Best of Interviews: Interview by Susan Cummins to Sienna Patti

Article  /  DebatesBehind the ScenesArtists
Published: 17.09.2015
Best of Interviews: Interview by Susan Cummins to Sienna Patti.
Susan Cummins
Edited by:
Art Jewelry Forum
Edited at:
Mill Valley

This interview is part of the Best of Interviews publication from Art Jewelry Forum, in which we find 18 provocative conversations with luminaries in the field of Art. 
Sienna Patti started Sienna Gallery in 1999 when she was 23. She is an 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 are is here- with a 25 year long installation of Sol LeWitt, Jacob’s Pillow, one of my favorite places is the first and longest running dance festival and in Lenox every summer the Boston Symphony Orchestra moves in for 3 months to Tanglewood. I grew up about a hour from this area in a very small town of about 300 people but having parents that were artists and such a culturally rich community made the world much larger than just the town I was in. After studying film, dramaturgy, and art history at NYU’s Tisch School of Art and interning at the Metropolitan’s 20 Century Decorative Arts department during the exquisite retrospective of the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I left New York and started the gallery. (I should add here that somewhere in there I also waited tables, bartended, handed out Nutella for 5 days a the Fancy Food and Confections Convention, ran a professional bicycling team where I 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 and still be creative and as involved as necessary in order to help artists achieve their vision. It is a place I am comfortable in. The ideas that jewelry addresses are infinite- it is a unique, intimate and rich way to understand and investigate the history of people and society. I have never made jewelry.

Susan Cummins_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 and just recently feel like I’m getting a groove on. I constantly try to redefine what my goals are and how the work I show fits into that. The Stimulus Project and The Costume Project, which were both quite successful, together involved over 100 artists from emerging to very established with the idea of connecting with a fresh audience. Though I like these sorts of one-off projects, my heart is really in showing one artists work and having the chance to really focus in on what they are doing. When I first started exhibiting at SOFA in 2001, dealers rarely exhibited jewelry in anything but relatively traditional cases and though they might focus on a person’s work a solo exhibition at a fair was out of the question. Other media was presented like that but never jewelry. I knew needed to be different in order to stand out and not duplicate what other dealers were doing so at a very early stage I focused on the solo exhibition and found that it really worked for me. Now a lot of jewelry is presented like that and I think it has made collectors, curators etc look very differently at the medium.
I do not work with a lot of artists—so choosing the artists I show is very important for me. If I add someone to my stable it means that I am interested in a long-term commitment. This can be challenging when working with artists freshly out of school… they don’t always continue with the same passion and ambition they started with, unfortunately. I can guide them but I don’t make the work and without the work we have nothing.

Exhibition view, Märta Mattsson, Perified Lives, 2012, Sienna Gallery , photo: Sienna Gallery

Susan Cummins_You have recently opened up a new area called Sienna Patti Contemporary and you have expanded your original space to accommodate installations. Is that correct? Why have you made these moves?

Sienna Patti_ My walls were closing in on me! A space opened up next door and was offered to me on the exact same day that 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 now less of a “project” space than it was and more of a venue where I represent and exhibit other forms of art alongside jewelry. It allows me to try out ideas, to work with artists who are more experimental and whose work keeps those walls from closing in on all of us. Artists like Lauren Kalman whose work is hard to place in a retail oriented venue fit perfectly with me and after working together for over 5 years we are starting to see some exciting shifts. Same thing with Lauren Fensterstock who recently opened her solo exhibition at Kohler. 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 like Melanie Bilenker, Lola Brooks and Jamie Bennett are seeing perceptions of their work significantly evolve because of the interaction with other forms of art. I think it is important to add here that it was not just my walls closing in… I see a real lack of ambition and focus from jewelry makers and it was and is disappointing. I have had to look other places to be inspired and find engagement. When an artist only makes work and communicates with their dealer when they are on sabbatical or winter break it is a problem. There are exceptions of course. This is probably another conversation though!

Exhibition view, Sondra Sherman, Found Subjects, 2011, Sienna Gallery, Lenox, photo: Sienna Gallery

Susan Cummins_In the past the gallery has participated in a number of fairs including SOFA and art fairs like Pulse and Bridge. This year you are doing a new design fair called Collective.1. Please give us your thinking about how your gallery decides which fairs to do and why.

Sienna Patti_ Exhibiting jewelry anywhere but SOFA is more challenging that one would imagine. Art fairs don’t want it 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 since 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 it seems like it is the most appropriate and viable fit right now. Ultimately I want to show the whole of what I do all together – this is what I will do at Collective to some degree and we will see how it goes.

Lauren Fensterstock, Mound, 2010, Installation at Sienna Gallery, Lenox, Paper, charcoal, Plexiglas, 427 x 335 x 335 cm, Photo: Sienna Gallery

Susan Cummins_How would you compare your experience of doing fairs that aim at different audiences?

Sienna Patti_How do the audiences differ? Point of view. I showed Lauren Kalman at SOFA where everyone wanted to know how one wears a gold tongue and then showed the same work at the LA Art Fair where no one mentioned the object component at all and saw it only as a photograph. Of course with her work- both points of view matter and apply to the work but it was really interesting to see how completely disparate the worlds were. I sold in both venues.

Susan Cummins_Is your display different from fair to fair?

Sienna Patti_Slightly- it depends on the work I am showing. I have always had a pretty focused and limited presentation and that doesn’t change.

Susan Cummins_How do the expenses differ?

Sienna Patti_ Some are more, some less. The least expensive fair I have done cost me about 15k including travel etc, the most has cost about 45k. That’s a lot of brooches!

Susan Cummins_How financially successful have you been?

Sienna Patti_ I have had fairs where I sell out my 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, swore at people I loved, cried in cabs, thrown-up, left rich, and left broke.

Susan Cummins_Are you finding new clients in both?

Sienna Patti_ More in one than the other? Definitely I find new clients outside of the SOFA venue but much of that is because I presented there for so long and that market is quite small compared to the art and design one.

Susan Cummins_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.

Susan Cummins_Part of your business is SGPress. Do you want to say something about it?

Sienna Patti_Yes. We publish 6-7 monographs with essays a year. Jewelry really needs this sort of support - an exhibit doesn't just have to last 3 1/2 weeks and then be done.

Susan Cummins_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 40’s. I have no idea what it will be like but I know that I am doing everything I can to help create sustained engagement in it- I can’t imagine being ready to retire that early and I will need a job!

Susan Cummins_How can the art jewelry community help to 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 that 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, educated yourself, ask your dealer questions, 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 that it can benefit their careers. Give gift certificates to your friends and family to your favorite gallery along with a membership to AJF… tell them to use both! They will thank you, I promise.

About the author

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.