Common wisdom says that jewelry collectors should buy pieces they like, but private dealer and philanthropist Donna Schneier, who has donated several large collections to museums, thinks otherwise. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk with host Sharon Berman about her collecting philosophy, as well as her predictions for the future of art jewelry. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be talking with a longtime mover and shaker in the world of art jewelry, collector and philanthropist Donna Schneier, who now heads Donna Schneier Fine Arts. Donna has donated several large collections to well-known museums, such as The Met, which have crafted shows around these collections. We’ll hear about this as well as her take on the world of art jewelry. Donna, thanks so much for being here.
Donna: It’s my great pleasure, thank you for having me.
Sharon: We’re so glad you’re here, thanks. You’ve covered a lot of ground in the world of jewelry and art jewelry. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? Did you always like jewelry, and when did you become attracted to art jewelry?
Donna: I think women will always buy jewelry and lipstick, but I became attracted to art jewelry when I was a dealer in ceramics and glass in the secondary market. I was a private dealer and I couldn’t fight with my collectors over the best piece, because of course if you’re collecting in that field, you would keep it. So, I looked around for something to collect, because my collecting philosophy is to be able to build a collection that encompasses the work from the very beginning of the movement to the present, and to only collect masterpieces by the masters in the movement. That’s what I hoped to be able to do, because in the ‘80s when I began, it was a nascent movement. The contemporary art jewelry movement, as you know, began in the ‘60s in Europe—in Holland, England and Germany. So, I looked around and began to collect what I could find in the galleries and art fairs, and I was off on my journey. It was almost purely by accident that I somehow collected the history of the contemporary jewelry movement, because I only bought what I thought pushed the movement forward. I never bought what I liked and almost never bought what I could afford. I am very grateful to all the dealers that I bought from who allowed me to buy the very best thing they had and pay it out. To this day, that’s how I continue to collect.
Sharon: That’s great to hear you say that, as there are a lot of people who build their collections that way.
Donna: There should be more, because when people say to me, “Oh, if I can’t pay for it now, I can’t buy it,” and to me, that just sounds ridiculous, with my history anyway.
Sharon: Did you ever wear any of this art jewelry?
Donna: I wear it all. I wore it all, even the collections that I gave to The Met, to MAD or to the Mint Museum. I wore everything.
Sharon: That’s great to hear.
Donna: It wasn’t all so wearable, but I wore it anyway.
Sharon: Having seen some of the pieces in your collection, you certainly did collect masterpieces. They’re jaw-dropping. How did you become a virtual gallerist? I didn’t realize that you dealt in ceramics before. When did you decide to do art jewelry?
Donna: I have a degree in art history, and I used to sell 20th century painting and sculpture in the very beginning, but I went into the real world of jewelry, into the gold importing business for a while. When I was done with that, I looked around for a new entry into the art world, and a tenth of the Jasper Johns would have taken my entire inventory budget. So, I looked around, and again, this was the late ‘80s. You could collect masterpieces like ceramics and glass and build a comprehensive collection. Today it’s much more difficult to do that because, as I said earlier, I couldn’t compete with my clients; I didn’t want to compete with my clients; I didn’t think it was appropriate to compete with my clients. So, I looked around for something to collect, and there was art jewelry. It was always intriguing for me to collect in that area.
Sharon: What was it that intrigued you about it? What gave you the foresight to say, “This is going to be something. Let me get in now”?
Donna: The art jewelers I collected, or continue to collect, are university-trained artists with MFAs or Ph.D.s in fine art, who have chosen to make art to wear as opposed to painting and sculpture. They are professors or award-winning artists who work in their studios. It wasn’t so difficult to determine that this was a movement that now has its own galleries, its own societies, its own publications, and its own art fairs. It wasn’t so terribly hard to see that at that time.
Sharon: Well, I give you a lot of credit for identifying that.
Donna: Well, thank you, you may be the only one.
Sharon: I know you’ve created several significant art jewelry collections and you’ve donated several collections to major museums. Once you decided to donate one, did you continue to collect with the idea that you would donate the next one?
Donna: Absolutely, I always collected with the idea that ultimately if it qualified, I would give my collection or collections to museums, because it is my feeling—very strongly—that the artist did not make this work for you or me or Ms. X, Y or Z. The artist makes his work for posterity and art is meant to be shared, and the best way to share art is through a museum or if you’re a collector, to open your house to charitable organizations and invite people in to see whatever it is you have collected. The first collection was the one that I gave to MAD, 89 pieces. They had an exhibition called “Zero Carat” and did a book that documented the collection. It was the very early part of the art jewelry movement, which was extremely explosive, besides it being the ‘80s when everything was explosive. This work, which I framed and put in my fine jewelry offices at the time was—how shall I say—was unwearable. I wore a lot of it, but a lot of it was, as in any movement at the beginning, so big and explosive. In the ‘90s, it quieted down quite a bit. That early part was given to MAD. When I gave the work to The Met, which was the second half of the collection from the ‘90s forward, I sort of regretted that I had broken up the collection and was moaning about it to Bruce Metcalf, the eminent critic, and he said, “No, you didn’t make a mistake, because it would have been too difficult to understand the history if both collections remained together.” Whether that’s true or not, it made me feel a lot better about it.
Sharon: So, he was saying that it was more digestible in terms of being broken into the two collections?
Donna: Exactly what he was saying. That’s very well said.
Sharon: When you were thinking about putting the collection together—it’s very interesting to me that you didn’t buy what you liked, because you hear so many people say to buy what you love and that’s the way to put your collection together.
Donna: Do not buy what you like. Most people come up to a painting or a sculpture or any work of art without the experience to understand what the artist is saying or doing. They don’t have a degree in art history. They don’t know how it fits into the total picture. They don’t know what the beginning was and what the present-day point of view is. They have no idea. So, if they buy what they like, they’re actually often buying from ignorance. That’s not a good idea. If you want to find out about the movement, you should look. The best way to find out about anything is looking, and then you look some more and look again and look again and go to museums, and ultimately you will understand if what you’re thinking about fits into the total picture.
Sharon: Can one do that with art jewelry? Is there enough around to look at?
Donna: If you like to travel there is, and certainly there are fabulous books. In fact, that’s how I acquired a Mary Hughes piece that is now in The Met, which they take out frequently for their Masterpiece exhibitions in the summer, and which they used in “The Body Transformed,” which closed at the end of February. I saw it in the first book on art jewelry by American authors—the name escapes me for the moment—and it was owned by the mayor of San Diego, who I later found out was a woman, so I said, “Well, that piece is out of the question. I’ll never have that piece.” Years later, I think in the ‘90s, the mayor donated it. She was active in the American crafts movement and the Metal and Crafts Museum at the time. She donated that piece to Jack Lenor Larsen, who offered it to me. He said, “I have this piece. We are unable to keep it, and would you like to place this in your collection?” Then I gulped before I asked him how much it was going to be. Even at that time, I wasn’t going to be able to hand him the check for the total amount. I said, “Well, I can buy it. I’d love to have it. I’ve hankered after this for years, but I’m going to have to pay less.” He said, “Don’t bother. Just give me X amount of dollars a month and it’s yours, and you can even have it now.” That’s how I acquired that piece, which is truly, truly a masterpiece of American art jewelry.
Sharon: Wow! I just wanted to stop a minute because I want to make sure everybody knows. You mentioned MAD, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and Mary Hughes is an incredible goldsmith, just fantastic jewelry.
Donna: This collar on her bench, it’s huge. In fact, my granddaughter, when I took her to “The Body Transformed,” in which they distributed this work, looked at it and said, “Grandma, you wore that to my Bat Mitzvah.”
Sharon: Wow! That’s quite a story, in terms of having your eye on it and being able to get it at some point.
Donna: Yeah, it was fortunate that I was able to acquire it.
Sharon: You’ve also raised significant amounts of money for museums and their art jewelry programs, through what I’ll call jewelry galas, such as LOOT for MAD and BIJOUX! in West Palm Beach. Can you tell us about these and how they came to be?
Donna: I always wanted to push the movement forward and give the artists a chance to exhibit their work, particularly in places where there were no jewelry galleries or museums with exhibitions of contemporary art jewelry. I co-created a fundraiser which at that time was called, “Gold and Silver.” David McFadden, one of the curators, later changed it to LOOT, and it’s now in its 26th year. We invited close to 50 artists from all over the world, the United States, Japan, Germany, Holland, France, and Korea, to exhibit for four to five days. The museum got 50% of the revenue and the artist got the other 50%. There are sponsors and committees that donate as well. I know at BIJOUX! in West Palm Beach, the committee donates a little over $1,000 to help offset the costs of the event. We didn’t have BIJOUX! last year at the Norton because it was under construction—but two years ago, we made close to half a million dollars in four days with BIJOUX!.
Donna: We have changed the face of jewelry in West Palm Beach. Everywhere I go, “When is BIJOUX!? When is BIJOUX!?” As I said, women will always buy jewelry and lipstick.
Sharon: So, you just had BIJOUX! this year, right?
Donna: Not this year because of the construction.
Sharon: So, not this year, O.K. I knew about LOOT, but I had never heard of BIJOUX!, so that’s something to keep an eye on. It sounds like a lot of fun and a reason to go down there.
Donna: It’s a great deal of fun, and it’s wonderful for the artists because they can interact with one another for close to a week. They have to arrive a little bit early to set up and check in and they have a wonderful time. Great friendships are made. I’m very, very pleased, because it’s really all about the artist. That’s really what everything is about.
Sharon: It sounds fabulous. I’ll have to find the dates for next year. So, how do you decide what artists to bring into your gallery? You have a lot of Israeli artists and very, very creative people. How do you decide?
Donna: For art fairs, which are kind of an impulsive buy, it’s very difficult to bring in the tough stuff. Really, it doesn’t sell. I don’t want the artist disappointed. So, it’s more about wearability and artists who have also pushed the envelope. It’s a tough thing to gauge. For instance, Nirit Dekel, a glass artist from Israel who was inspired by Chihuly, is a really unique artist because she’s now teaching at Corning, which is very exciting. Her first showing was at SOFA, which is the Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design Fair in Chicago. She was a “craft” artist there at the time, and she continues to grow and change. That’s the mark of a good artist. They don’t just make the same thing over and over again because it sells, so that’s one thing I look at, how they’re growing as artists. Another one of my artists, Ashley Buchanan, won the American Craft Council’s Emerging Artists Award and the first prize at Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show this past year.
Donna: She’s a wonderful artist. You would imagine that she uses a laser in her work, but she doesn’t. She cuts out every tiny little piece with a jeweler’s saw. That’s sort of how I make a decision about the artist, their technique, their craft and, of course, the finished product. Is it aesthetically pleasing? And for the art fairs, is it wearable?
Sharon: Do you bring on other pieces that you don’t show at art fairs because they’re too forward-thinking?
Donna: I did that for the first time in West Palm Springs, this past show, and it was very interesting because a very, very astute collector bought one of those pieces.
Sharon: Interesting. It seems like you’re doing exactly what other dealers did with you, in terms of guiding them and bringing things to their attention. As somebody who purchases art jewelry and other kinds of jewelry, that’s something I always appreciate. I think people are afraid that they come across as trying to push or sell something, but I always appreciate somebody pointing something out.
Donna: A lot of people object to you suggesting. One great collector said to me, “I have eyes. I can see it.” Well, O.K., fine.
Sharon: What do you see as the future of art jewelry?
Donna: I think it has a long way to go. The artists and schools and societies are pushing hard to move this movement forward, and I’m hoping it’ll continue. It’s one of the few movements I see on the horizon as continuing to grow and change.
Sharon: When you say it has a long way to go, do you mean there’s more opportunity for saturation in the market?
Donna: Yes, a lot more opportunity.
Sharon: In terms of becoming more widespread and recognized?
Donna: There aren’t enough galleries, particularly in the United States. I don’t believe there’s a gallery in New York City. There’s one in Jersey, which is a very good gallery, and I like Velvet da Vinci.
Sharon: They’re only online now. They were in San Francisco.
Donna: Oh, they’re online. In Seattle, there was another very good one for a while, but there aren’t a lot of art jewelry galleries, and I don’t understand why. I don’t understand why more museums don’t collect, because it’s not expensive; it doesn’t take up a lot of room. It’s not hard to store. The Louvre, for instance, has six miles of storage underneath it, and you don’t need that for jewelry. The next door is my collection and a study room. I’m kind of befuddled about why there aren’t more museums collecting art jewelry, but they seem to get a lot of donations though, so that’s good, too.
Sharon: Yes, and hopefully that will grow. Donna, thank you so much for being here and for giving us your take on the market and the world of art jewelry. Everybody listening, we’ll have Donna’s contact information in our show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. If you like what you heard, please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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