United States

Collector Susan Cummins in Conversation

How Jewelry Can Shape a Life


If you’re a regular reader of AJF’s website, or a member of AJF, Susan Cummins probably doesn’t need much introduction. You might have met her on an AJF trip, heard her talk on a panel, or read one of the many interviews she has done with jewelers on the AJF website. Susan is a collector and an agent of change, working hard to increase the visibility, funding, and discussion of contemporary jewelry. So many of her activities are about promoting other people and organizations—but now it’s her turn to get a bit of the limelight and face some questions.

Manfred Bischoff, East Ghosts Meet West Gods
Manfred Bischoff, East Ghosts Meet West Gods, 1993, gold and jade with drawing, drawing 210 x 292 mm, brooch 80 x 70 x 50 mm, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Damian Skinner: Susan, thanks for giving us this interview. When did you first take an interest in art? In making? In jewelry?

Susan Cummins: At the age of 18, I spent two months in Europe with the American Field Services tours. This was in the 1960s. While visiting a church in Florence, I became totally captivated by the fresco in front of me. I had always loved to draw, but this experience revealed that I also loved to see—and, in fact, I loved looking more than making. So after I made my way back to America, I studied art history.

Dorothea Prühl, Windblumen (Windflowers)
Dorothea Prühl, Windblumen (Windflowers), 1989, silver, height of one shape 140 mm, photo courtesy of the artist

How did you end up opening a gallery?

Susan Cummins: It all started with a small shop called The Fireworks, in Mill Valley, California, which was established by Beth Changstrom, a potter. I was in a relationship with Beth for 20 years. She made the pots and I ended up managing the selling part of her business. When I moved to Mill Valley in 1974, I took over The Fireworks, which was a 200-square-foot space on a sweet little brick-lined alley in the downtown shops. We sold Beth’s pottery, which was mainly practical dinnerware, vases, platters, kerosene lamps, candlesticks, and so forth. We also did street fairs in San Francisco, and eventually we did the ACC fairs at Rhinebeck and in Baltimore. That meant that we were filling wholesale orders, so I took care of the packing and billing and calling. The Susan Cummins Gallery was a logical next step for me, a way to extend from pottery into the wider craft scene.

Bernhard Schobinger, Small Teardrop Chain
Bernhard Schobinger, Small Teardrop Chain, 2014, steel, Akoya pearls, gold, Japanese urushi lacquer, 305 mm long, photo: Manchester Art Gallery

Did you focus on selling contemporary jewelry in your gallery?

Susan Cummins: Not at first, no. Things just evolved that way. I started showing glass, ceramics, some fiber, and some wood and basketry, as well as jewelry. At some point, I decided that there were other galleries specializing in fiber, ceramics, and glass, and I couldn’t compete with them to get the best work. But I decided to keep jewelry, which at the time was mostly shown on the East Coast and was heavily tilted toward European work. I concentrated on American jewelers. Actually, this was really a practical choice, since I was too poor to afford to travel to Europe from the West Coast, where I lived. I also started selling art, especially paintings. That came about because there were local painters who I knew wanted to show at a gallery, and I thought, “Why not do that, too?” Eventually, of course, I began to realize how smart the jewelers were, and grew to respect them and understand how undervalued they were.

Louise Bourgeois, Shackle Necklace
Louise Bourgeois, Shackle Necklace, sterling silver, 1948/1998, 175 mm at widest diameter, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Why did you decide to close the gallery?

Susan Cummins: I closed the gallery because I needed to reinvent what I was doing. I’d done that before and managed to keep selling art, but this time I really couldn’t find my way. Was it a lack of imagination? Was it burnout? Was it the grief over the death of my brother, or what? I’m not sure. All I knew was that I needed to close the gallery before I took it downhill to a bad place. Or at least that’s what I thought so I decided to close. It was a very hard decision but, in the end, it was the right one for me.

When I closed the gallery, I decided to ask all my artists and my major clients to a big dinner party, and I asked everyone to bring something that connected them to the gallery. Then, at the dinner, each person got up and talked about how that object connected them to the gallery. It was totally fascinating. Everything I did with the gallery had to do with connecting people to objects by either being able to explain what the artist intended by it or by knowing what the collector would find meaningful about it.

Dorothea Prühl, Habicht (Hawk)
Dorothea Prühl, Habicht (Hawk), 2005, elm wood, 400 x 330 mm, photo: Galerie Marzee

Can you quickly introduce your role with Art Jewelry Forum?

Susan Cummins: The whole history is on AJF’s website at this point, but this is a brief explanation. In the 1990s, American collectors of craft were forming collecting groups that were dedicated to specific materials. There was a ceramics group, a glass group, a fiber group, but no jewelry group. I felt that jewelry needed a group, too. So, with a number of other collectors and artists, we started Art Jewelry Forum. Our intention was to educate the collector base to enable them to support the ever-more-challenging jewelry coming out of the academic institutions here in America. We mainly did this through trips and interaction with jewelers, curators, and gallerists.

With the advent of the computer and the global economy, we expanded the organization to include artists, curators, galleries, and everyone who was interested in contemporary jewelry, wherever they lived. We started an active blog and then an online magazine to review exhibitions and books, express ideas and theories, and to interview active members of the community. With this increase in activity, we hoped to form an archive about jewelry that everyone who might want to know more could access. We were doing our homework and making it available to others who wanted to research the field.

Rotasa Collection display
Rotasa Collection display in the front hall of the house, photo courtesy Susan Cummins

You work with the Rotasa Foundation to support contemporary jewelry. How does that work?

Susan Cummins: The Rotasa Foundation is now a charitable fund called Rotasa Fund. We didn’t really need a foundation structure to do what we wanted to do. In the early 2000s, my partner and I started out offering $50,000 (or part of that amount) to fund catalogs for exhibitions of contemporary jewelry in American museums. We gave money to museums that were taking in large collections from Helen Drutt, Daphne Farago, Donna Schneier, and others, and also for smaller solo shows of jewelers like Kiff Slemmons, Jamie Bennett, and Lisa Gralnick, plus other more experimental topics. The result was a series of publications, some very substantial and some more modest. My belief in the importance of publications is based on the fact that if you don’t document your history, no one will take you seriously. If we want others to appreciate art jewelry, then we need beautiful books with smart writing.

Rotasa Collection display
Rotasa Collection display in the front hall of the house, photo courtesy Susan Cummins

You’re a collector of contemporary art jewelry. How and when did you fall in love with this field? Is there a personal story behind it?

Susan Cummins: Well, first I was a dealer, and only after I closed my gallery in 2002 did I become a collector. In the gallery I exhibited paintings, sculptures, and jewelry. I loved all of it, but the jewelers in particular impressed me with their intelligence and skill. So, despite the fact that I don’t wear jewelry, I began expanding my knowledge of it. In the gallery I had only shown American jewelers and had no knowledge of European jewelry. To remedy this, I arranged a trip to the two European capitals of jewelry—Amsterdam and Munich—with some other collectors and two artists who were familiar with those cities. It was a fantastic and very eye-opening trip, and my origin moment as a collector. That was the beginning of my serious intention to own these small and vital objects.

Rotasa Collection display
Rotasa Collection display in the front hall of the house, photo courtesy Susan Cummins

Many people have no idea what art jewelry in fact is. Jewelry is not only an adornment. How would you define it?

Susan Cummins: I recently read a description of art jewelry that I like very much, and this has become my current definition. In the book Ten Years of Precious Thoughts, Adrean Bloomard writes, “Jewelry is one of the most ancient, psychologically complex communicative forms I know. One small object encapsulates millennia of cultural layers, ancestral beliefs and relational visions that are so complex and personal that it becomes a feared, venerated or even hated object.” Art jewelry is this kind of jewelry, done with consciousness.

Keith Lewis, 35 Dead Souls
Keith Lewis, 35 Dead Souls, 1992–1993, electroformed pendants, varying sizes between 40- 60 mm, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Do you wear the jewelry you own? Do you regard jewelry as wearable art?

Susan Cummins: No, I don’t wear jewelry, but I am very interested in the restrictions implied by its life as a wearable object, and I consider this to be important to its meaning and value. There are many ways to look at jewelry, and its intimate relationship to the body is one aspect to ponder. The idea that it can also carry the memory markings from one wearer to another is also very interesting. For example, a ring changes form as it’s worn, and when it’s passed on to another person it carries the marks made by the earlier body.

In an Art Jewelry Forum interview, jeweler Monika Brugger commented, “Making brooches is not only about making beautiful compositions with different materials and forms, but it is also the fact that you make an object that is related to the human body. This will affect how the wearer is perceived by the viewer and by society. When I use a garment and when I sew the elements directly on the textile, I speak, among other things, about the memory of a sorrowful period of my ‘national background.’ I also refer to jewels as a mark on the body, and to all the ways societies invent reasons to include or exclude a part of the human race by force or voluntarily. This is human damage.” She has some very deep thoughts about the relationship of jewelry to the body in this interview. Many jewelers have had to think about this subject for themselves, and I love trying to decode how they’ve each done it.

Manfred Bischoff, Edipo Re
Manfred Bischoff, Edipo Re, 2012, fine gold, Hawaiian coral with drawing, drawing 210 x 292 mm, brooch 120 x 120 mm, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Can art jewelry have a political or cultural message?

Susan Cummins: Yes. In fact, I’m currently involved in a project investigating this idea. In the 1960s and 1970s, American jewelers were very active in making jewelry that included overt political and social commentary. From Fred Woell, who often ridiculed the role of corporate America, to Ken Cory and Kiff Slemmons, who commented on Native American Indian jewelry and the political plight of indigenous peoples living on reservations, there were many artists who protested against American politics and society. Political badges have also been prominent in the culture at large. The San Francisco gallery Velvet da Vinci had a show of artist-made badges a couple of years ago. Jewelry is very communicative in this way.

Manfred Bischoff, Aphrodite Unplugged
Manfred Bischoff, Aphrodite Unplugged, 2014, shell and gold with drawing, drawing 210 x 292 mm, brooch 102 x 127 x 44 mm, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Susan, you go to international shows, fairs, conferences. You travel a lot and you see a great deal of jewelry. How do you decide what to buy and add to your collection? What’s the balance of expertise and intuition?

Susan Cummins: I have an art historian helping me to document and write about the pieces in my collection. I’ve found it great fun to work with him on this task, and it has clarified what I’m interested in, and why. But the choice of jewelry is still very much mine—with advice from my partner. I think there’s always intuition, excitement, and love at first glance, but then knowledge and understanding about how the piece fits into the collection starts the rational consideration and makes the ultimate decision.

I have also collected art for a long time, and at one point we tried to use an art advisor to buy artwork for our house. Although we did end up with some great pieces, we also had a terrible time trying to make him understand what it was we wanted to see. Somehow the idea that we were interested in material-based art didn’t compute in his conceptually based art world. We ended that relationship. Despite the fact that the art world has many consultants ready, willing, and able to help you find what you want, the craft world—and in particular the jewelry world—can’t claim the same. Why is that, I wonder? Don’t we take it seriously enough?

Warwick Freeman, Hook
Warwick Freeman, Hook, 1993, bone, 73 mm long, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

What are you looking for in your art jewelry collection? Can you talk about some significant pieces? Do you also support emerging artists?

Susan Cummins: The Rotasa Collection Trust (the legal name of our collection) is looking for contemporary jewelry that expresses the poetry and emotion of the primal human condition. With each piece, we try to get to the basis of what makes jewelry so powerful to humans from a deep psychological place. There are a number of things that jewelry is known to do: adorn the body, declare status, and act as a talisman. That last one is really the driving force of our collecting. We try as much as possible to understand the mysteries of our existence through the feelings we attach to these small, but powerful, objects.

Bernhard Schobinger, Flaschenhalsfragmente Okinawa 1
Bernhard Schobinger, Flaschenhalsfragmente Okinawa 1, 2013, glass, saw blades, stainless steel, 762 mm long, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Some of the significant artists I collect are Dorothea Prühl, Manfred Bischoff, Bernhard Schobinger, Warwick Freeman, and Kadri Mälk. Although I have some work by emerging artists, I tend to wait until they’re a bit more mature. For example, I like the work of Attai Chen, Lola Brooks, Antje Brauer, Terhi Tolvanen, and Tanel Veenre. I consider their work to be more developed conceptually and the craftsmanship to be more refined now that they’re entering their 40s and have passed the emerging stage.

Hanna Hedman, North
Hanna Hedman, North, 2014, elk antler, brass, cotton, paint, 221 x 165 x 24 mm, photo courtesy of the artist

What about the value of contemporary jewelry? Does it have any investment potential?

Susan Cummins: I’m not sure what to say about this question. The prices for art jewelry have definitely gone up in the last couple of decades, and you can regard it as an investment, but there are many market forces that should be in play in the field that are not. For example, art jewelry has been barely visible in auctions or secondary markets, so few independent prices have been set. Other markets, like the art market, use this as a way to establish more or less a true value. Although it isn’t always accurate, it acts as a balance to the dealer’s price.

A lot more work needs to be done, not only in the marketplace, but also in the research around the artists, and the field as a whole. This is something that Art Jewelry Forum has been trying to do for the past 10 years. More books need to be produced with serious in-depth studies that explain why these objects and these artists are important. People believe books. They are impressive. We need lots more.

Verena Sieber-Fuchs, Deckelet Sie Au
Verena Sieber-Fuchs, Deckelet Sie Au, 1995, foil, wire, coffee cream lids, 381 mm diameter, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

Tell us more about your perception of the art jewelry market—strengths, weaknesses, chances, and perspectives?

Susan Cummins: Again, I’m not really sure what to say about this. I don’t think the market is super strong as it is. I think the economic model was pretty weak to start with, and so it might have to morph and change to keep going. Everyone complains that the audience is too small, and yet I’m only aware of a handful of galleries who do things to expand it. Ornamentum, Sienna Gallery, Galerie SO, Galerie Marzee, Galerie Antonella Villanova, and a few others go to art or design fairs to reach a bigger audience. They’ll find a way to grow the field, and we have to give them lots of credit for the risks they’re taking, which will help us all in the long run.

We’re also seeing lots of new experimentation on the Internet and in artists’ cooperatives to try to find other ways to sell work. Schools continue to create determined and talented jewelers who will find a way to make part of their living from selling work. It has never been easy for artists to survive, and that’s no different now or for this group of artists. It’s a risky life choice, but an admirable one.

Terhi Tolvanen, Blauwe Regen
Terhi Tolvanen, Blauwe Regen, 2008, wood, silver labradorite, textile, pigment, 178–203 mm diameter, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

What’s your relationship to other design and crafts? And to contemporary fine art?

Susan Cummins: As I mentioned earlier, I have a contemporary art collection, but I don’t collect any other kind of craft or design. I read about everything, so I know a little bit about the wider field of visual arts, but mostly I know about art jewelry.

Kadri Mälk, Angel Desperado
Kadri Mälk, Angel Desperado, 2002, ebony, silver, purple rhodolite, blue raw spinel, 65 x 45 mm, 86 x 51 x 1 mm, photo courtesy of Rotasa Foundation

What should be the role of an art collector in general? What’s your advice to young collectors?

Susan Cummins: I think collectors are responsible for supporting jewelry in many ways. Each collector, like each jeweler, has their own view of what they like and how they want to accumulate this work. I have worked with collectors for more than 20 years to try to establish their roles as serious and knowledgeable consumers of jewelry. In fact, that’s why Art Jewelry Forum was started. I’ve enjoyed watching these people become more knowledgeable and more adventuresome in their purchases over the years. Many of these consumers have turned into collectors and have given their jewelry to museums. In the process, they have not only helped to expose the field to other eyes, but also created opportunities for research and a new book in the form of a catalog to add to the argument for the value and validity of art jewelry. Other collectors, like Susan Beech, have given grants to encourage artists to do work they might not otherwise have the funds to make. Collectors can use their resources to do many things besides buying work. But whatever they do, we must all recognize their importance. To young collectors—my advice is start where you are and grow.

Dorothea Prühl, Grosse Katsen
Dorothea Prühl, Grosse Katsen, 2007, aluminum, stainless steel, 273 x 253 mm, photo courtesy of the artist

Thank you very much for this interview, Susan!


  • Damian Skinner

    Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).

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