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.
Sienna Patti started Sienna Gallery in 1999, when she was 23 years old. She is a vital part of the international jewelry community now and has an interesting story to tell and strong opinions about the field.
Susan Cummins: Please tell us the story of how you became a jewelry gallery owner in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Sienna Patti: The Berkshire Hills, where Lenox is located, has been home to world-renowned visual and performing arts for years. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is here, with a 25-year-long installation of Sol LeWitt. Jacob’s Pillow, one of my favorite places, is America’s first and longest running dance festival, and every summer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra moves to Tanglewood for three months.
I grew up about an hour from this area in a very small town of about 300 people. Having parents that were artists and living in such a culturally rich community made my world much larger than just the town. After studying film, dramaturgy, and art history at New York University’s Tisch School of Art and interning in the twentieth-century decorative arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the exquisite retrospective of architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, I left New York and started the gallery. (I should add that during that time I also: waited tables; bartended; handed out Nutella for five days at the Fancy Food and Confections Convention; ran a professional bicycling team and appeared on ESPN2; cleaned up toilet paper after performances of Blue Man Group; and the list goes on!)
I have always have been interested in being a director. I like putting ideas, people, and projects together and seeing what happens. It feels very satisfying for me. I can stand back a bit but still be creative and as involved as necessary in order to help artists achieve their vision. It is a comfortable place for me. Jewelry addresses infinite ideas. It is a unique, intimate, and rich way to understand and investigate the history of people and society. I have never made jewelry.
What criteria do you use to choose the work you show?
Sienna Patti: I try to have work that doesn’t repeat work I already show. I have now owned the gallery for 14 years, but just recently I feel like I’m getting a groove. I constantly try to redefine my goals and how the work I show fits into them. The Stimulus Project and The Costume Project were based on the idea of connecting with a fresh audience, and both shows were quite successful. Together they involved more than 100 artists, from emerging to very established. Though I like these types of one-off projects, my heart is really in showing one artist’s work and having the chance to focus in on what they are doing.
When I first exhibited at SOFA in 2001, dealers mainly showed jewelry in relatively traditional cases, and though they might focus on one person’s work, a solo exhibition at a fair was out of the question. This presentation model did not apply other media, only jewelry. I knew I needed to be different in order to stand out and not duplicate other dealers. So, at a very early stage, I focused on solo exhibitions and found that it really worked for me. Now, a lot of jewelry is presented in this manner, and I think it has made collectors, curators, and others look very differently at the medium.
I do not work with a lot of artists, so choosing the ones I show is very important for me. If I add someone to my stable, it means I am interested in a long-term commitment. This can be challenging when working with artists fresh out of school. They don’t always continue with the same level of passion and ambition with which they started, unfortunately. I can guide young artists, but I don’t make the work and without the work we have nothing.
You have recently opened up a new area called “Sienna Patti Contemporary” and have expanded your original space to accommodate installations. Why have you made this move?
Sienna Patti: My walls were closing in on me! The space next door opened up, and it was offered to me on the exact day I was positive I was done with the gallery forever. I made the choice not just to continue, but to expand and experiment, and it was the best choice I could have made. Sienna Patti Contemporary is less of a project space than it was originally. Now it is more of a venue where I represent and exhibit other forms of art alongside jewelry. It allows me to try out ideas and to show more experimental artists whose work keeps those walls from closing in on all of us. An artist such as Lauren Kalman produces work that is hard to place in a retail-oriented venue, but it fits perfectly with me. After working together for more than five years, we are starting to see some exciting shifts. The same situation exists with Lauren Fensterstock, who recently opened a solo exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. I work closely with these artists not only to sell their work, but also to strategize and understand their career options, to represent them. Jewelry artists such as Melanie Bilenker, Lola Brooks, and Jamie Bennett are seeing perceptions of their work significantly evolve because of its interaction with other forms of art.
It is important to add that it was not just my walls closing in that triggered expansion. I saw a real lack of ambition and focus from jewelry makers that was, and still is, disappointing. I had to look other places to be inspired and find engagement. When an artist only makes work and only communicates with his or her dealer when on sabbatical or winter break, it is a problem. There are exceptions, of course. This is probably another conversation though!
Your gallery has participated in a number of fairs in the past, including SOFA, and art fairs such as Pulse and Bridge. This year, you are showing at a new design fair called Collective.1. How does your gallery decide which fairs to participate in, and why?
Sienna Patti: Exhibiting jewelry anywhere outside of SOFA is more challenging that one would imagine. Art fairs don’t want jewelry unless Picasso made it. Many times the decisions have to be based on how much money you have and whether you feel the work you are showing can support a fair presentation.
I never imagined I would present at a design fair because so much of what I exhibit is one of a kind, and I always saw it as art—with all of it’s definitions and qualities. But a design fair seems like the most appropriate and viable fit right now. Ultimately, I want to show the whole of what I do together. To some degree, this is what I will do at Collective.1, and we will see how it goes.
How would you compare your experiences of exhibiting at fairs that aim at different audiences? How do the audiences differ?
Sienna Patti: Point of view. When I showed Lauren Kalman at SOFA, everyone wanted to know how one wears a gold tongue. When I showed the same work at the LA Art Fair, no one mentioned the object component at all. They saw it only as a photograph. Of course, with Lauren’s work, both points of view matter and apply, but it was really interesting to see how the worlds were completely disparate. I sold in both venues.
Is your display different from fair to fair?
Sienna Patti: Slightly. It depends on the work I am showing. I have always had a focused and limited presentation, and that doesn’t change.
How do the expenses differ?
Sienna Patti: Some are more, some less. The least expensive fair I have done cost me about 15,000 USD, including travel, etc. The most expensive cost about 45,000 USD. That’s a lot of brooches!
How financially successful have the fairs been for your business?
Sienna Patti: I have had fairs where I sell out a solo exhibition and fairs where we spend hours packing up work, unable to believe it is all coming back with me. I have thrown things, broken things, sworn at people I loved, cried in cabs, thrown up, left rich, and left broke.
Are you finding new clients in both?
Sienna Patti: I definitely have found new clients at the art fairs. Great solo museum exhibitions, new clients, and wonderful press and media connections have all come about from being part of new venues.
Is there a particular jeweler who you have put forward to make your way into art or design fairs?
Sienna Patti: Who are they, and why did they work? Melanie Bilenker’s work is very versatile and appeals to a broad range of collectors, clients, curators, and press.
Part of your business is SGPress. Do you want to say something about it?
Sienna Patti: Yes. We publish six to seven monographs with essays a year. Jewelry really needs this type of support. An exhibit doesn’t just have to last 3 1/2 weeks and then be done.
What do you predict the market will look like for art jewelry 10 years from now?
Sienna Patti: This is something I think about a lot. In 10 years I will be in my 40s. I have no idea what the market will be like, but I know that I am doing everything I can to help create sustained engagement. I can’t imagine being ready to retire that early. I will need a job!
How can the art jewelry community help support the success of the art jewelry market?
Sienna Patti: Buy work, and wear it. Read about it. Write about it. If you are an artist, make better work than you are right now. If you are an artist, strive to go well beyond mediocrity. This should not be an option.
Work with what you have now. Don’t wait until everything is lined up in a certain way. If you are a collector, educate yourself, ask your dealer questions, and listen. Buy work, and try to collect artists in depth. This not only supports their work, but it allows your collection to present larger ideas. Donate to museums while you AND the artists are alive so it can benefit their careers. Give your friends and family gift certificates to your favorite gallery along with a membership to AJF—tell them to use both! They will thank you, I promise.