Liesbeth den Besten: Answers to the interview Market, lies and websites.

Published: 03.01.2007
Liesbeth den Besten Liesbeth den Besten
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While in fine art the border between lifestyle and art seems to become evermore diffuse, jewellery is drawn to art to such an extent that it loses its contact with daily life – understandable in its own context, but hard to understand for the rest of the world.
>> Answers to the interview Market, lies and websites: Klimt02 versus Klimt02 (Part 1)

Is contemporary jewellery a restricted matter of a small group of people?
Yes, I’m afraid it is, and on the other hand I think this should not be a problem. Art is elitist, design too, and author jewellery is something in between – sometimes inclined to art, sometimes to design. Not easy to understand. Jewellery artists should enjoy their freedom to discover new areas of thought, construction and form. Still I think, jewellery artists should also take more care of designing pieces that are affordable and wearable by more people. There are wonderful techniques, and industrial materials, that need to be investigated. One can do it besides the main line of thought in his/her work. Unfortunately, for most jewellery artists it is very hard to make a design which is fit for multiplication.

Because contemporary jewellery is difficult, it is important that people are wearing jewellery. The wearer is the intermediary between the maker and the viewer. What troubles me though is the fact that most collectors of contemporary jewellery are grey haired and (almost) retired. Where are the young supporters of author jewellery? Most of the old ones started collecting during the waves of new jewellery in the sixties, seventies and eighties – at least this is the case in The Netherlands. I don’t have the impression that there is a new audience for author jewellery. If my idea is right, I think this will be one of the biggest problems of contemporary jewellery in future: connecting to younger people.

The relationship between jewellers and art galleries is of mutual necessity, but the jeweller seems to be dissatisfied. When must the jeweller consider a new relationship? Why don’t new alternatives emerge? Is it perhaps the incapacity to reach a new agreement or is it just that deep down jewellers have adapted to things as are now?
I don’t know if the situation is as bad as you put it. Jewellery galleries are important! And especially good / real jewellery galleries like there are not so many in the world. It is important that jewellery is presented in a space which is totally devoted to jewellery – although there is a danger: author jewellery only seems to survive in these save reservations, their ‘biotope’, where the in-crowd comes to cheer the artists. A few years ago I have put it like this in a text accompanying a jewellery exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam: While in fine art the border between lifestyle and art seems to become evermore diffuse, jewellery is drawn to art to such an extent that it loses its contact with daily life – understandable in its own context, but hard to understand for the rest of the world. Specialized jewellery galleries have a lot of expertise, they know how to present jewellery in or outside the showcase, they take jewellery to art fairs and they do the promotion in a professional way: with brochures, booklets, and websites. Besides they take care of the selling of the jewellery, which is something most artists don’t want or like to do. I know of a lot of jewellery artists who are quite happy with the system as it is – so they have adapted to the status quo, and why not? If they feel comfortable and if it allows them to concentrate on their work – this is fine.

Others are dissatisfied, indeed. If they are, they should develop new alternatives and some do. Best examples in Holland are Ted Noten and Dinie Besems, who organise projects, events and installations for their own work in alternative spaces, Celio Braga who every now and then clears his studio to afford the opportunity for invited colleagues to make an installation, and Filippine de Haan who after emigrating to the US started a website for lost (jewellery) objects.
The gallery system is not ideal. There are problem's indeed. The fact that artists are forced to choose for one gallery, starting already at the graduation show of the Rietveld Academy when gallery-owners are coming and try to make appointments with the young ones, is a problem. In my view it is better to leave them alone for a couple of years: first they have to develop their own working practice, studio, attitude, etc. This will cost time, thinking and re-thinking, and the freedom to try a gallery and perhaps another one – why not? Artists should not be like a possession of a gallery.

In line with this is the suspicion that gallery-owners have with regard to new initiatives among artists to present and sell their work: like websites, studio-presentations, fairs like Rietveld naar de Beurs (every year in Amsterdam, in the Pentecost weekend) and other projects. They fear for their business. So, artists and galleries are trapped in a dependent relationship with dangerous consequences.

Another problem with the gallery system in general is that it has a quite unclear system of social network. It seems that it is not really only about the quality of the work but also about the social abilities of the artists. A young Dutch academic, who studied both economics and art history, did his doctoral research about the economics of art. Therefore he interviewed gallery-owners in Amsterdam and New York. Because he is also an art historian he could easily talk with them about art and became trustworthy. He discovered that the price of a work of art is not only totally imaginary, but above all dependent on the social abilities of the artist. If he or she is a nice person, someone who keeps the contact going on, someone to drink a glass with, someone who enters the gallery regularly, someone who almost feels like being part of the family – the prices will be higher then the prices of the more stubborn characters.

In the free information age, Internet, gallery owners have lost their power situation as anyone has access to all kind of information that had been treasured as if it was gold dust. When will we believe that we are the only ones that can make possible a change? Is it perhaps, the responsibility that each one has the only way of changing some situations?
I believe in evolutionary changes. You can notice how, under the spell of Internet and free and fast exchange of ideas, things are changing. The situation is changing step by step, slowly (for some not fast enough). Individuals can contribute a lot – but it takes time, a lot of energy and also money.

We are waiting for a saviour, to save us from our ills; a person who stand up for us while we are lagging behind. When will we realize that in order to achieve these changes we will have to start taking decisions and changing attitudes?
I strongly distrust saviours!

Is it a question of professionalism?
Of course it is, and I think academies will have to take their responsibility. They have to teach their students how to communicate, they have to learn them to use their brains, not only their senses and talents. To survive as an artist, you have to be capable of using more skills than just your craft.

We accept the established order, but we do not agree with it… What’s wrong?
You can accept the established order and at the same time try to change things – I don’t see what’s wrong with that. The fact that the galleries now have to deal with ‘threatening’ initiatives from individual artists and others is good. It makes them re-think their own position. As I said before, the situation is complicated: artists and galleries are dependent on each other. It is very difficult for artists to sell their work themselves, they need intermediaries. Selling in these days is one of the most complicated things to do. There is such a surplus, such a tremendous supply of commodities, how do you gain a position between commercials, products, design? Can art survive without intermediaries? A Dutch poet once wrote this verse: everything of value is defenceless (Lucebert, 1974). Although this line almost has become a cliché in Dutch culture, because it is probably the most cited and most misused line of poetry, I like it very much because it refers to human beings but also to the most treasured heritage of humans: art. Contemporary art, design, author jewellery are all defenceless, unless propagated by others. Galleries, art agents, advisers are all part of this system.

Contemporary jewellery moves in a rather limited market, for many reasons including the fact that it does not move a large amount of money. The issue would be to enlarge this market… but how can we do it?
I’m afraid it is an illusion to be able to substantially enlarge the market. Author jewellery is elitist, like fine art and design. The market is limited. A lot of people are unfamiliar with jewellery, and there is also a lot of arrogant ignorance. I think it has something to do with the scale of jewellery, with its smallness, its tradition, its intimacy and obvious craftsmanship. Fine artists and people interested in fine arts, and also designers and design interested people, often seem to be consciously ignorant of author jewellery. In their view author jewellery is too pretentious, too arty etcetera. It will take time to gain understanding and recognition. Don’t forget that author jewellery ( and author jewellery is in my view, jewellery which bears a strong mark of the maker, not subservient but a means of expression of the maker) is a relatively young discipline which originated in the period between 1965 and 1970 in Western Europe and America, and in other countries even later. When I was studying art history and decided to write my thesis about contemporary Dutch jewellery in the period 1967 – 1980 and its connection with fine art movements in this period, there were hardly any publications about contemporary jewellery, except from articles in newspapers and magazines. This was in the period 1984-85, twenty years ago. Since than a lot has changed: my bookcase has become to small.

Concerning the market: We have some experience now with the Chi ha paura…? (CHP) label – an attempt to find a new market for contemporary jewellery which is made in series. Although we get a lot of support from the press, from artists and designers our sales are modest. After all those years (since 1996/97) we are still dependent on state subsidy – at least regarding publicity and promotion. Why? Well, first you have to invest in materials, moulds, stock, packing materials etcetera, second you have to invest in promotional material (photography, website) and third jewellery is expensive to produce. No matter you use industrial multiplication techniques, there remains also a certain amount of hand labour for instance in the finishing. Besides, because it is not conventional jewellery, it needs an intermediary which is the CHP foundation. So, if you have a look at the process of making a jewel, from the designer, through the CHP label, and the producer, the agent and the shop – you can see that the prize is determined by five factors (designer, CHP, producer, agent, shop). CHP-jewellery is mostly modern, austere in design and material and a lot of people don’t understand why these pieces are so expensive. For most people modern and austere means: cheap, or at least less expensive.

With regard to author jewellery old mechanisms come to the surface: it is not made of gold and diamonds, so why pay much money for it. To avoid these mechanisms people have to be educated, people have to know and understand. Specialized jewellery galleries have a task in this field. They can inform the audience about what author jewellery is, how to understand it as an art form, how to appreciate it.

Is Internet a solution? Should we pay for it?
No, Internet is not a solution. It is a tool, something that could be useful to promote contemporary jewellery, to inform people and probably even to sell jewellery. I don’t think we should pay for it, or just a small amount of money for a PLUS+ subscription. I understand that it is impossible to go on the way you did. But why not ask galleries and everyone who wants to have regular attention on your website to pay for it. The power of Internet is its free accessibility to everyone in the world. Most people working in the field of jewellery are poor. This also goes for an organisation like the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation.

Small advertisements of companies in the field and from outside could also be a possibility to generate some money. There must be companies who are interested in advertising, perhaps even airlines, travel agencies – if you can prove how many visitors you have.

About the Interviewee

Liesbeth den Besten
I have studied art history at the University of Amsterdam. During my last years at University I became interested in contemporary jewellery, thanks to Gallery Ra. Since 1985 when I left University I have been writing, organizing, advising and lecturing in the field of contemporary design, applied arts and jewellery ˆ always as a free lancer.