each of my galleries is very important because every good gallery will also seek local clients, which is essential. Each gallery has its own cultural specificity and its own way of working which makes it unique. Negotiations with each gallery are different, and they change with time.
Globe Trotting and Style Surfing
Obviously, one can draw parallels with other kinds of art dealers and galleries, but the contemporary jewellery field is an exception because we are so small and so very interconnected. I do believe our size gives us the advantage of being able to have a conversation out of which we can form a code of ethics that will strengthen our field and give it a greater professional basis on which to grow. We all, more or less, know each other or of each other. I experience the phenomenal interconnected nature of our field regularly. I travel widely with my work, and I constantly meet people who I know about but have never met. I get to shop with them, cook with them, meet their families, and even sleep with their pets. Often, the conversations about professional practice are the same, which strengthens my conviction that the content of these conversations needs to be collected. After seeing Ten Bullets, I'm thinking video. It's OK … we can wear disguises.
Never have we art jewelers had so much opportunity. Never has there been such ease of connection, so much information available, travel and exchange, prizes for young makers, events and places to exhibit, museums, collectors, and schools. So, what’s is the problem? Rampant plagiarism. Style surfing. Charlatans. A burgeoning, muddy, middle ground of floating, rootless, undifferentiated muck. Well charlatans are at least entertaining in comparison. Life without responsibility isn't entertaining though, or at least not for long. What to do? Take on the responsibility of course. Encourage critical discussion, educate about the history of our field, consider the work you put on show—all of us—artist, teacher, gallery, museum, collector, curator, publisher, writer—ALL OF US! Unless we would like to see our world implode.
Advice to Baby Turtles and their Keepers
In the letters written by Stefan Friedemann and Liesbeth den Besten, a great deal of focus is on young artists, and part of my motivation for laying out my thoughts here is to make their scramble to the ocean of possibilities a little less dangerous. My advice is do take time to find the right place, the right people, and work carefully in every respect. Don’t expect too much and every tiny step forward will be a bonus. Don’t give up your day job. I am often asked how I got to where I am. It was that way. I protected my practice from the dreadful pressure of public life until I was sure that this fragile, complex, sensitive, living thing had a thick-enough shell and a broad-enough base to stand up to public exposure again and again. Good work shows itself in the end. It becomes autonomous. That’s why we make stuff. (I mean this in general, the human animal’s drive to make and not speak.) If your work is good, the galleries will come to you if that is what you want, but also understand what that then means. Working with seven high-profile galleries means long workdays, obligatory travel, and nevertheless, the income of a part-time department store cashier.
Live humbly, take your time, and experiment for as long as you can. Make mistakes. Watch out for the cul-de-sac of quick success, the bordel of borrowing, and the tedious traffic jam of showing the same work year after year at Schmuck just for the sake of seeing your name on “The List.” Position yourself. The choices are so open. Being a jewelry artist making solo exhibitions of experimental one-off works is a very limited model. There are so many other possibilities to have an interesting life.
The scramble of recent graduates to get gallery space and the scramble of galleries to snap them up before someone else and provide them with space worries me. I worry about younger artists, about their work. I often think “Baby Turtles! Baby Turtles!” I could imagine the percentage that survives is similar. I also question the production of so many baby turtles.
We could do with a few more galleries for sure, but they are popping up at a fairly healthy rate and sometimes in the least expected places. They, too, need support. I see great potential in this situation, particularly for young makers who can continue their experiment with a little less limelight and with fewer freshly sharpened pecking, critical beaks. By making an exhibition somewhere all together different, one contributes to building up relationships and educating new audiences. If the expectation and focus remain on the few most prominent galleries, it overwhelms those galleries and their public, and apart from that, it can be terribly disappointing. In some instances I also question the number of artists a gallery can fairly represent.
If you can’t find a gallery, then get together with friends and try out a few things—pop-up shows, online exhibitions, blogs, a two-day exhibition in the right place at the right time. You will need a day job for a while anyway, just try and make it an interesting one. As a trained creative, this is just one more form of problem solving. Trying to rush into exhibiting and gallery representation is just as detrimental to your creative practice as trying to make sure that it is sellable. Simultaneously, at least consider making something that you think people may actually want to wear. Something that someone may actually be prepared to incorporate into their self image and walk around in, go dancing in, wear on a date. Try wearing it yourself. Don’t forget that, historically, jewelry actually provided a service. This is not to be confused with commercialism, but is in fact the defining function of jewelry.
It is super easy to make crappy, glued together heaps of rubbish stuck to a pin with a fluttering of the eyelashes toward an often narrowly understood idea of fine art and the desperate hope of being seen as Avant garde. It is very difficult to make a fascinating, poetic golden ring. Honestly, it is so damn easy to make jewelry. Just very hard to make really good jewelry.
Galleries: Talk to Your Artists. Artists: Talk to Your Galleries
By celebrating what we have achieved, by caring about critical discourse, by sharing strategies that look toward building long-term relationships (shout out to Stefan F.)—not only between galleries and artists, but also between all the different players—we can work toward achieving our goals and expanding our possibilities for now and for the future. An open model of “best practices” can only strengthen our field.
I do see a few missing links that I think need to be attended to and are also essential to this process. What about a prize that makes comprehensive catalogues for mid-career artists? We need more good books about this generation that really document their oeuvre and show a wider public the work of our field in its maturity. It is these mid-career artists who have made the most significant contribution to expanding the space in which we have to play, who are the idols of the next generation, and from whom so many have learned. I was fortunate to have great teachers. They encouraged me, and I am so very thankful. Considering the number of prizes that are being established, what about a prize for being a Fucking Amazing Teacher? (To be known henceforth as The FAT.) But now I am really starting to digress.
Ok, let’s get back to where this tirade began.
It all starts with good communication, and that's what we are starting up here. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I have made my fair share of mistakes. But, I have learned a lot, and I’m happy to share it. Galleries: talk to your artists. Artists: talk to your galleries. And do this before you start working together. Make a one-year plan and a five-year plan with each other. Pick up the telephone if you have a real problem. Share this conversation, and try productive suggestions rather than finger pointing. Step number one: acknowledge the efforts of the other party and answer every email because if you watch the video you will understand that Sent does not mean Received.
This third installment on the subject of best practices concludes our series but by no means exhausts the subject. If you would like to contribute an article on the subject, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Sondra Sherman at San Diego State University recently acquainted me with this video. Thanks Sondra.