Episode 139: Part 2 – 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 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
- Berman Arts Agency 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 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.
Sharon: When you say editorial—you talked about editorial versus advertorial—what do you mean?
Lisa: Years ago, we had magazines like W and Vogue and Vanity Fair, and the word advertorial did not exist. You had true editorial, where you were a new designer, you were creating something different, you had a new statement necklace, and they wanted to feature it. By the way, the vernacular “statement jewelry” wasn’t in vogue 25 years ago. We talked about it. Now you see something on the cover and people talk about. From a marketing and selling point, it’s a statement piece. That’s something we were using in studio jewelry decades ago.
Let’s see, we were talking about editorial, working with creative directors of publications. You have a timeline that’s three months in advance because you didn’t have digital. You had film; you had slides; you had all these timelines that were completely different. Then publications changed. They had to find a way to stay afloat, to stay in business, and like any other business they said, “Look, if you buy an ad, we’ll promote you in an editorial article.” That’s why you have some galleries now charging artists to physically have their work on the walls, which is something we didn’t do, of course.
Sharon: That’s interesting. Then you have people like me who walk into a gallery—I didn’t know a lot—but depending on the gallery, they might pay to have their work on the wall. Having come from public relations, I immediately look at something to see whether they paid for that article or if it was chosen. I think it’s important to point out—people might say, “Well, it sounds dated to be talking about all this print stuff,” but that goes immediately online. All the print is immediately online. There may be some things that never make print that are online, but it’s important because whatever you see in print is going to be online.
Lisa: Well, I’ll tell you why it’s important and relevant. It actually goes back to catalogues and museums. I will get to museums in a second. As much as we want to save the planet and save paper and all of that, museums still demand catalogues for their major exhibitions. That’s an important part of collecting. An important part of an artist’s career is to have that physical catalogue, that tangible item that can be placed on a bookshelf, or talked about, or brought to a dinner party or a lecture series or whatever it may be. That’s really important. An editorial and a printed editorial are the same. Obviously, there are more online publications and it’s literally just flipping through the images.
For example, we just filmed a music video with Linda Hikel. We used a number of pieces from Sculpture to Wear in the music video. People loved it. They will use it for promotion, but she called me and said, “We want to capitalize on the fact that you brought such extraordinary work to the video. We want to capture those for editorial.” Then she called me and said, “We actually want to take it a step further. We’re thinking about a book,” so these are the conversations. Printed materials are not a thing of the past, thankfully; they’re an important element of documentation. That’s why I tell artists, when I’m on an artist’s tour or in their studio or we’re having a conversation, “Please, if you’re not a good note taker or you’re not good about keeping files, literally keep a box on your desk, and anything—a summary or a note or something in regard to that project—keep it in there. This is so important for telling the story for an exhibition in a museum or just a gallery or online show.”
Sharon: Lisa, you mentioned that makers, jewelers, artists don’t understand the role of a gallery. They think, “What am I paying you for?” in a sense. Tell us what your response to that is.
Lisa: I no longer have a physical, permanent location, but I do curate exhibitions. I will collaborate with fine art galleries or other locations to host exhibitions within their space. Even if a show is online, you still get the attachment of being in an exhibition that is part of Sculpture to Wear history and legacy. You have the exposure that I bring to that particular artist, whether it be through my website, through the newsletters I send out, through Art Jewelry Forum, through Indelible, which is my new column for older jewels. That’s under the umbrella of Artistar Jewels.
Sharon: Artistar Jewels?
Lisa: Artistar Jewels; I’ll tell you about that. Also, there’s the collector base. A lot of artists think they pick up the phone and it just happens. Well, it does in some instances. It happens because I’ve cultivated a relationship for five to eight to 10 years. Yes, I can ask for a favor. Yes, I can propose an idea and I will be taken seriously because there’s a track record of credibility. That’s important for artists to understand. I think a lot of them coming from major schools do understand that. That is something that’s part of their curriculum.
Sharon: You mentioned the importance of keeping all your sketches and notes and everything like that because it helps the gallerist tell a story.
Lisa: Right. In my garage, I literally have over two decades of artists’ submissions. I know it sounds crazy. I have artists’ submissions that were done on slides and then zip drives. I don’t even know how I will convert those images, but I was so afraid of throwing away some of the most magnificent images I’ve ever seen and shown. Then each one of my exhibitions is in chronological order in a binder with the title and if there’s any traveling accompanying that exhibition. I think I learned that from my days in the fashion industry, because you had to document, document, document. That has served me well, because if you don’t document it, it never happened. So, you’ve got the documentation of the visuals and the notes and the advertising, and those are really important. Of course, now artists are saving all of that online, but hopefully there’s still something tactile to incorporate.
Sharon: It’s so important for credibility, whether it’s online or not. Ideally, it’s legitimizing it. I know for me, when I’m considering a piece of jewelry, if I know the artist has been in this museum or that museum or it’s in the writeup, that makes a difference to me. It weighs more in favor of purchasing something, that credibility.
Lisa: Yes, and that’s a whole round robin of a conversation. For example, the pieces I placed in LACMA on behalf Lynn Altman—unfortunately, Lynn is deceased. She was one of my favorite and dearest people on the planet. The three pieces that LACMA acquired were actually owned by me first, so it tells me I have a good eye, and it will also tell a collector I have a good eye. I know the process; I know what museums might be interested in. Mostly whatever I thought was interesting or fascinating, that’s what I would collect, but it does matter. It plays a role in credibility in the conversation, if I’m going to be working with a client for consulting, either with a one-on-one client, with an artist or with a company or museum. By the way, one of the misnomers with museums and donations is that people think, “Oh, I have these amazing pieces and I want to donate them.” That’s a very long process.
Sharon: From what I’ve heard, it’s a challenge.
Lisa: It’s a challenge because good museums will only accept pieces they can properly store. Of course, everyone wants them to be on display 100 percent of the time, but you can’t do it. That’s a conversation as well. You’ve got museums looking to acquire pieces, but they need funding for it. There’s a whole program with their donors and collectors; “How do we buy this?” Then there are pieces they want that are being donated to them, but maybe they’re going under renovation. Whatever the story may be, they want to make sure they’re going to acquire them and be able to sort them, so that during their downtime another museum doesn’t take them. It’s really testing out there.
Sharon: When I’ve heard of collectors who have donated their collections, it sounds like it’s been a long process. It’s been something that took years before they even decided to do it. They were being wooed, or they would ask the museum, “What should I buy? What would you like to see in the collection?” that sort of thing. It doesn’t sound like you just drive up and unload your station wagon.
Lisa: Oh, no.
Sharon: Do people have station wagons anymore?
Lisa: I don’t know. They’re called SUVs.
Sharon: Yes, SUVs.
Lisa: At least at a reputable location, that is definitely not the case. I think it’s a very exciting time because you have people creating these secondary market pieces, people auctioning them, collecting them, and then you have some of the most dynamic makers. What’s interesting to me is also the variations of ages from very young, 19 to 20, and then you have some jewelers I’ve met that were famous. They were architects or sculptors, and they wanted to change direction.
I’ve also talked to some of them in regards to ageism. They can’t apply for certain grants because they’re too old for one at 66. There are a lot of new conversations, like how we’ve had to learn to communicate with this new technology in Zoom. Life throws us curve balls and we go with it, and there are different trends, too. Brooches were so important probably 20 years ago and they still are, but you had it peak with the “Brooching it Diplomatically” book and Madeline Albright. For many years, large-scale collars were important. You have the Susan Lewin book that just came out and the exhibition book about rings. It’s exciting. This field is constantly growing, constantly renewing itself, and I’m always inspired by it.
Sharon: I think we had a conversation once where you told me that brooches helped people segue to art jewelry. People could understand those and wear an avant garde brooch before they would wear something in their hair or an earring or something like that.
Lisa: Yes. People won’t believe this, but fashion also played a role in that. For example, 25, 30 years ago, you had women entering the workforce—I know I’m going to get backlash on this—but they were wearing these blazers. So, they can’t wear a large collar, plus they’re downplaying it. They still want to make a nonverbal statement, and the easiest thing is to put a large-scale piece on a lapel. The ideal wall to place a brooch was on a blazer. For example, I’m wearing a Miyake shirt today. You can’t put anything heavy through that. These blazers and large-scale shoulders, that was a perfect wall space to wear these pieces. For makers, these are the easiest way for them to literally make sculpture to wear. It was in a format that made sense to them, a smaller-scale sculpture that was on the left shoulder most often, but there are no rules now. Literally everything goes.
I happen to personally enjoy large-scale collars, just because I like to be hands free and my hands are always moving when I’m talking. I don’t wear a lot of rings. When I had much shorter hair, I wore giant earrings. Now I don’t, but it’s all about personal preference. It was also interesting with the gallery. Someone would see a necklace or a piece in a feature editorial in the Los Angeles Times or W or whatever it may be, and they would call and say, “That’s the piece I want.” Then, ultimately, they would come to the gallery and try it on, and they thought, “You know what? This just doesn’t sit right on me. I want to look at something else,” or we would specifically have the artist there to meet with them and talk with them.
Sharon: You’ve talked about the fact that relationships are so important. I know what you mean. It’s not just a matter of calling up Sally Smith who you’ve never talked to before and doesn’t know you from Adam, versus calling somebody you’ve worked with or who knows you always bring her great pieces or something interesting. I want people to understand what you do and why they should call you, because you have your fingers in so many different areas.
Lisa: You know what’s interesting about your statement, Sharon, is that I do. I am that person who will call anyone. I have the zero-fear factor.
Sharon: That’s great.
Lisa: Completely, because the fact is the worst they can say is no. I’m on a phone call and I present the idea. I think it makes sense, otherwise I wouldn’t call them or present them with the idea or exhibition or whatever it may be. I literally will pick up the phone, or I have a crazy idea and I will create a way to connect the dots. Most people think, “Oh my gosh! I would have never thought about that.” Often it’s thinking about who’s in that particular trade industry, how can we possibly get sponsorships, what’s a different avenue. Let’s think out of the box. We always hear that: let’s think out of the box. I like to be creative, and I like communication. I literally will pick up the phone, and I always like to have a conversation.
So many people hide behind this little mouse on their computer or Facebook or Instagram or private messages. I say if we’re going to work together or any of this, I have to have a conversation. Let’s go on WhatsApp. If you’re in a different time zone, a different county—it doesn’t matter if they’re speaking Latvian and they’re mumbling through a translator, you just get their essence. That’s really important, especially now with the lack of human interaction. I’m always an advocate for having a conversation because you never know where it’s going to lead, that next step, that next unturned stone. You learn so much more when you have the conversation with the person.
Sharon: I always envy you people who have zero fear factor. I don’t fall in that category, so I think it’s great. Why should people call you today? To curate an exhibition?
Lisa: Thank you. I do a number of things. Obviously, first and foremost, I do represent certain artists’ careers on an ongoing basis, whether it’s curating exhibitions for their particular body of work. I can also host a show where we would sell work, because that’s the fuel that makes the engine go: selling artists’ work, curating exhibitions, connecting them to editorial, getting them placement for exposure. I would say 50 percent of what I do is a PR agency. That is the bulk of most of my day. It’s writing articles, sending out newsletters, Instagram, Facebook posts, calling institutions or perhaps sponsors who are creating an exhibition, and creating those business alignments to further these ideas. Whenever I’m on Zoom conferences, I’m taking notes. Editorial, promotional, selling—it’s like an ad agency as well.
Sharon: And when you say artists, that’s bench jewelers, retailers, makers and fine artists.
Lisa: Yes, now I have branched out with the Berman Art Agency. That umbrella encompasses the very few select sculptors and photographers I’ve worked with throughout the years. For example, Bonnie Schiffman, she’s a very well-known, iconic photographer in 16 museums worldwide. She came to me to make a commission piece in a gallery with Claudia Endler. That was an heirloom piece, and she wears it every day. Now we have this relationship where I’m working with her photographs. We’ve done shows throughout LA. I picked up the phone and created a museum exhibition for her back east. Some of these artists have had a rich career, and then they either hit a lull or they’re on hiatus. How do I resurrect this? It’s looking at those types of people. Like Marc Cohen—
Sharon: We just had Marc Cohen on the podcast with his box jewelry, which is so unique.
Lisa: I’ve known Marc for almost 35 years. I’m working with him on his 40 years of archives to make sense of them and understand how to present wearable art box sculptures, which are little, unique maquettes of a stage, like a Broadway stage. He incorporates iconic photography, and each of those tells a story. I’ll be wearing one, and from across the room, someone will point at me and say, “That’s the box man.” He’s done a lot of much larger installations at the Museum of Jerusalem and some other work. So, presenting that work, how do we package that? How do we package it for a museum exhibition, for a gallery exhibition? Of course, we want to do a book.
Then I was working with Teri Brudnak. She was Karen McCreary’s partner for Star Trek. We met 35 years ago in a plastics technology class. She and Karen were making work for Star Trek: The Next Generation, the television show. We were the only three women in this class, and people were making fun of us until they would see their pieces on television within the two-week period. They stopped the teasing and said, “O.K., this is something.” For example, the Skirball Museum has a Star Trek exhibition. How do we incorporate the legacy of what Terry and Karen created with their jewelry? It’s always about peeking around the curve and finding a placement that makes sense. It is in alignment in an authentic way with their artist’s voice and what they’ve created; not necessarily a stretch, but completely in alignment with their work and their creativity.
Sharon: Lisa, thank you so much. I learned so much today about how an artist has to sell their work. I know that’s where so many get caught. Thank you so much for being here today.
Lisa: I appreciate the opportunity to tell your audience about this. It’s very important. Thank you, Sharon.
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