Episode 145 Part 1: Experiencing Jewelry as Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Episode 145

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How Cindi helped the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston secure one of the country’s most important art jewelry collections 
  • Why jewelry is a hybrid of craft and art that doesn’t fit just in one category
  • Why the art world began to question the value of craft in the 80s, and why that perspective is changing now
  • Why museum and gallery visitors shouldn’t ask themselves, “Would I wear this?” when looking at art jewelry

About Cindi Strauss

Cindi Strauss is the Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design and Assistant Director, Programming at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). She received her BA with honors in art history from Hamilton College and her MA in the history of decorative arts from the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. At the MFAH, Cindi is responsible for the acquisition, research, publication, and exhibition of post-1900 decorative arts, design, and craft. Jewelry is a mainstay of Cindi’s curatorial practice. In addition to regularly curating permanent collection installations that include contemporary jewelry from the museum’s collection, she has organized several exhibitions that are either devoted solely to jewelry or include jewelry in them. These include: Beyond Ornament: Contemporary Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection (2003–2004); Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection (2007); Liquid Lines: Exploring the Language of Contemporary Metal (2011); and Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection (2014). Cindi has authored or contributed to catalogs and journals on jewelry, craft, and design topics, and has been a frequent lecturer at museums nationwide. She also serves on the editorial advisory committee for Metalsmith magazine.

Additional Resources:


For the uninitiated, jewelry, art and craft may seem like three distinct (and perhaps, unfortunately, hierarchical) entities. But Cindi Strauss, Curator of Decorative Arts, Crafts and Design at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, wants us to break down these barriers and appreciate the value of jewelry as an art in its own right. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she helped MFA Houston establish one of the largest art jewelry collections at an American museum; why jewelry artists should be proud of their studio craft roots; and why wearability shouldn’t be the first consideration when looking at art jewelry. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is a two-part Jewelry Journey Podcast. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it comes out later this week. 

Today, our guest is Cindi Strauss, the Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Crafts and Design at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, where she’s been responsible for a number of exhibits and has written extensively. She coauthored the recent book “Influx: American Jewelry and the Counterculture.” In addition, she’s on the Board of Directors of Art Jewelry Forum. We’ll hear more about her jewelry journey today. Cindi, welcome to the program.

Cindi: Thank you, Sharon. I’m delighted to be here.

Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Did you like jewelry, or did you come to it through decorative arts? How did that work?

Cindi: Well, the story has been heard. I have told it before, about how I was introduced to art jewelry through Helen Drutt through a serendipitous meeting with her. Prior to that, we only had one piece of art jewelry in the museum’s collection, a terrific Art Smith necklace from 1948. Personally, I come from a family who loves jewelry, but I have not been as much of a lover of it. I have always worn very minimal jewelry myself, so it’s sort of ironic that I am the curator of this phenomenal jewelry collection, the foundation of which is the acquisition in 2002 of Helen Drutt’s private collection. At that time, we acquired a little over 800 pieces, including sketchbooks and some drawings of international art jewelry dating from about 1963 to, at that point, the early 2000s. Helen continued to add to that collection up through 2006, when we were in the final preparation for the Ornamentist art exhibition and catalogue. That opened in 2007 in Houston and traveled to Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to Tacoma, Washington. That is, from a publications point, a great point of demarcation in terms of art jewelry collections. Since then, not only has Helen continued to add pieces to the museum, but we have worked with a lot of national and local collectors, and our jewelry collection continues to grow through acquisitions and gifts. 

I would say that in graduate school, I had the barest introduction to jewelry, and it was really historical jewelry as part of a larger decorative arts education, in terms of looking at styles and how they reflected themselves in historical jewelry. At the time I was in graduate school at the Cooper Hewitt, there was not a seminar on contemporary art jewelry or art jewelry in general, so my knowledge of it has really been built and continues to be built based on our collection, our commitment to it going forward, and trying to keep up with the bare minimum of what’s been happening in the field. I have to say Art Jewelry Forum is an amazing way for me to do that through their website, through the articles, through the artist awards, through the artist maker pages. It’s a very easy snapshot of what’s happening in the field, and then I can take that research and interest into other directions.

Sharon: I can’t imagine being an aficionado, whether it’s to study or just being a jewelry lover, and not being involved in Art Jewelry Forum. There’s no other place like it. 

Cindi: There isn’t. Honestly, nine times out of 10, if I am interested in learning more about an artist and I plug in the artist’s name in Google, the first search that comes up is always Art Jewelry Forum. It’s either an interview or an article or something. For me, it has always been a one-stop initial research location.

Sharon: How did you come to study decorative arts? How did you become a professional in the area? Was that something you had always wanted to do? What was your training?

Cindi: It really happened, I would say, serendipitously. I grew up in a family where my father was in the design field, particularly in textiles. My parents’ preferred style was that of Scandinavia and Italian modern. I grew up in a contemporary house, so there was a certain amount of osmosis with this field. I grew up in Connecticut, which is more oriented towards colonial architecture and traditional interiors, and I knew our house was different and it kind of stuck out. I remember asking my parents when I was young why our house didn’t look like everybody else’s, and their answer was very simple: because this is what we like, and this is why we like it.

I went off to college and thought I was going to be an English major. I took an intro to art history survey and found I loved it, but it wasn’t until my senior year in college that a survey of the history of decorative arts was offered, and that completely ignited my fire. As much as I loved art history, I wanted to be able to touch paintings, which I can’t do. I was interested in the tactile qualities of art and texture and being able to feel and understand value. This introduction to the history of decorative arts was my gateway. That ignited a passion not only for the decorative arts, but when I was going to the museums and such during that time, I started to pay attention to decorative arts galleries more than I had in my museum billing previously. I thought, “This is what I want to do; this is where I want to be. I want to be in a museum and I want to be doing decorative arts.”

My first year out of college, I had an academic year fellowship at the Met. It was in a subset of the registrar’s office called the cataloguing department, and that gave me a bird’s eye, in-depth view of what was happening at the Met. At that time, I knew I was going to have go to graduate school, and I learned about Cooper Hewitt’s program in the history of decorative arts. At that point, I chose Cooper Hewitt. There was no graduate center yet, and I knew I didn’t want to do early American decorative arts. I wanted to have a broader art education, so I went to Cooper Hewitt. Interestingly, my thesis and a large chunk of my classes were on 18th-century European art, particularly porcelain, and I thought I would spend my career there because that’s where all the research was happening. With the exception of design museums or modern art museums like MOMA, a lot of the big, encyclopedic institutions were not really paying attention to decorative arts beyond the Arts and Crafts movement. But I took as many classes as I could in 20th-century design and took decorative arts because that was what my personal passion was.

I got lucky, because my first position after graduate school was curatorial assistant here in Houston. I was split between two departments, the decorative arts department and our not-yet-opened house museum, Rienzi. It was the perfect job for me because Rienzi was all about the 18th century, whereas the decorative arts department was just starting to move past the Arts and Crafts movement into modern and contemporary. Ultimately, I was able to determine the pathway for that and create a separate department, and I made my way out of the 18th century to focus completely on the 20th and 21st centuries. So, it was a pathway of following my heart and my curiosity within this larger field.

Sharon: What were your thoughts when you were presented with this 800+ piece collection by Helen Drutt and they said, “O.K., put this exhibit together”?

Cindi: First of all, it was completely daunting. Anyone who knows Helen knows her knowledge is so vast, and she is so generous with it, but at the beginning, it’s all brand new. So, it’s rather intimidating, and you’re doing so much looking and listening. In my initial conversations with Helen about the possibility of this acquisition, it was focused on the “Jewelry of Our Time” catalogue that she had cowritten, which featured a lot of the collection. There was a lot of study of that, trying to get myself up to speed to even make the presentations for the acquisition to not only my director, but our trustees. 

It’s funny; I have my initial notebooks from my first visit to Philadelphia with Helen, where I spent a number of days just sitting next to her as she held up different pieces, talked about different people, gave insight. Because I didn’t know anything about the field—all the artists’ names are spelled phonetically—there are a lot of notes to myself saying, “What does this really mean?” or a question mark with “follow up” or something like that, and I was drawing. I think I had a cell phone, but there was no cell phone camera. I didn’t have an iPhone or iPad. I don’t even know if they existed in 2002, but I would draw little pictures next to something she was talking about. Anyone who knows me knows I am quite possibly the world’s worst draftsperson, so the pictures are hilarious. But I go back to those notebooks periodically, and you can see how I am intent on wrapping my head around this and trying to understand which countries, who were the major players, where things had gone.

We built a library at the museum with Helen’s help. She seeded our library intending to send books. We were ordering catalogues nonstop, and I spent the better part of four years immersing myself in art jewelry and talking to artists. At that point, it was all done through these forms we would mail to artists. I tried to meet artists, and Helen’s archives with all the correspondence were an incredible resource. There were interviews with artists and things like that. I would travel to the American Craft Council to see their incredible library and artist archive. I would do all of this plus travel to meet artists. I did a number of trips to Europe and across the U.S., trying to get my head around this field as seen through Helen’s collection. The collection represents not only her eye and experiences and viewpoint, but truly the birth and development of the field over decades, not just in America, but globally as well.

Sharon: What’s her connection to Houston? How is it she came to your museum?

Cindi: She didn’t have any real connection to Houston. At the time, her son, Matthew, was the Chief Curator of the Manil Collection, which is a terrific, incredible museum here in Houston. She also had a very close and longstanding friendship with our then-photography curator, Anne Tucker. They met in a cute way over a slide table at Moore College of Art in the 70s, when they were both teaching there. 

We have a festival every other year in Houston called FotoFest. It’s one of the U.S.’s largest photography festivals, and all the institutions do exhibitions for FotoFest and their popup shows and galleries. The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft was only a year old at that point, but through connections, they met Helen. She curated a small show of photo-based, image-based jewelry for FotoFest, so of course she came down, and that’s where I met her. 

I met her at the opening. We had coffee separately during her visit. I was really ramping up our craft collection in terms of acquisitions and representation. As I said, we only had this one piece of art jewelry. I knew enough about what I didn’t know to say to Helen at the time, “This is a field I’m interested in starting to acquire works from. Would you guide me?” She pointed me towards the “Jewelry of Our Time” catalogue and said, “Well, you know I have a collection.” I, of course, said, “Well, yes, it’s famous, and it’s in Philadelphia. It’s so lucky they’re going to get it.” She said, “Not necessarily. Nothing’s been done. There’s nothing in writing.” I seized on that and said, “Well, will you provide me with more information, and may I speak to my director about this?” She said, “Sure.” 

It was, at the time, sort of a lark. I thought, “I don’t know whether this will happen,” because it was not a field we were familiar with and certainly my director, Peter Marzio, was not familiar with it. I showed him the book. I talked to him with my little knowledge. He was intrigued, because he saw in it what he referred to as a “visual index” of modern and contemporary art in small scale. He saw all the connections and the creativity, and he said, “I’d like to learn more.” I arranged for him to go to Philadelphia, where he spent half a day with Helen and they talked and looked at pieces. He came back and said to me, “I want to figure this out. I want to do this,” and the rest is history.

Sharon: Wow! It’s funny; when you were saying you were spelling things phonetically, I thought of Gijs Bakker. That’s the name that came to mind. For people listening, it’s G-i-l-s-b—

Cindi: G-i-j-s B-a-k-k-er. Gijs is one of the most important Dutch jewelry artists. He, along with his late wife, Emmy van Leersum, completely turned the idea of art jewelry on its head in the 60s. He and a number of other Dutch artists in the 60s and 70s revolutionized the field. Helen was such a great supporter, and he’s one of her dearest friends. We have something like 34 or 35 of his pieces in the collection, not just from Helen, but from a couple of others that we’ve added along the way. I think outside of the Netherlands, we have the largest collection of Gijs’ work.

Sharon: Wow! My first Art Jewelry Forum trip was to Amsterdam. I had just come to art jewelry myself, and his studio and his house were the first stop. When I think about it now, I think, “Oh, my god!” I had no idea. At the time, I didn’t know which way was up when it came to art jewelry.

Cindi: I think that is a lot of people’s first experience. It’s visually compelling, and then you start to learn more. Quite often, you realize after the fact you met one of these super-important people, or you were in their studio or what have you. 

Sharon: Yeah, it really is. I’m backing up a little. When you were studying, were there museums studies? Did you expect to be working in a museum or to be a curator? Was that part of your career field? 

Cindi: Yeah, I always wanted to work in a museum, and I wanted to work in a curatorial capacity. The Cooper Hewitt’s program at that time was geared towards museum curatorial careers. Also, a lot of people went into education. It was not geared towards working in the commercial sector. There were a handful of people who might have gone to an auction house or to a gallery, but it was focused on developing museum curators. That was something I knew I wanted and was really important to me in terms of being at the Cooper Hewitt. The program is embedded in the museum physically and has a lot of faculty from the museum and also, during my time, a lot of faculty from the Met, from the Brooklyn Museum. We had people teaching from MFA Boston, from Winterthur. 

It was very much a program equally based on not only research and history and study, but on connoisseurship. Connoisseurship is essential to being a museum curator. You need to be able to delineate and understand the differences between different objects made by the same designer as well as within any larger aspect of the field. Cooper Hewitt was very much geared towards that, which was perfect for me. Because we were in the museum and we had faculty from other New York area museums, it was also possible to have internships with prominent curators from the various museums, again, moving you through this curatorial path. 

The trick is always getting a job, and for me that was a lot of luck, I think. When I was in my second year, my last year of graduate school, I was working as an intern for one of the premier curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, particularly in late 19th-century ceramics and glass but also furniture. Her co-curator on an upcoming exhibition was my future boss at Houston. There was a job opening. Katherine Howe sent a fax, at that time, of the job description, and she handed it to me and said, “I know you still have a semester to go, but here, take a look at it.” I thought, “Well, I need to get a résumé in order. I need to start thinking about this.” I applied not thinking anything other than this is good exercise, and it obviously worked out for me. 

I think in my graduating class from Cooper Hewitt—I think there were about 15 of us—there were only three of us who actually got museum jobs. A lot of it is timing because positions come open so rarely. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one from my graduating class left in a museum. It’s not for everybody, and there aren’t always jobs, but it was all I ever wanted to do. I also only wanted to work in a big institution, so Houston fit the bill for me. I love doing what I do within an encyclopedic institution, being able to contextualize, in this case, art jewelry, whether it’s historical works of art, the idea of adornment, showing it within a particular geographical context. We exhibit the jewelry not only on its own and with other contemporary craft and design, but we exhibit it next to painting, sculpture, photography, works on paper. We embed it, and that is something my colleagues are very much used to and see it as being a vital art form.

Sharon: This is a two-part Jewelry Journey podcast. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it comes out later this week.

Sharon Berman