Episode 139: Part 1 – The “Ambassador of Wearable Art” Shares Her Insights from Two Decades in the Business with Lisa M. Berman, Owner of Sculpture to Wear Gallery.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- The history of Sculpture to Wear and how Lisa maintains its legacy
- Why editorial and media coverage is crucial for getting art jewelry recognized as a fine art
- What the role of a jewelry gallery is
- Why Lisa always advises artists to keep good records of their work
- How the bold brooches of the 80s paved the way for today’s art jewelry
About Lisa M. Berman
Lisa M. Berman is an internationally recognized “Ambassador of Wearable Art.” Based in Southern California, her expertise extends to major manufacturing and retail markets, museums and corporations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Asia and Europe.
Lisa is the owner of the iconic gallery Sculpture to Wear, which was instrumental in launching the studio jewelry movement in the United States. The gallery offers an eclectic array of art, jewelry and unique objects to discerning collectors, media producers and institutions, which have been featured in film, television and publications.
Her recently launched Berman Arts Agency offers artist representation, career management, corporate acquisition, sponsorship advisement, museum placement, exhibition curation and education services on the disciplines of fine art, jewelry, design and fashion.
Lisa holds degrees in Plastics Manufacturing Technology from California State University Long Beach, Product & Jewelry Design from Otis College of Art & Design and Merchandising/Marketing from Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). She has served on the Board of Governors for OTIS College of Art & Design; as Public Relations Chair for the Textile and Costume Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); and on the Museum Collection Board at FIDM. She volunteers for Free Arts for Abused Children, STEAM projects and Art & Fashion Councils.
- Sculpture To Wear Website
- Sculpture To Wear Instagram
- Sculpture To Wear Facebook
- Lisa M. Berman Instagram
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Mobile number: 323-370-0555
Cover of Vogue with Cherize Theron
Lisa M. Berman, owner of art jewelry gallery Sculpture to Wear, has been a figure in the art jewelry world for over 20 years, and she has a wealth of insight to share with fellow jewelry lovers. For her second appearance on the Jewelry Journey Podcast, she talked about how she’s maintained relationships with hundreds of designers and collectors over the years, what advice she offers the designers she works with, and why art jewelry is coming into its own as a fine art collected by museums. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Lisa M. Berman. Although we share the same last name, I’m not related to Lisa; however, over the years she has become a friend and a trusted dealer. Lisa has been a guest on the show before. Today, we’ll have a wide-ranging discussion with less of a focus on a particular piece, more talking about her experience in the jewelry and fashion world. Per our practice, the podcast is audio only. We will be posting photos of many of the pieces Lisa mentions today on our website, which is JewelryJourney.com. This is also a two-part podcast, so please keep your eyes open for our second episode which will air later this week. Please make sure you’re a member of our jewelry community by subscribing to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. That way you can listen to both episodes hot of the presses, so to speak. With that, I’d like to welcome Lisa to the program.
Lisa: Thank you, Sharon. I’m so delighted to be back here again.
Sharon: It’s great to have you. For those who don’t know your background, can you give us a brief overview of your background?
Lisa: Of course. I grew up in the fashion industry and had a career in fashion design. I had an accessory business for many, many years, and then I acquired the name of Sculpture to Wear Gallery in 1998. Of course, that was originally launched in 1973 in New York City in the Park Plaza Hotel. I launched my first exhibition at Bergamot Station Art Center, which I’ll tell you about in a second, on January 16, 1999. I’m proud to be the second owner of Sculpture to Wear Gallery. Now, location is important. Location, location, location, you’ve heard a million times in real estate. Bergamot Station Art Center is in Santa Monica, California, Southern California, and it was formerly the home to 25 thriving contemporary galleries and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. It was, I believe, a five-acre complex. Now the Red Line runs through it.
Sharon: The Red Line being the Metro.
Lisa: Yes, the metro. Anyway, that’s where I started my journey. I actually met my former husband, Robert Berman, there as well. It was the heyday. It was like Soho. It was the happening place on the West Side; it was a lot of fun. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night for 10 years, there were gallery openings. There was constant influx of artists and jewelers and collectors and educators and writers, so it was definitely the place to be.
Sharon: What was groundbreaking about—first, it was groundbreaking that Sculpture to Wear was on the West Coast, but what was groundbreaking about the original Sculpture to Wear?
Lisa: The owner, Joan Sonnabend, was basically located in Boston, but she had a tiny, little, postage-stamp gallery. Robert Lee Morris told me it was only about 400 square feet. The delineation was that she only showed work by signed artists. For example, you had Alexander Calder making jewelry, and he actually made his jewelry. There were pieces by Picasso; those were in addition to the series and those were made by other craftsmen. Of course, you have people like Robert Lee Morris, whose entire career was launched at the original Sculpture to Wear. The idea was that she was selling one-of-a-kind, sculptural jewelry made by fine artists, not by jewelry artists. That was the idea.
Sharon: From what I’ve heard, nobody else was doing that then. This was unusual.
Lisa: It was extremely unusual. The only person that was doing something similar was in Philadelphia. That’s our beloved Helen Drutt, who is about to turn 91. She was also very monumental and important in bringing studio jewelry and wearable art to the United States, but she worked with jewelers and makers, mostly in Europe.
Sharon: How did you know the Sculpture to Wear license was available? How did you find out about that?
Lisa: I was introduced to the idea through Cindy Forbes, who’s now Cindy Brown. She ultimately ended up being my gallery manager. We had a conversation, one thing led to another, and that was kind of it. It was available, so I capitalized on that and the domain and the name. When I acquired the name, I felt it was very important that every decision I made was legacy-driven, because it was a very important part of history. This is not something I just launched; they had an important history and legacy on the East Coast. That’s why for my business card, I purposely selected the title of “visionary proprietor,” because it kept me on point and on target. At first, I got a little flak from it, but as I explained, that kept me on point to do my best. That was it.
Sharon: Flak because people said, “Oh my gosh—”
Lisa: A lot of gumption that I would profess to be this visionary proprietor. Now, everyone on social media is a visionary and all the museum collectors’ groups are visionaries. I don’t know; I guess I was ahead of the curve.
Sharon: You are a visionary.
Lisa: This was 23 years ago. There you go.
Sharon: So, you opened at Bergamot Station and then you moved the gallery to Montana Avenue in Santa Monica? Well, they’re both in Santa Monica.
Lisa: I was in Bergamot Station from 1999 until 2003. In Bergamot Station, I had two separate little locations. In 2003, I moved to a much larger location. That was on Montana Avenue at the cross street of 11th Street. I moved there knowing I was a destination, that I had built a brand with Sculpture to Wear and with the artists through a number of different ideologies and media and exposure. We’ll get into that in a second, but I knew I was a destination. I was not going to rely on walk-in traffic on Montana Avenue, like so many of the other stores did. That was really important, that I had built up that mailing list, the collector base. People would be traveling, or friends would be coming in from out of town and our collectors would pick them up at the airport and say, “We have to take you to Sculpture to Wear first.” It was those kinds of relationships we had built there.
Sharon: Did people stumble on your gallery in Bergamot Station? How did they find you?
Lisa: Bergamot had 25 galleries, so at any given day at any given moment, you had tons of people walking around. It’s completely different than it is today; of course during the pandemic, but completely different. There was no problem reaching collectors, and I was the complete anomaly. You have this sculptural jewelry, and it was an education to a new audience. A lot of these people weren’t necessarily open to the idea of jewelry not having diamonds or gold. People that had an educated eye in regard to design, like architects, were some of our first clients because they understood the design. It literally was a small-scale sculpture.
I think my passion for that and some of the artists were also incorporated into that conversation. I made a request of any artists that were local to the gallery that they do three things: they had to work in the gallery, they had to come and help set up an exhibition that wasn’t theirs, and they had to attend an opening that wasn’t theirs. I wanted them to understand the role of a gallery and what we did. At first it was, “Well, why I would give you 50 percent of the retail price?” This was a demonstration for them to learn why. There wasn’t any artist who partook in those three requests that came to me and said, “No, this isn’t right.” They all were shocked at what we did on a daily basis. Robert Lee Morris, I told him about that, and he was shocked. He said, “You did that?”
Sharon: You mentioned Robert Lee Morris. A lot of people will know who he is, especially New Yorkers or fashionistas, but tell us who he is and why he’s important.
Lisa: Robert Lee Morris is an icon. He’s been designing jewelry for over 50 years. He’s the only designer to earn the Coty Award for his jewelry design an unprecedented three times. He was the designer who made the big, bold, gold jewelry in conjunction with Donna Karan’s black cashmere new work uniform in the late 80s, early 90s. Digressing to understand why he’s important in my world, our world of art jewelry, is that he was one of the most important and prolific designers at the original Sculpture to Wear in New York.
He was self-taught. He was literally found at a tiny, little show in an offbeat path. He was immersed in this incredible work from Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, Louise Nevelson—amazing artists who already had these incredible careers, and as it turns out, people loved Robert’s work. He outsold all the other artists combined at Sculpture to Wear. Then he launched his own gallery. After Sculpture to Wear closed, he launched Artwear. That launched a number of careers from a lot of famous artists, jewelers, studio jewelers, some of whom are still with us and some are not. That’s his legacy; first at Sculpture to Wear, then Artwear. He has these amazing archives, and we’ll talk about how editorial and prior images play a role in the secondary market. That might be a good place to talk about that.
Sharon: O.K., please.
Lisa: What’s a phenomenon for me is that when I started and someone would ask if I sold jewelry, I knew the context. They would immediately think of CZ or—
Sharon: Engagement rings.
Lisa: Engagement rings. I said, “No, that’s not at all what I do,” and I would always be wearing a piece. I was always wearing largescale pieces of jewelry. At that time when I first opened my gallery, I had very short hair; I think it was two inches long. People may not have remembered my name, but they would point at me from across the room and say, “Oh, that’s the jewelry lady. That’s the Sculpture to Wear lady,” and that was just fine.
This type of work, like photography 80 or 60 years ago, was not accepted in the realm of a fine art museum. Now you see photography auctioned at over $1 million, and some of the most incredible collections in the world are simply photography. Art jewelry is now collected in some specific fine art institutions, and that is for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s because of exposure from editorial and media, and also because of the stewardship of specific collectors and designers like Helen Drutt, who bequeathed her collection to the Houston Fine Art Museum. I think it was almost a decade ago, and there’s an incredible book. It’s on my bookshelf. I can see it from here; it’s very orange and large. She wanted her collection to be viewed at a fine arts museum versus a craft museum, and that started that conversation.
Lois Boardman on the West Coast donated her collection to LACMA, LA County Museum of Art, I believe five years ago. Also, for example, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian has been collecting this work for a lot longer. For example, Jan Mandel and I were there for her induction into the Smithsonian. That was incredible. We were standing right next to a piece made by Alexander Calder, and that’s where her vitrine was placed. It’s really about this conversation, and I think it’s a conversation of education.
As for the secondary market, we were just attending the Bonhams preview for the Crawford Collection. That’s an unprecedented phenomenon, to have a collection of that level, of that stature, being auctioned by Bonhams without diamonds, without gold. There are a few elements and pieces to that, but you’re looking at Art Smith pieces, modernists, studio jewelers. This is a very exciting and fertile time to be involved in studio and art jewelry. This is what I’ve been doing for the last 22, 25 years. We’re at a very exciting place and there are a number of forums, especially with Covid and Zoom, with Art Jewelry Forum having open conversations about this, introducing collectors to artists and, of course, your podcast. There are a lot of variations and factors for the secondary market.
Sharon: Lisa, because your jewelry and art jewelry in general is still avant garde—although it’s coming into its own—do you think collectors or people like you are going to say, “O.K., what’s next? What’s on the horizon now? That’s become old hat.” It hasn’t, but do you think people are going to move on?
Lisa: Sharon, I hope not. Within the genre of studio jewelry and wearable art, it has progressed and become so sophisticated. There are so many different makers out there, especially with the internet connecting us. When I first started in 1999, we didn’t really have the internet; we barely had email, and now that’s how everyone communicates. I think that people’s creativity, the way people wear pieces and where they wear them—the reality is that we’re not going anyplace right now during the pandemic, and I’m looking at different generations and how to include that next generation in collecting. For example, some of my first clients were in their 60s and 70s when they started collecting, and some are no longer with us. So, how do we engage their family members? You’re our most recent convert to art jewelry. My gallery was so close to your house, yet you would have had no interest in what we did. I think it’s a journey. Can you say someone’s going to have a different trend? No.
I also think technology has played an important role not only in studio jewelry and the exposure, but also the techniques. People are using laser cutting, 3D printing. Technology has also been accepted into fine arts institutions and it has blurred the lines of the conversation of craft and fine art. Even five years ago, there was a delineation that was very distinct. There are still institutions that are not interested in immersion, but I think technology has been a friend, not a foe, to studio jewelers and the paths they can cross.
Sharon: I do have to tell a story. Lisa and I were laughing because I lived close to where her gallery used to be. I lived not so far in the Valley, 10 miles away. I was never in your gallery, but I remember seeing an ad one day and thinking, “Who is going to wear this stuff?”
Lisa: And now the Jewelry Journey Podcast.
Sharon: It was way out. When you say that people who were older started collecting it, that’s the sort of people who don’t automatically say, “Wow, that’s so new and so cool.”
Lisa: My collectors—and I’m sure a number of the gallerists across the United States who have been around for decades would say the same—our clientele, they’re not interested in trends. If they open a Vogue, they might see a dress they like, but they’re not going to buy it because it’s on trend or in fashion. All my clientele, they’re well-traveled; they’re well-heeled; they’re generally educated. They’re willing to be avant garde. They don’t want to wear the same thing everyone else is wearing, so it’s a little bit different. The whole conversation now is that there are younger generations. I just met an incredible student at USC at the Bonhams preview. She’s running this entire magazine department in her off time while she’s full-time at USC. That’s to reach a new collector base and new makers, but that’s exciting. That’s what makes it viable.
Sharon: Yes, it keeps on going.
Lisa: Right. That was one of the things I wanted to talk about in regards to when I first started in 1999: it was not only the relationships we built with the artists and the collectors, but we also had our version of social media, which was just printed publications. We didn’t have social media, so building relationships with well-known stylists, who were either Emmy award winners or high-profile people that worked with celebrities, that was really important. We got to the point where they would literally call me up with the theme, tell me what it was, and I would already pull the pieces and have a box ready for them. We had a shorthand. That was, again, a relationship that would have to be cultivated. It was very exciting, and that’s part of building the legacy of why this work is important. For example, Robert Lee Morris is pulling out his archives. Part of the excitement of these presentations is showing some of the editorial, these great magazine covers and shows that these pieces were included in. I have two decades of binders of images. So, that’s very exciting, to show the relevance 20 years ago to now.