Few art galleries display jewelry, and even fewer display jewelry alongside artists’ other work. BABS Art Gallery, located in Milan, breaks that tradition. Its founder, Barbara Lo Bianco, spoke to Jewelry Journey host Sharon Berman about how she works with artists to create unique and exclusive pieces for BABS. Read the transcript from the latest episode below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be talking with Barbara Lo Bianco, owner and founder of a relatively new gallery in Milan, Italy, called BABS Art Gallery. BABS is an acronym for Beyond Art, Before Sculpture, a very apt name, as the gallery features jewelry created by artists at Barbara’s request, just for the gallery, and it’s shown along with the artist’s work in other media. We’ll hear all about this unusual gallery today. Barbara, thanks so much for being here.
Barbara: Thank you very much for inviting me, which is very, very nice. I appreciate it.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Can you tell us about your background? How is it that you came to a love of contemporary jewelry and art? What was your path?
Barbara: My path is very odd, I would say, and not too in line. I was started out as a lawyer and then transformed myself into an entrepreneur after an MBA, which radically changed my life, and I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since, which I feel I am. I’m still running a couple of businesses within the real estate market and fitness centers. Along the way, I’ve always been used to being surrounded by beauty. Of course, being Italian and living in this country and being Sicilian helps a lot, because you’re surrounded by beauty just about everywhere you go. My family’s always been keen on art, which was first antique and then modern and contemporary. My grandfather was a friend of Kotuso and Fontana, and I’ve been seeing their works since I was a kid. So, I think it was sort of natural to become an art enthusiast. I don’t really like the word collector, at least not concerning me, because I don’t collect. I’d rather be surrounded by it, which is, I think, a little bit different. I always thought that art was somehow “closed in its own temples” with reverential fear, and people, they don’t really want to go where art is. So, being an entrepreneur also allowed me to organize exhibitions in the gyms and in the fitness centers I run, especially for young artists, who I like to support and to give an opportunity to show their works. That’s how it all began, I guess.
Sharon: How did you incorporate the jewelry?
Barbara: I always did like jewelry and my mom was the first one to give me as a present some jewels made by artists. Then, quite a few years ago, we had a robbery at home and they stole the entire safe with all the classical jewels. Afterwards, I decided that it was better to have something that was not so classy and so common as a stone or a classical jewel, and it was better to have something that only some people could understand and was not made in very precious material but had a worth that was beyond the money. That’s how it all started.
Sharon: You’re an entrepreneur and enthusiast and you wanted to see the art being more widespread. How did you come to open the gallery? What made you decide to do that?
Barbara: I decided that after a while, you can coddle yourself and dedicate your time to your passion as long as you have a job, and that’s how it all started. I decided that at the age of 50, I could afford the luxury to do whatever I like. Honestly, it was a realistic approach on one side, and the other side is that the people I know like my enthusiasm and my way of showing what I like. I approached some of the artists I collect, some of the ones I like the best and some that had done jewelry for me just in a friendly way, and I proposed they try to do it as an entire collection because they always have been doing sculptures or paintings, but they never really tested themselves with a piece of jewelry. Once two or three of them said yes I said, “O.K., let’s start. Let’s do it.”
Sharon: Was there resistance from the artists?
Barbara: From some, but not from many. Most of them see it as a new way of exploring their capabilities, a way to experiment with a new media to make meaning, another way to express themselves that they have never tried before. Of course, they’re a little bit scared, and sometimes you do have to push them to do the first prototype and say, “O.K., let’s try to do it. We’ll make a watch and see what comes out,” and then I work together with the artist and with the goldsmith. The artist sometimes makes the first watch, or the goldsmith makes the first prototype, and then we give it to the hand of the artist and you can see the light in their eyes when they see it and say, “This is exactly what I wanted,” or “No, this is not it, but we can fix it.” They realize they can actually work on a piece of sculpture to wear as they do on a normal sculpture or on a painting.
Sharon: Interesting, and do you say to them, “I want you to do bracelets,” or “I want you to do a necklace?”
Barbara: No, not really. We explore it together. The first thing is usually a little bit of a hint from me because I take one of their pieces and say, “Look, this could be a very nice necklace,” or “This could be a wonderful ring,” just to give them the idea and to show them what could come out, but right after that first hint, they go on their own.
Sharon: So, a lot of creative freedom.
Barbara: Yes. Then it’s hard work between the artist and the goldsmith and myself to figure out how the portability of the pieces works, because some of them are fantastic but absolutely unwearable. It’s a wonderful sculpture, but you can never wear it, and so we have to do some compromise somehow.
Sharon: It’s a great thing you’re there to guide them, because it probably would be very out there. I like a lot of out-there stuff, but you have to be able to wear it.
Barbara: Yeah, believe me, one time one of the artists prepared a bracelet that was about half a kilo, which was way too much to wear on your wrist all day, so absolutely impossible to make it.
Sharon: So, you’re not just working with goldsmiths though; your artists’ work is also in silver and bronze. It’s not just in gold, right?
Barbara: Yes, exactly; the piece of art doesn’t have to be in precious material. The value of the work is the art itself, so it can be in bronze, it can be in silver, it can be in gold. So far, not too many wanted to work with gold. Some of them, yes, for one or two pieces of the collection, but the material that is most liked so far has been the bronze, probably because it’s the closest to the real sculptures they are used to working with. That’s a good many, usually, and it gives them a lot of nice possibilities. If you do it matte or shiny, it can look like gold, or it can be a little bit more rust. It depends on what the artist wants to communicate. There’s actually quite a bit of freedom.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense, that they’re doing it in a medium they’re comfortable with.
Barbara: Exactly. There is an artist I’m working with that will be doing the exhibition in May. She works with precious material in all her work. Even in huge sculptures, she puts silver and gold, and so obviously she would like to have more pieces in gold than in bronze, because it attracts the eyes better. But otherwise, not too many requests. “It has to be in gold; it has stones or things like that.”
Sharon: I’d like to hear about your upcoming exhibit, but I did want to mention that one of the things that’s really interesting about your gallery is that you also show the artist’s other work along with the jewelry pieces.
Barbara: Yes, every time we present a new artist, we do a solo exhibition that presents the entire collection of the jewels that they create exclusively for us and we present a good number of pieces of their work, so that a person who comes into the gallery can understand what the artist normally does, what they want to convey to people that look at their art, and where they got their inspiration. It is really a dialogue between the works and the jewels.
Sharon: It sounds great. There are only a few other galleries that do artist’s jewels, but I’ve never seen them presented with other art.
Barbara: No, usually they don’t. They usually have even fewer pieces. Usually artists don’t make a whole collection. They maybe take one ring, or one ring and one necklace or earrings. They don’t do a big work. What we decided to do with them, it is like when they work for a “normal” exhibition. They do some sort of project that has 10, 15, 20 pieces, so we do the same with the jewels: a few pairs of earrings, a few rings, a few cufflinks, a couple of necklaces. It depends on what they want to do, but it is for sure more than one piece. Then, those works will stay with us and be in our permanent collection and be available until we finish the series, if it is a series. Other galleries usually work just with one piece of work. It’s often a unique piece, but they don’t interfere so much with the making of the object in so large a space.
Sharon: What do you mean by that?
Barbara: For example, there are some artists that are wonderful. I adore them. I bought some of their works. But they just do the design of one ring and then that ring will be done in a hundred pieces, in a thousand pieces, and they don’t follow the process anymore. So, it is not so interesting to have an exhibition about all the works on one hand, because they’re known just about everywhere. In other words, it’s one ring or it’s one bracelet and that’s it. Usually when we do the exhibition the artist is here. He talks to people, discusses and answers all the questions. I try to organize aperitifs with the artist so that he can explain to a group of collectors or a group of enthusiasts his work and his view, and it is nice because he doesn’t talk about jewelry, but he talks about art in general.
Sharon: That is very nice and everything created for the gallery then, it may be a unique piece or it’s a limited edition.
Barbara: Yes, we decide that during the process with the artist and it depends on the complexity of the jewel, on the material that has been used, and on the intervention of the artist himself. The first artist we had was Jessica Carol. She is an American/Italian artist and, for example, she has made a marble and gold necklace where she actually sculpts the marble, so that’s a unique piece. Of course, it will not be reproducible. With other pieces, she decided to do a series of twelve, as she usually does. Other artists might choose a different number, such as the one we have ongoing at the moment,who decided to do a series of nine, because he just works with nine. So, his sculpture would be considered a unique piece although it’s a series of nine.
Sharon: So, tell us about your upcoming exhibits.
Barbara: For this year, I have to say we probably made a mistake. I put too many in our calendar and so we have one every two months, which is going to be too many. From September on, we’ll have one less frequently because otherwise people don’t really have time. It’s not something easy, so they need to come back and see it again and again—at least, that’s what I’ve noticed so far. So, we had Jessica Carol and Antonio Paradiso, which just ended in January. Currently we are having Alex Pina, who is very talented. You should see it; it’s really amazing. In April, we will have an Israeli lady, Anna Benami. She usually works with huge city installations and she works in iron. She’s super tough, but she’s making great jewels, I have to say. Very particular and they’re all unique because she’s a goldsmith herself, so she’s the only one that is not using another goldsmith. She’s working entirely by herself.
Barbara: Yes, it is really interesting, and she’s combining copper and gold, copper and silver. She created a wonderful male jewel, wonderful. I have to say it’s a great ornament and it’s something I’ve never seen. I hope people will like it, because it’s really amazing. I will send you a picture as soon as we present it. I already have it in my safe.
Sharon: When you say a male jewel, do you mean for a man?
Barbara: It’s for a man, yeah. Usually for men, you think about cufflinks or maybe a ring. Maybe in the United States it’s a little bit different, but in Italy, men are quite reluctant to wear jewels. They are very classical, so they would stay with cufflinks and that’s about it. Some of them wear a ring, but it’s very tough. Then at the end of May, June, we will present another lady, Cara Dinis, and she will be at the same time at the Mall of Venice and at the MACRO, which is the contemporary museum of art in Rome. It has two exhibitions of her classical works, and she will be with us with her new experimentation. I will start again in September with other ones, but until July 2020 we’re fully booked, because after I started with the ones I knew and with the ones I like, I have a lot of other artists that want to do this.
Sharon: That sounds great, a lot of interest.
Barbara: Because artists have always been interested in jewels. Since Picasso on, there is a long history of jewels made by artists.
Sharon: You just don’t hear a lot about it. There are a couple of galleries I know, and I know you’re the only one in Italy, but you really don’t hear a lot about it.
Barbara: Yes, you don’t hear a lot about it and that’s a real pity. There was a market in the 60s and 70s, and then it just became quiet. Now it is really niche, but I think it’s very interesting and it’s a way to distinguish ourselves, because you have a unique piece of jewelry. If you are an art lover, you have the chance to take the art you like with you all day, and not just hang it on a wall or pass by it a couple of times during the day at home. Otherwise, you don’t have that many chances to live daily with the art you like.
Sharon: Barbara, thank you so much for being here.
Barbara: Thank you very much.
Sharon: To everyone listening, we’ll have Barbara’s contact information in the show notes and you can find it at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
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