Nobody said running an art jewelry gallery was easy, but Jane Groover proves that it is possible. Taboo Studio, the San Diego-based gallery she owns with Joanna Rhodes, opened in 1988 and is still going strong. Jane was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where she explained how she balances running the gallery with her studio practice; how she selects the artists she represents; and why it’s a good idea for galleries to provide custom jewelry services. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Jane Groover, co-founder of the contemporary art jewelry gallery Taboo Studio in San Diego, California. Jane and her business partner, Joanna Rhodes, started the gallery 30 years ago. Today, the gallery represents over 75 artists who are locally, regionally and internationally recognized. In addition, both Joanna and Jane are hands-on makers and metalsmiths. Today, we’ll be talking about the challenges and rewards of running a gallery while keeping a fresh creative edge. Jane, welcome to the program.
Jane: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? When did you know you wanted to be a metalsmith? Was it always jewelry that interested you, and if so, when did you start appreciating art jewelry or jewelry that isn’t traditional?
Jane: My jewelry journey started when I was a child, actually. I grew up next to a woman who had gone to art school and was very wealthy. She had beautiful hand-made jewelry that she made in Carmel, and I was always fascinated by the gemstones that her husband purchased for her all over the world and by the designs that were so different from the commercially made jewelry I saw on other adults. The goldsmith that made her jewelry also did color renderings for her to choose from, and I was intrigued by that also. I’d never seen anything like it.
The same neighbor, when I was in high school, brought over a Vogue magazine for me to see when I was trying to decide where to go to college. The magazine had a spread of models wearing butterfly necklaces made by Arline Fisch, who is still a practicing jeweler, but she was teaching at San Diego State University, and I was dazzled by what I saw of her jewelry. We didn’t have anything like that in Salinas, where I grew up. The rest is just a great personal story because I then attended San Diego State University, where the internationally known Arline Fisch was teaching, and I fell in love with both making and wearing one-of-a-kind contemporary jewelry.
Sharon: Wow, how interesting! How fortuitous.
Jane: Exactly, growing up next to an artist who also was very interested in handmade jewelry.
Sharon: For people who might not know the name of Arline Fisch, can you quickly describe her jewelry? I think of it as woven metal, woven silver.
Jane: In the last 20 or 25 years, maybe even a little more than that, she has been known mostly for her woven work, but there was a long period of time where she made forged, hammered and formed silver jewelry. That was when I first met her. Her work is in the Smithsonian. It’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s all over the world in museums. At 87, she is still a practicing jeweler and lives in San Diego. We see her all the time.
Sharon: Wow, going strong! I keep seeing her name and sometimes I think, “Oh, my gosh, that’s longevity.”
Sharon: So, you went directly to jewelry in terms of metalsmithing. You didn’t start with sculptures and then say, “Oh, I want something a little different.”
Jane: No, no sculpture, but we did have to do silversmithing, so we made cups and goblets and all kinds of things when we were in school. When I had a private studio before we opened Taboo Studio, I did a lot of interesting things besides jewelry that were silversmithing-oriented. I covered a Bible for someone who was being sworn in as an ambassador to Switzerland. I’ve had a lot of interesting custom work.
Sharon: Wow! What made you and Joanna decide to open a jewelry gallery?
Jane: I actually opened the studio with three other jewelers, and partnerships are unusual and strange sometimes. At the end of six years, I was the only one left. Joanna, who I had known in graduate school, became my partner and this relationship has lasted 25 or 26 years now. When we opened the gallery, from the beginning we were tremendously influenced by New York City’s Robert Lee Morris, who had a fabulous gallery in Soho. That’s what we wanted to be: contemporary jewelry, fabulous, unusual dramatic displays, exhibitions of work from all over the world, a variety of jewelry. The only thing we did different was that we have always made custom work in addition to the exhibition of jewelry, because it’s the custom work that we knew could always pay the rent.
Sharon: To me, the other thing that’s different is that you’re in Southern California. As far as I know, you’re the only place in Southern California.
Jane: Yes, there are always places, as you know, that carry contemporary jewelry, but I think we’re the only one that carries contemporary jewelry exclusively that has been around for this long, for sure.
Sharon: I think the qualifier is contemporary art jewelry. That’s the way you describe yourself. That’s what’s on your site and from what I’ve seen over the years, that’s what you have.
Jane: Yes, it is.
Sharon: We can get into a big discussion—and nobody’s ever figured this out—what is art jewelry? What’s contemporary jewelry? It’s such a spectrum.
Jane: I know, because we also consider the custom work we do to be contemporary jewelry; it’s just maybe not contemporary art jewelry. We’re pleasing not just ourselves, but also a customer.
Sharon: Right, that’s important.
Jane: Yeah, exactly.
Sharon: What do you like most about having a gallery?
Jane: After having had a private studio for 12 years and always teaching part-time in colleges, which I did for years at three different colleges, it was a relief to be self-employed and still be able to do what I love to do. It wasn’t something I thought about for a long time, but when the opportunity came up with the three other women I got together with to open the gallery, it seemed like the right time in my career to do something like that. I had small children; I was a widow; I was in my early 40s. It felt like I could have a more balanced life getting rid of all this driving all over the world for my income.
Sharon: It’s interesting. I don’t hear many people say having a gallery is a relief. I can see how it was. I’m sure there are so many hats that you still wear.
Jane: Exactly, and it was definitely more challenging financially because I had to give up a known income, but I was used to working hard, so that’s it. It just took off. It was certainly slow in the beginning, don’t get me wrong. We weren’t an instant, huge financial success, but rents were cheaper then. We divided up expenses between four people. It just worked.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. Today, how do you balance the challenge of running a business? Running a gallery can be a passion, but it’s also a business, and you’re trying to work on your own things, aside from that.
Jane: Oh, yes. For one thing, when you have a gallery, there never seems to be enough time in the studio. It’s just one of the sacrifices of running a gallery. Finding the balance is a constant challenge, since there’s always custom work to be done, repairs to do, exhibitions to plan. The making studio is always calling because people are always getting married; people always have birthdays and anniversaries. It’s constant. It’s a challenge, but we seem to—this is our 32nd year, and we’ve mostly got it figured out.
Sharon: That’s quite a run, 32 years and still strong.
Sharon: What do you look for when you’re thinking about exhibitions? What do you look for when you look at bringing somebody’s work into the gallery? How do you find new artists?
Jane: Finding new artists is always an enormous challenge because, as you know, there is a lot of contemporary jewelry with non-traditional materials that is not jewelry we feel we can sell. Now, that said, there is also contemporary jewelry made out of non-traditional materials that has such a great aesthetic we know we can sell it. So it’s the picking and choosing. We’re always interested in incredible design and excellent craftsmanship, which are always the beginning of a relationship with an artist. We go to the ACC shows, the American Craft Council shows, to see what’s new. We go to the Tucson Gem Show, because there are also jewelry shows that run alongside that show. We go to the Las Vegas Jewelry Show, because there are a lot of European jewelers who come to that show, and we carry a fair amount of European jewelers now. Of course, we’re always perusing the internet for fresh new work or new artists that we’re not familiar with. That is a constant job. We have two part-time employees, and one of them is really good at finding new and interesting work, but it’s a job for all of us.
Sharon: I presume that people are also approaching you all the time, yes? No?
Jane: Constantly, constantly. At this point, we know what our aesthetic is and what works for us in our gallery. As you know, it’s a very personal thing. Because I taught for so many years, I’m probably the most outspoken of us about what will work and won’t work. It’s easy for me to be honest with people and tell them, “You’re doing very interesting work, but it’s just not the aesthetic of our gallery.” Sales are important to all of us. Young people are thrilled about exhibitions, but ultimately, they get that they need you to sell their work. So we try not to take work that we think our customers won’t be interested in.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. You’re not operating a gallery for your health.
Sharon: If somebody is talking to you about their own desire to open a gallery, an art jewelry gallery or a jewelry gallery, what should they be considering? What would you tell them? Would you say, “You’re out of your mind?”
Jane: I would say, unless they are financially backed and know they can do this without having to worry about money, it’s really important to be able to make jewelry, because in the hard times for us, it was the custom work that always got us through the month. Joanna and I both do custom work, and we only hire people to work for us part-time who are also jewelers. Some are not as experienced as others, but we train them to do the things we do. Some of them don’t want to do custom work and that’s fine, but they know how jewelry is made.
If you’re going to open a gallery of contemporary jewelry and it’s important for you to live off of the income, I personally believe the only way it will work is if you also do some custom work and have the jewelers you carry do some of the custom work. However, most of the jewelers you carry want to do the work they like to do, so they’re not going to make something that’s a drawing you’ve made to please somebody. In the end, I would say it always takes more time and more money than you think it will. If there’s not a tremendous passion to do this, it won’t work. It can’t be a side business or something you think might be fun for a while. It’s an enormous commitment of time, and you have to know you’ve got enough money for rent. As you know, at least on the West Coast and the East Coast, rents are very expensive now. You usually have to do some remodeling. I think a lot of people who open something like this close sooner than they think they will, because they don’t think of utilities and air conditioning and computers and printers and mailing and display cases and packaging and credit card processing and bookkeeping and taxes. For a small business with employees, payroll taxes are pretty huge.
Sharon: I can testify to that, yes.
Jane: The numbers can be daunting, but I think there are a lot of financial things that people don’t consider when they get into the gallery business, which is why so many galleries close. It’s also important to have financial resources in the event that there are some bad times. We all remember 2008. Taking risks can be very exciting and rewarding, and there are definitely risks in running an art gallery and business. I would say the most important thing, other than finances, is the neighborhood where you choose to open your business. We were downtown in San Diego for 10 years, and we were a little slow to realize that it was not the right neighborhood for us. We then moved into a residential neighborhood, where we’ve been for almost 22 years, and our business quadrupled. We have a much smaller space, but we’re by coffee shops and clothing stores. It’s a tiny, sweet little neighborhood; it’s affluent and the women in the neighborhood buy a lot of jewelry for themselves. It was a great move and made us realize that our dream of being in downtown urban San Diego was really not what we thought it was going to be.
Sharon: I’m still stuck on the fact that you’re in Southern California.
Jane: Where people dress very casually, you mean, and don’t wear long jewelry.
Sharon: When you talk about antique jewelry or jewelry fairs, like all the different shows they have in New York or on the East Coast or Baltimore or Miami, nothing has ever survived here. It’s this constant question. I talk to people on the East Coast who are in the business and they’re—I think it has to do with entertainment and the glitz. I don’t know why, but I give you a lot of credit. I don’t know of anything else.
Jane: If we hadn’t been so naïve in the beginning, that part should have been very daunting to us. In the beginning, we used to go back to Baltimore to the ACC show, because the San Francisco one was so much smaller. A lot of the jewelers whose work we liked and carried that we knew from Baltimore didn’t do the San Francisco show, because it’s in August and it’s too close to Christmas. They were already so overwhelmed with orders from Baltimore in February that they never came west. I’m sure there’s still a little bit of that in San Francisco at the ACC show, because it is a much smaller venue. I’m sure you’ve been to it, and it’s fun and interesting, but it’s certainly not Baltimore.
Sharon: I haven’t been to any of the ACC shows. I’m under the impression that the San Francisco one has grown, but I still think Baltimore is the place to be.
Jane: It really is.
Sharon: Tell us about your clientele and how you market and develop new clients.
Jane: For years, we did some advertising in a local magazine, San Diego Magazine, but it was so tremendously expensive for a tiny, little ad that never got us anywhere. We had an interesting talk with someone who ran the advertising section of the public radio station in San Diego, maybe five years into the gallery, and he said, “You should stop advertising in print. It’s not going to get you anywhere.” The internet had just started and he said—because we thought we wanted to advertise on public radio, and of course we couldn’t begin to afford that, he told us that right away. He was looking at what we did and he said, “You guys can’t afford to do this right now. It would be way better for you than print advertising, but you just can’t afford it.”
We’ve always sent out mailers for our show. We opened the gallery with a mailing list of about 2,000 people. We were downtown and the downtown section that we were in was more intriguing at the time than it is now. There was a branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego La Jolla upstairs from us. There was the first coffee house in San Diego across the street from us. There were some interesting contemporary galleries downtown, so we built up a clientele from those people who were willing to come downtown for art. After almost 32 years, we have a pretty loyal clientele. We’ve gotten an enormous amount of new shoppers just from moving into the neighborhood that we moved to. Again, our biggest advertisement is sending out mailers and using Facebook. I’m really bad at Instagram, but my children are trying to get me into that more. So new customers—I think we’re so word of mouth now that we have a lot of customers who come to La Jolla and Coronado every summer, and they are the kind of people that like contemporary art and jewelry and they find us. The bottom line is you hang around long enough and people find you.
Sharon: Right, that makes a lot of sense. That reminded me—one question I wanted to ask you was why Taboo Studio?
Jane: You mean the name?
Jane: We have only recently found out—and this will make the techy people out there laugh and go, “Duh.” We’ve only recently found that a lot of our emails go into people’s spam.
Sharon: O.K., I can see that.
Jane: It’s because of the name. Are we going to change the name? I don’t think so. We were on a road trip trying to figure out what the name should be. Honestly, we saw a billboard with the word “taboo,” and we just thought, “Oh, that would be fabulous, Taboo Studio.” And there you go. It was that well thought out.
Sharon: It stuck, so it’s definitely worked for you.
Jane: It did.
Sharon: Jane, thank you so much for being here. It was great to talk to you.
Jane: Thank you for having me on, Sharon.
Sharon: I’m so glad to learn more about the studio. I haven’t been there, but I have to get down there. To everybody listening, we’ll have Jane’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review 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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