Yes, we like the design, but does it feel good on the body? Interview with Ivan Barnett from Patina Gallery

Interview  /  CarolinDenter   CriticalThinking   Galleries   Market
Published: 27.08.2019
Ivan Barnett Ivan Barnett
Carolin Denter
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The series by Klimt02 offers space for questions, ideas, and discussions about galleries, artists and the current jewellery market. This is the eight interview in a series of interviews with gallerists and art dealers from around the world.

We continue with Ivan Barnett, co-owner and director of Patina Gallery. Established in 1999, Patina exhibits clay, wood, sculpture, fiber and other mixed media objects. The gallery holds a unique position in the field because as few others, they show studio jewelry in the same gallery space with larger works. The gallerists stage them in a manner that allows ‘aesthetic discussions’ to take place, a kind of dialogue between the jewelry and different objects in the space.
You and your wife founded Patina Gallery in 1999 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Gallery has a focus on extraordinary projects and experimental as well as conceptual works. In a video interview, celebrating 20 years of Patina Gallery this year, Allison, your partner, speaks about running a gallery in a really poetic way. Can you explain to us if you have a specific vision in mind while curating your gallery?
The specific vision for Patina has always been about strong design and beauty. And how those two elements can have a conversation in the gallery. Beauty is subjective, so really, it’s our standard of beauty. We could say it’s our soul-stirring view of beauty. We like the classical components of beauty, where we use reference points around craftsmanship, great design, great use of color and of course, scale. Patina’s “thumbprint” in this way has developed over 20 years. Things make sense here in our aesthetic. The vision is about how to make the elements that we have at the moment we are curating, (whether it’s in an exhibition or in the entire gallery) feel wonderful, look wonderful and be infused with surprise. Everything we do is an exercise in design. That can be in setting a dinner table or even putting fruit in a bowl. Pieces of our inspiration may grow from other things happening in the world, for instance, the legacy of Alexander Girard and all his work in varying mediums - whether in designing airplane graphics or textiles.

When Allison and I went to Europe last March for the Munich Jewellery Week, we did so without a sense of how many artists we’d come back to Patina with, or specifically what work we were looking for. We went with no expectation other than that we were looking for works that we loved.

At times we do press each other on decisions by using this exercise: I’ll say to Allison, “Give me the names of three patrons who would love this work.”
If we can’t name a handful of people while we are choosing to bring new things in, we usually will not pursue the work. This is our own collaboration process. With that said, the aesthetic pairing does not always end up to be an economic pairing. We’ve had work in both jewelry & objects that we’ve loved, and over the years, for whatever the reason, it was has not been commercially received. This effort is not for the commercial aspect, but at the end of the day, this consideration does matter.

 Patina Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Are there still challenging moments for you? What major successes and challenges have you had this year?
Any time a creative entity does strong, consistent, great work… the easier and harder it is to keep performing well because the expectation is high. It becomes a question of, ‘Can we continue creating wonderful and beautiful work in all that we do?’ Can I still choose a subject that is interesting, and in which case will warrant people still eager to come and see it? Patina tries to deliver on a promise of continued excellence year after year.

I can say over the years I’ve had moments of creative block. When we’re in this creative, developmental cogitation process, that’s always a bit nerve-racking. There’s always a level of anxiety. We all have an audience and therefore we’re pressed to bring our best selves to that work. With that said, sometimes it flows easily and things fall into place, other times it’s a struggle. We must trust that we can deliver.

Once Allison and I decided that going to Europe was a great idea and got behind that with our talents and resources, I can say that it has evolved into a big success for Patina. Unearthing New European Makers for 2019 is a success because visually, people are drawn to it. When a patron comes in saying they love the work, and then takes the next step and says they’d like to purchase a piece, now, the circle is complete. Every bit of the work you put in can be great, but you have to have an audience. Bringing the new European work to Patina, which was a heavy lift for everyone, was a great success.
The thematic pieces around August’s jewelry exhibition, Passion & Pearls, influenced by Georges Bizet’s opera, The Pearl Fishers, has been beautifully tied together. The photography, the writing and the works by Peter Schmid are all aligning. I’m proud of that.

I’m also pleased as to how Patina at 20 years young has made sense to all of us in a very interesting way.
Our book on Patina, Beauty of Time, will be published this November. I’m overjoyed as to how that’s unfolding. Allison and I will be creating a collection of our own studio works to go on exhibit this December; we haven’t been in our studio together like this since before the gallery opened… those are successes awaiting us as we finish the year. Again I would say, this year, as in others, we have made some innovative choices in the work that we do.

Talking about quality, did you notice any changes, to good or bad, in your time as a gallerist?
There seems to be a trend, globally, where the emphasis is not on craftsmanship. Whether it’s motivated politically, or from artists who are personalizing their idea of jewelry. I see a lot of conceptual work where there is little to no consideration of the feel of the piece when it is being worn. Patina does use a standard of ergonomics. Yes, we like the design, but does it feel good on the body?

You and Allison are really supportive of the artists represented by the gallery. Besides selling pieces, how do you see the role of the gallerist in the artist-gallery relationship? What do you think is missing at the moment and what do you think should cease to exist, if any?
Allison and I have always felt that we will receive the best work from any artist if we give them the most amount of freedom to create their work. We’ve already said we like what they do. So rarely, even when something is repeatedly being sold, do Allison or myself call an artist and say, “Send seven more of those”.
Allison does coordinate custom commissions for certain work, but overall, we strive to keep the purist aspect of letting the artist do what they do best. They’ll be happy, and the gallery will be happy.

There have been times where we have felt an artist’s work, for no other better word, is a bit stale. This does not mean it’s not well made. It does not mean that it isn’t as great as the work we got before. It’s that great artists experiment, enough. That’s what I love about our artist, Claire Kahn. Claire is always challenging herself. It’s a marvelous thing when someone does that. Being artists ourselves has been a huge influence as to how we engage with our artists. In running Patina, Allison and I have to look at things in such a way, with consideration to - Will someone love this piece enough to buy it?

Some artists are more open to receiving commentary from us in relation to the work we show in the gallery. However, I’m always very careful as to how I give suggestions when an artist is asking for direction. I always leave the conversation to a place where I purely pose ideas. I pose the initial ideas surrounding thematics. I plant the seed and let it go. As gallery director, I have decided that’s the best way to work with most of our artists. I may approach this a bit differently depending on the artist, depending on the person.

Allison & Ivan, founders of Patina Gallery; Photo by Peter Oglivie.

You are really active in your field, you are organizing many exhibitions per year, you take part and plan events outside of the gallery such as collaborations with theaters and museums. Please explain to us a bit more about your marketing concepts. How does this influence the gallery?
A brief historical reference, we did not partake in community outreach here in Santa Fe to the degree we do now, for about the first 10 years after opening. It really wasn’t until a decade ago, half the life of the gallery, where it was clear to me as the director that the gallery needed to offer more to its patrons. This coincided with the overall evolution of the craft and jewelry arts market; economic changes were happening, things were starting to shift. Gallery participation, in terms of the public, was beginning to change. It became clear to me that there needed to be new material. This arose from what I was observing through our door. People still loved Patina, they were coming to see the beautiful things we had, but we were lacking in new compelling narrative.
I’m very sensitive to the landscape of the audience because of my own training as a maker during the early 70s. By the time Patina opened in 1999, I had been a maker for 25 years, promoting work, making work and selling work.

There is a direct relationship between me reading the changes that were happening in the market and realizing we needed a new talent in the gallery to help expose Patina in different ways. That’s when we employed a development lead. She is experienced, skilled and knows how to engage the community to make our initiatives possible. At that juncture, we were looking at our Santa Fe community and asked ourselves, ‘What can we do in the community to engage and in new, interesting ways pertaining to the gallery?’ The topics of our community initiatives have a range to them. For instance, in the 2013 exhibition, Picnic for Earth, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, 15 artists created compositions from picnic baskets. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the pieces went to support the Nature Conservancy and the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market. The work we have done in partnership with The Santa Fe Opera for the last four years is to curate a jewelry collection influenced by an opera in their running season. A portion of the proceeds, which take place during a pre-opening for opera devotees, goes to support the Opera’s Technical Apprentice Program.
What happens in a long and great career, and in this case, Patina’s 20-year career is that you get to know your colleagues. It has become about who we know, and who we feel we can work with.

We’ve done a lot of things in the Santa Fe community and word is spreading to other places. We’ve welcomed the Penland School of Craft from North Carolina, and in spring of 2020, we will be welcoming a group from Scottsdale Arts, Arizona. It’s a matter of, who do we know that we love, that we respect, those who are like-minded, that would be interested in doing something innovative with Patina.

Thinking about contemporary jewellery, especially, do you think it is necessary to “educate” the audience, customers, collectors (…) and so on? Do you see any difference between Studio Jewellery and Contemporary Jewellery, or is it only a matter of terms?
There’s no question that educating an audience is part of a great gallerist’s job. Many of our clients live in the world of culture. They don’t usually have to be educated about what a museum experience is. However, a lot of what Allison does, to me, is educating. Especially when it comes to showing someone a piece of wearable art, jewelry, and explaining what is required to make it. People are starting from scratch with tools, materials and an idea. Most gallery visitors are quite taken aback by that.
When you’re looking at our artists here who started from ground zero, they’re starting with the raw materials. Whether pieces of silver, pieces of gold or other material of the kind; they’re constructing compositions from the ground-up. That takes a lot of skill. Then, when you add the question of, how do you do that efficiently, do it regularly and sell the work - you invite other people into the conversation. It’s a sophisticated process.

Education is always a part of great marketing because you’re explaining, and justifying the value and purpose of this line of work. There’s always the aesthetic part to this work, but there’s value in the materials and value in the process. It’s the finesse and nuance of the craft. For people who come into the gallery and have never experienced high quality, handmade works, we have the role of an educator.

Patina has a lot of potential to increase it’s importance because, I feel, spending $1,000 on a piece of jewelry here is going to give someone a much more meaningful and memorable experience than if they spent that same $1,000 at a more conventional store.

Earrings by Peter Schmidt, Atelier Zobel, Mabe Pearl and Ruby, 2019.

Regarding the global contemporary jewellery network, do you feel well connected to other ambassadors of this field, especially outside of your own country? And how do you think the Internet and digital market have a positive/negative effect on the visibility of contemporary jewellery?
For the most part, it’s all positive. The Internet gives us all access. If you’re here in Santa Fe, or if you’re in Mumbai, if you’re in London, Paris, with a device, you can familiarize yourself with the contemporary jewelry market. The handmade and craft movement is rather different now compared to when I started in it, in the 1970s. Then, we didn’t have that connectivity, so our only way to educate at the time was rather primitive. You’d attend craft shows, someone may have liked something, you would give them a handout, or mail them information. Perhaps your pieces got to be featured in a book or magazine, but communication was slow. The invention of the fax machine in the mid-1980s was a huge asset.

Technology, however, is not a replacement for tangible quality. We’re still in this enamored phase with technology and what it can do. Yet, I think the ability for Patina to get our message out to the world is endless now with technology. With all that we can achieve in the digital market, however, there will never be a replacement for picking up a piece of jewelry, holding it in one’s hand, or wearing it.

With all this said, Patina has made a great investment in our online presence. That growth is great for us and it will continue to grow. The speed of things isn’t expected to slow down, although as human beings we have primal reasons to want to slow down. Despite that, we are still interested in obtaining information fast.
I feel semi-connected to other gallery colleagues in the field. Not because of choice, per se, but because I have taken the creative lead at the gallery and I use my own career as a reference point. I believe Patina is highly respected in the field as being progressive and with that, we do have great collegial relationships with curators and artists. We’re also in a business where there is competition. In Europe, we were really embraced by other galleries, which is wonderful. I felt very humbled by that. Yet, I’ve never wanted Patina to be part of the greater movement. I’ve wanted us to always be the movement.

You are one of the few gallerists, which decided to offer an online shop on their own website. What impact has this decision made on your business?
It has had a huge impact. We started this investment five years ago, and that included planting the stake to do it, figuring out how to capitalize it and then methodically, how to grow it. It’s an organic process and to me, that requires continual maintenance. The bottom line for Patina is that e-commerce is now an integrated part of our business model. We are selling things online, actively. Some of that is from our existing client base who feel at ease and comfortable to buy from there. It’s taken us a long time to get there. Some galleries in our world, the handmade world, have websites, an interactive online store, yet they are rigid and cumbersome to use. We have worked hard on Patina’s website so that a user can really shop with ease. Just this last year, we have employed Affirm, we have a chat component and a system to efficiently add new works in a timely manner. There’s a core team at the gallery who ensures that this happens.

How did we get there - We had amazing collegial, global support. Patina has very beautiful relationships with people in the world of business, commerce and the arts who are incredibly smart; who want to see us go to the next step. I don’t know that everybody has that. My strategy as creative director has always been to circle myself with those who are brilliantly talented in others areas (I call them “wizards”), who can lend their expertise to help Patina go further. When you give that level of honest respect, you will receive that back many times over.

Patina has never been afraid to adapt sophisticated, large business trends & concepts and figure out how to distill that into its small self. It’s something I’ve always done in my own career. I look at the actions of great leaders and influencers and see about how I can integrate parts of what they’ve done into how we operate Patina Gallery.

Sarah Cossham, Tiara Ring, 2019.

Does a professional sales platform - made to develop and share your work, and to increase sales something that interests you? What are your thoughts?
Because Patina is progressive; we are progressive in the creative direction and curatorial choices of the gallery as well as in the business operation of the gallery. If there is a tool that can help optimize our sales department, and we are able to adopt parts or all of the process needed, we’re there. We’re not purists that way. We will embrace what we can. All great tools are welcome. That said, it might take some time to fold in the new elements into the workflow; we are methodical that way.

Contemporary jewellery, except for a few auctions held worldwide, are rarely available for resale or to the secondhand market. Why do you think this is the case, and how would you imagine a “resale” of contemporary jewellery? Is it possible?
 It is possible. Patina will actually have an exhibition featuring this kind of work, come November. The advantage of the secondary market is that when the quality of the work is so superb, it becomes extremely coveted. It becomes a case of supply and demand. The reality is that most of the artists who have created these pieces created them years ago, and have since retired or are at least not actively making jewelry. Then there becomes a market of limited supply. It puts us and other galleries in a position to say, these works are valuable, and they are no longer being made.

There’s a degree of nostalgia involved. There is also the value of owning a piece of jewelry history. No matter the time, if an amazing artist brilliantly makes something, practicing techniques and adopting aesthetics that haven’t been practiced by other makers, there will always be a demand for their works. Even more so if that artist is no longer making those works. Very often we treasure works that came out of another time. Perhaps out of a time that was tied to a movement that symbolized a bygone point in our history. We yearn for things that are connected to a period of time that made a difference. Makers who are greatly remembered in their time, perhaps 30-40 years ago, created many of Patina’s second market pieces. These works are thereby aligned with a story and meaning that’s their own.

Focusing on the jewellery in your gallery, we see mainly, but not only pieces made from precious metal, sometimes in combination with stones. Few pieces are made from materials such as plastics, glass or other “non-precious” materials: Leaving the aspect of “passion” or “beauty” aside, how do you see the stability of the value in contemporary jewellery pieces when using non-precious metals, or in more conceptual works?
The value with these more experimental pieces is the inventiveness of the work. For instance, we represent an artist, Susanne Elstner from Germany, who creates adornment with amber and charcoal. That in itself derives technical challenges. How do you stabilize a work with a charred surface, without rubbing off on the wearer? Amber is very soft, how do you fuse that with charcoal? I find when an artist takes that very unusual approach, decides for this example, that they are going to try and put charred wood and amber together, and make it successful – Lovely to touch, well designed and it’s wearable: You’ve really done something extraordinary.
For me, it’s about inventiveness. Someone has figured out how to make it beautiful and it still feels attractive on the body.

Based on your professional experience, what would be your approach to expand, strengthen and change the contemporary jewellery/art market?
I would like to see the contemporary jewelry market expand but not lose sight of what makes great jewelry great. Great jewelry has all the elements of great design, great craftsmanship, interesting material, and a certain amount of beauty involved – even if it’s in the narrative i.e. political or social commentary. I’d like to see the art jewelry movement go back to some of its earlier roots where craftsmanship mattered, wearability mattered and works infused with inventiveness and simple beauty. As in all art movements, the passage of time always becomes the final purveyor of lasting greatness. It’s why we look to museums to set a standard of “what is great”. Great works of art are great for a reason.

About the Interviewee

Ivan Barnett, Patina's gallery director, is first and foremost an artist, having enjoyed a successful career of more than 30 years creating his own work. Patina is an extension of this earlier work and a true artistic collaboration with his wife, Allison.

About the author

Denter completed her vocational training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2017 she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she started working as Marketing- and Designmanagement Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein at the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement. Since 2015 she is working at, an online platform for the communication of contemporary jewellery. Trough articles and interviews she is developing critical subjects in the field of contemporary jewellery.