Jewelry Journey Podcast

The Susan Beech Mid-Career Artist Grant: Making Your Application Stand Out with Bonnie Levine, AJF Board Member, Portfolio Includes Artist Awards and Grant programs

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Bonnie Levine. Bonnie is a longtime art jewelry aficionado and Art Jewelry Forum member. She is also on the board of AJF. She has been responsible for managing the myriad of details for the Susan Beech Mid-Career Artist Grant Program, which is about to enter its third award period. Today, she’ll fill us in on the details of the grant program. Bonnie, welcome. Glad to have you here today.

Bonnie: Thank you, Sharon. I’m excited to be here.

Sharon: Can you give us a brief overview of your own jewelry journey?

Bonnie: Sure. I am from New Orleans, Louisiana, and my very first job in high school was working in an antique store in the French Quarter. That’s really when I fell in love with jewelry. I loved the antique jewelry. I still love it today. The first piece of jewelry I ever bought was a beautiful antique ring. I loved the idea that this old jewelry had a history and a story, and that the pieces were unique and one of a kind. That’s how I got started. Later, I started going to craft shows and buying jewelry. I became intrigued with alternative materials and design, and I bought a lot of jewelry. When I met my husband and got married—and lucky for me, my husband loves jewelry as much as I do. He actually has a better eye than I do. We started buying jewelry and glass, and we decided in 2012, after I retired from corporate life, that we would open a virtual jewelry gallery, which we did for several years. We showed jewelry, exhibited jewelry at several art fairs. We’re not doing that today, and my focus is, as you said, being very involved with Art Jewelry Forum.

Sharon: Managing the grant program is a full-time job. I’m sure there’s a lot to do with that.

Bonnie: Yes, it’s very time-consuming, especially because AFJ not only does this Mid-Career Award, as you know, we also do an award for younger, emerging artists. Between the two of them, it does take up quite a bit of time.

Sharon: I appreciate all you’ve done, and I give you a lot of credit for doing it. How did you hear about Art Jewelry Forum? How did you start getting involved?

Bonnie: It was about 10 years ago. I was at SOFA, the big art fair in Chicago, and I saw a little sign that said there was going to be a meeting for people interested in jewelry, a cocktail party, and I went to that. That’s how I got started. In fact, in those days, I was still working in corporate America, and one of the women on the board worked at the same company that I worked at in New York. We didn’t know each other at that time, but she brought me along into AJF. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been really active and involved ever since.

Sharon: It sounds like that was pretty early on. I know the group has been around for 20 years, but it’s probably in the last decade that it’s ramped up. Can you tell us about the Susan Beech Mid-Career Grant Program? Can you tell us what the purpose is, and who should consider applying? You’ve been so involved for so long, and you’ve seen what works and doesn’t work.

Bonnie: Yes, as you mentioned, it’s called the Susan Beech Mid-Career Grant. Susan Beech is a passionate collector who lives in California and has been collecting for a long time. One of the things she loves about jewelry is meeting the artists and understanding their stories, their ideas and their concepts. After many years of collecting, she wanted to do something to give back to the field. She also has kids who are in their thirties and forties, and she had been watching her children struggle with demanding lives and trying to balance career, family, financial struggles. She felt that people in the mid-phase of life have a very challenging time, balancing all of the complications that life can throw at you in those days. She felt that for an artist particularly, who is trying to balance those things, there would be very little time to be creative, to think out of the box. She wanted to create something that would help take the pressure off an artist who’s in that mid-phase of their career, something that would give them breathing room to be creative and innovative in their thinking and their approach to jewelry. So, in 2017, the Susan Beech Mid-Career Grant was born. That was the first competition. As you mentioned, this will be the third one. It happens every other year.

Sharon: And the younger artist award is in the alternate years.

Bonnie: It happens in the alternate years for a younger group of artists. You asked me who should think about applying for this competition. Really, the main criteria are that you have to be between the ages of 35 and 55 years old. That’s the main criteria. It often raises a lot of questions and has been controversial over the years. People want to know why there is an age range at all, but this is something Susan Beech felt strongly about, that for artists in the beginning phases of their career, there are several award programs that recognize and support them. Often for a more established artist, perhaps they have gallery representation or other ways of supporting their work, but those artists are more in their thirties, forties and fifties, more in the mid-career. She felt there is really nothing out there that supports the work they do, so she wanted to create an award that would be focused on that age demographic.

Sharon: What kinds of things are you looking for? You’ve seen a lot of submissions. Do you automatically disqualify if people haven’t followed the guidelines—like they haven’t typed a double-spaced paper, that sort of thing?

Bonnie: It’s not quite that strict, but let me tell you what works. This competition is quite unique in that the prize is a very substantial amount of money. The grant is for $20,000, and what the applicant or the artist is proposing to do is complete a project they have been thinking about for a while but perhaps did not have the means, the resources, to execute. Here is an opportunity for this $20,000 grant to support an idea for a very specific project that has a definite outcome. The proposal cannot be broad and open-ended; there has to be a specific outcome, and it has to take no more than two years to complete the project. The application is a two-page proposal that has background on the idea, how it’s going to be executed, how this project will impact the field of art jewelry, how it will advance and move forward the artist’s own jewelry journey. There also has to be a one-page budget that shows in detailed form how the artist would spend that $20,000 grant over two years. The project has to have a very specific outcome.

Sharon: When you say outcome, what do you mean? There have been two grant recipients. Can you tell us about them and what they were proposing?

Bonnie: Sure, let me give you some general ideas.

Sharon: Sure.

Bonnie: The guidelines of what the project has to be are very broad and very flexible. Basically, the project has to be about jewelry, loosely defined as something worn on the body or something that enhances the body in some way. It could be any period. It could be any type of material. For example, things we’ve seen in the past have been book proposals. It doesn’t have to be only a maker, someone who actually makes jewelry who can apply. It could be an educator. It could be a historian. It could be a curator. The project just has to be about jewelry, loosely defined.

Sharon: Hypothetically, it could even be about Renaissance jewelry. It doesn’t have to be art jewelry necessarily, or does it?

Bonnie: Sharon, I’m not sure how to answer that because we’ve never had a proposal like that. There have been proposals that did a retrospective of jewelry, so it might start out in older, historical times and move up into the present day. There have been book proposals. There have been proposals for a new body of work, for collaborations with different kinds of arts professionals, museum exhibitions. There was a proposal once for a docuseries about jewelry for TV. There have been proposals for performance art, performance pieces, proposals for social and educational initiatives using jewelry as a means of expressing ideas or educating people or children. There’s a very wide definition of what the project could be about.

Sharon: There are three jurors, right?

Bonnie: Yes.

Sharon: Are you a juror?

Bonnie: No, I’m not. I manage the process, so I’m not one of the jurors. Susan Beech, the founder of the grant, is one of the jurors. This year, we’re excited to have Dr. Emily Stoehrer. She is the Jewelry Curator at the Museum Fine Arts in Boston, and as I understand it, Emily is the only purely jewelry curator in the U.S.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s definitely how she’s billed every time I’ve heard her introduced.

Bonnie: Yes, she’s a curator over a really large collection that spans about 6,000 years and holds 22,000 objects. She also teaches and lectures widely on jewelry, fashion and design, and she has also been a past board member of SNAG, the Society of North American Goldsmiths. We’re excited to have Emily as one of the jurors, and then Daniel Kruger, a very well-known maker. He’s originally from South Africa but has been living in Germany since he attended university. He is the other juror. He’s spent his whole career as a maker and just retired after 15 or 20 years of teaching. Daniel has won the Herbert Hofmann Prize twice, in 1987 and 2005, and his work is in many museum collections and private collections all around the world. We are very excited that he agreed to be one of the jurors the year.

Sharon: Wow! Emily has been on the podcast talking about some of the exhibits she’s done.

Bonnie: Oh, wonderful.

Sharon: Along with Susan, you have really good people who have a lot of depth and knowledge. What catches the jurors’ attention, do you think?

Bonnie: I would say they are looking for ideas that are fresh, that are original, that are provocative in some way and that push boundaries, whether their own personal boundaries as a maker or whatever field they’re in. Things that move in some new direction or explore something impactful. I think they are looking for out-of-the-box ideas, people taking some risks. They are looking for a project that’s really well thought out, because before they’re going to award $20,000 to someone, the jurors want to understand that the project is well-defined and it is, in fact, something that can be completed in two years.

Sharon: The recent winner, Cristina Filipe, got the grant to go towards her book proposal. Do you want to tell us about that?

Bonnie: Cristina Filipe is a maker and educator from Portugal. She was the winner of the 2017 grant. In Portugal, while there’s been a tradition in the history of art jewelry, it has not been well-known or widely recognized at all. We know about a lot of art jewelry that’s come out of other European countries, but not Portugal. Cristina’s proposal was to write a book about the history of art jewelry in Portugal, and then to mount a retrospective at a major museum in Lisbon at the time of the publication of her book. The jurors loved the proposal, because there really was nothing out there on Portuguese jewelry. This was going to be a first, and Cristina won the award. She completed the project, and as you will remember, Sharon—my timeframe is very mixed up, but I think it was in the fall of 2019—AJF took a group of 20 collectors to Lisbon for the launch of Cristina’s book and the exhibition, and it was a fabulous trip. It was very exciting to be there at the time of the exhibition and the book launch. Since then, we’ve seen more and more out there in the world about Portuguese jewelry. The feeling is that the grant really did help advance knowledge about the Portuguese jewelry world.

In 2019, an interdisciplinary artist from Detroit named Tiff Massey won the competition. Her project was a big installation called “Get Big” that brings together hip hop culture, jewelry and large-scale sculpture in a big, immersive, technological environment where she’s exploring the idea of jewelry as adornment. That was very bold and out-of-the-box, which is what attracted the jurors to that proposal. We were hoping the exhibition was going to happen this fall in Detroit, and AJF was planning to take a group of collectors to see it, but because of the pandemic, it’s been postponed. But we will get there as soon as we’re able.

Sharon: We’re all holding our breath. In general, the awards are announced during SHMUCK, Munich Jewelry Week, in February or March, right?

Bonnie: Yes, let me tell you a little about the timeframe.

Sharon: Please.

Bonnie: On November 1, just a few weeks from now, the application period will open. For anyone who wants to know more about the guidelines and how to apply, please go to and you will find an article about it. You will find a link to the guidelines, and in the guidelines there is a link to the application platform, which is called Café, which some people have probably used before. The application period will open on November 1 and it will close on January 10, which is a Sunday, at 11:59 p.m. So, there’s quite a while. You’ve got until January. The jurying period will happen from mid-January to mid-February. The winner will be notified in mid-February, and hopefully the winner will be presented in Germany in Munich at SHMUCK. We have made that a requirement, that the winner is there in person, although of course, we still don’t know what that’s going to look like in March of 2021.

Sharon: How many submissions do you expect or usually get?

Bonnie: Somewhere between 50 and 100. It’s hard to predict. Actually, this year, I have no idea what to expect. Earlier in the pandemic, we talked to a focus group with artists who had applied previously, and it was very early. It was in April, and what we heard was a lot of artists were still in a state of shellshock and not feeling very creative at all. But, we are now eight or nine months down the road. We’re seeing a lot of people back to work and making again. We’re hoping there’s a lot of pent-up demand. I know people could certainly use the resources this grant provides, and I’m thinking there may be a lot of wonderful ideas, given these very complicated and challenging times we are living in right now.

Sharon: Right, yes. I think people have come out of the fog somewhat, and they’re adjusting to a new normal, or what may be a new normal before we get to the new normal. Do you need to be a member of AJF to submit?

Bonnie: I’m really glad you asked that. The answer is no, you do not. Anyone can apply. In fact, anyone who’s applied previously can apply again, and they can use that same proposal to apply again. I hope there are people listening to this who are still thinking about that idea they can’t let go of and will submit it again, or that there are lots of new people who have new ideas they would like to propose. I would say that if there was any advice I might offer, it would be to apply early, although I know that won’t happen. I know our nature is to do things late, and most of the proposals come in right at the last minute. But, as they do come in, I review them for completeness. Have they submitted everything as they should? There are also images required, five to 10 images, that support the proposal. I review it all ahead of time, and if I see that something is not complete, I will send it back to the artist and say, “You’ve got time. Do you want to fix this and resubmit it?” But if it comes in right at the deadline, then I don’t have time to do that. If it’s possible to get it in early, I would say that’s a great thing. I would also say to really think it through well, so your idea is clear to the jurors and the budget explains how the funds will be spent.

Sharon: You’ve had a lot of experience seeing what’s coming in. What do you or the jurors automatically put in the no pile? Really open-ended projects?

Bonnie: Well, I don’t put anything in the no pile. The jurors make all of those decisions. I think, again, they’re looking for ideas that are new and fresh and push the applicant, that push or impact the field in some way, that take a risk in some way. If there is a proposal that’s just a new body of work that is similar to what’s been done in the past, I don’t think that would get a lot of traction.

Sharon: I know it’s been a great opportunity for the people who’ve received it. It’s a nice chunk of money if somebody wants to get going on a project or is in the midst of a project and has run out of funds. Thank you so much for handling all the details, because you don’t see me raising my hand. There are so many details that would drive me crazy.

Bonnie: It’s actually a lot of fun, and I love doing it. It’s fun to see all the ideas out there. People are so incredibly creative.

Sharon: I’ve been so struck by the creativity. When we go to the Art Jewelry Forum trips, the creativity is just amazing. It always makes me think that, somewhere in me, I have that. You find your own hidden or dormant creative in a sense. Bonnie, thank you so much for being here today. We really appreciate it, and we encourage everybody to consider applying. You’ve made it clear what the criteria are and what they have to do. For everybody listening, that’s it for today’s Jewelry Journey. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back next time with another jewelry-related individual who will share their experience. You can find the podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Again, thank you so much for listening.