Gold has been important to people across all societies and time periods, but what is its exact value? Lisa Koenigsberg has been addressing this question at her Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC) conferences, and she joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to discuss this topic with host Sharon Berman. Read the transcript below to learn more about Lisa, IAC and its upcoming events.

Sharon: Hello everybody. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be talking with Lisa Koenigsberg, founder and president of Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC), which aims to educate diverse audiences about visual culture, including the fine decorative and visual arts. Her organization puts on a range of conferences in the areas of American fine and decorative art, the history and future of fashion and an upcoming conference, the Ninth Annual International Gold Conference, to be held in New York City on April 4th and 5th. Through talks, panels and conversations, IAC will take a wide-ranging look at gold with a focus on jewelry. Lisa will tell us about that today, as well as about some of the upcoming conferences. Lisa, thanks so much for being here.

Lisa: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. What did you study and what was the catalyst for founding Initiatives in Art and Culture?

Lisa: That’s a rich question. My jewelry journey began well before I attended anything resembling school. It began watching my mother get dressed for a special evening. I can remember being quite young and seeing her put on a particular ring and a pair of earrings and with it festive garb, and I understood that these embellishments, these adornments, were special. I later learned that they were made of precious materials and that they had powerful associative elements. They had significant meaning to her and when she put them on, that also came to the fore. That early visual exploration has been the impetus for much of what Initiatives in Art and Culture and I personally, in terms of speaking and writing, do in the world. That is, to look at what we see from a 360-degree perspective and understand what it’s made of; how it’s made; what it might mean; how that might differ from what it meant when it was made; how these objects, whether they’re a piece of jewelry or a painting, make their way into the world and become desired by institutions and individuals; and exactly how the whole dynamic of creating and shaping visual culture works. My jewelry journey, on a more formal level, really resumed when I was in graduate school.

I got my Ph.D. at Yale and worked in the art gallery at the time. At that point, the arts and crafts movement was really a nascent area of inquiry. We would all gather in the back of the American Arts office and talk about the arts and crafts movement, and I was particularly interested in jewels and metalsmithing. It was an informal, collaborative, collegial situation where all of us, curators as well, were learning about this material together. As time went on, I was at the Smithsonian for a couple of years and had a number of institutional jobs before I went to NYU. When we began the conference series, jewelry seemed to be quite an important part of fashion, which I still believe it is.  That relationship and the idea that jewelry is not separate from the decorative arts, because the decorative arts encompasses all—the conventional definition is everything that you use and the good, better, best version of it, to put it reductively. So, everything I was working on was propelling me, either because jewelry was part of fashion or because it was an aspect of the decorative arts, which we were committed to thinking more about jewelry and what it was made of.

Sharon: When did you launch Initiatives in Art and Culture? Is this something you launched yourself after taking in all your professional background and expertise?

Lisa: Yes, I founded Initiatives in Art and Culture. Effectively, my last formal, full-time institutional employment was as a professor and director of programs in the arts at NYU. I ran a number of departments and had grown the curriculum, but I also deeply believed in the philosophy undergirding the conference series. After 13 years there, the gentleman who was my third dean suggested that perhaps my next act would be to start something that would be the cradle in a launch pad for the conference series and related endeavors, and he offered to serve as a mentor in a transition period. That was the beginning of Initiatives in Art and Culture. I had all the work related to the conference clustered under one entity, and either I was head over heels with what I was doing or the only one crazy enough to undertake it, but I did found Initiatives in Art and Culture in 2005 or 2006.

Sharon: Looking at the agendas for the conferences, all of them are so impressive. We work with clients to put on conferences and I know how much work they are, so I give you a lot of credit. So, this is your ninth annual Gold Conference. Was it on your radar when you started? You said jewelry, but did you think about gold specifically?

Lisa: No, not really. I did think about jewelry in a particular way and I’d always been interested in starting something that looked at jewelry, but I was looking for an approach that would be, if you will, authentic to IAC, and I couldn’t quite figure that out. We do a conference on fashion jewels and design, and I’d also been increasingly interested in issues of sustainability and responsible sourcing, and instead of just having a one-off talk or panel as part of the conference, I saved the tenth anniversary of that conference to look at this. It was called “Ream on Styles, Significance and Sustainability,” and we did everything from ream diamonds, which do exist, to woolly mammoth in place of ivory to denim challenge. It was really as a result of that conference and thinking about what makes up jewelry—for example, diamonds or coral or gold—and how we, as stewards of the planet, obtain and make use of these resources. Every piece of jewelry has its roots in something, so our dimensionality is very broad, broader than I had really thought. That was my way in to thinking about doing a series.

At first, I thought of it as “On Precious Substances,” and we did a coral conference. Of course, coral is quite controversial as an element in jewelry and as a necessary environmental resource for a global ecosystem. We did a conference on diamonds, which is also quite involved with environmental and social issues, and our consciousness with regard to those issues has grown so much in the decade since. Then, I woke up one morning and said, “Oh my god, we haven’t done gold,” and I went to see two gentlemen at ABN Amro. At that time, they were quite involved with helping to finance the jewelry market in New York, and I went to see them in the hopes that they’d be interested in the project. One of them was a Belgian gentleman, and he was very reserved but very supportive and engaged, and the other was his New York cohort, who was extraordinarily enthusiastic and said, “Oh my god, this is great. You’ve got to do this every year, unbelievable.” I, who normally would jump on the bandwagon and say, “Not just once a year, but twice,” I was a bit tentative, and I said, “Let’s see how it goes. Let’s get through it one year,” that sort of thing. Here we are, nine years later, and in many ways, I can say that this is not only a conference that we hold in the hopes of initiating change, but it also is a conference that has changed me and my life as well.

Sharon: How has it changed you and your life?

Lisa: First off, I have a much greater understanding of the power of jewelry and the power of adornment. I also have a much deeper understanding of the ramifications of extracting or securing precious substances from the environment and what that process can mean for the environment and for the people who live within it, and the delicate balance that can exist where you have a material of tremendous value. It is perhaps providing a meager, but nonetheless necessary, income to a particular community. How do we leverage the positives and augment them and understand the criticality of those resources to their home communities? That meaning has been brought home to me by talking with people who are engaged in projects for environmental and social change and by seeing certain films like “Sharing the Rock,” for example. In our upcoming gold conference, we’ll have a discussion of three films that are out right now, one called “River of Gold,” which is about the Amazon, another one called “The Money Stone,” which is about the extraction of gold from stone, often using mercury, which is extraordinarily deleterious to the people who use it, their families, the environment and the water supply all the way through, and then a third one called “Shadow of Gold,” which just premiered a couple days ago. The power of film with regard to the significance of resources and, at the same time, societal and environmental challenges, is key, because it allows you, on the screen in front of your face, to see into another world.

I also think there’s been a sea of change in certain exhibitions, such as “Golden Kingdoms,” which was at The Met last year, and in some of the label copy for the recent jewelry show at The Met. The underscoring of the idea that jewelry is often made, not always—and this is particularly changing in our own period—but often made of precious materials, be it gold, little shells, jade that’s hard to cut, feathers of extraordinary luminescence that are plucked from birds, that natural resources and the talent to transform them are at the command of those who are in positions of power, and to think about adornment and jewelry as a larger social statement and something that speaks tremendously to any given period’s notion of beauty, craft, and embellishment that relates to other stylistic trends. I see it as objects of wonder.

Sharon: I was at your gold conference five or six years ago, and one thing that stuck with me was one of the first speakers, who talked about how gold remains gold. You can change the shape and you can melt it and do this or that, but it remains gold. It is what it is, and I really thought about that.

Lisa: It’s enduring. It is unbelievably powerful. One of the things I found interesting, I went to see The Met show again, and in so many of the labels there was discussion of how from culture to culture, gold has this particular importance. Of course, everybody speculates, for example, on why diamonds have an importance to people. What is it that’s so compelling? People often speculate what is it about gold, and it’s the warmth that makes it conjure up fire or something in the darkness. There are so many thoughts about why it is enduringly compelling. There’s this line of poetry that always sticks with me from John Donne, who wrote exceptional poetry. One of his works was called “Valediction Against Mourning,” and he was also a minister and he traveled a lot. He wrote this for his wife, and in it he compares their love to gold and he says, “Love like gold to airy thinness beat.” The idea here is something that, on the one hand, is so pronounced, so blazing, and at the same time, can be beaten so thin and despite that, it will not break. So, I think there are reasons from culture to culture, but at the same time, there is an eternal fascination with gold and the power of gold. Even though we have gone off what you might call the gold standard, which is our currency being dictated by gold, we still have not gotten away from the social contract that exists that gold is a repository of value. Gold is traded in markets. There are ETFs, which are devices that represent or are backed by an amount of gold. We think that gold might be a haven during perilous economic periods. So, I wonder, is there a de facto gold standard? And the flip side of that question would be how do we define value? Because when you see something like “Money Stone” and you see this community that is focused on the extraction of gold from stones at great risk to themselves, does that not factor into the notion of value?

Sharon: We could talk forever about value and how you define it, especially with gold. Those are really intriguing questions.

Lisa: Just to go back to that thinness idea, someone whose work is absolutely extraordinary is an Italian goldsmith whose name is Giovanni Corvaja. His work is so astonishingly beautiful. He works with the notions of complexity, intricacy and also thinness, which he manages to obtain in some of the wires that are woven together in his work. He’s an exceptional goldsmith.

Sharon: So, tell us about this year’s conference. What’s the theme and can you highlight some of the speakers? Who should consider attending?

Lisa: With pleasure. This year’s theme is “Legacy, Leadership and Luminescence,” and what we are striving to do is explore everything from ideas of value to how gold factors in political issues of the day, for example, with the FTC and how we define caratage, something that is quite extraordinary in the United States. In the United Kingdom, for something to be gold, it needs to be 18 carat or above. In the United States, we accept caratage at a floating point based on FTC regulations. It could be 6 percent. That’s created quite a hullabaloo, as you can imagine, particularly within the jewelry world. From there, we go to an extraordinary maker, Stephen Webster, who we’re thrilled to welcome. In addition to his extraordinary artistry, he places a great emphasis on environmental and social impact. We’ll then consider different notions of community, new visions of spaces within which to train and create. A gentleman from Riva, Ted Doudak, who founded Riva Precision Manufacturing Inc., is contemplating housing a new model within his manufacturing company. Then we’ll be welcoming the Goldsmiths’ Centre, which is an extraordinary institution founded by Peter Taylor, and also the Goldsmiths’ Company, which champions training for makers who come from many different paths, whether it’s formal education or the apprenticeship route. They’ve created an extraordinary community and are carrying on some of the best of the traditions, values and practices, including apprenticeship, married with newer concerns and tools. We will welcome two great engravers and jewelers from the United Kingdom and have Glenn Adamson, who has a new book out called “The Hidden Wisdom of Objects.” He will be speaking about his book. In the evening we’ll be welcoming Mimi So, who is a phenomenal designer maintaining her independence, so from a sociological perspective she’s also incredibly important, and she’ll talk about being an American woman jewelry designer and her life in the field.

The next day we’ll begin by helping the community of designers that’s represented think about how to find their voices in a saturated landscape. Then we go on to explore another way of looking at community, which is locus, with Made and Makers in Brooklyn. The day goes from one incidence to another, essentially examining building blocks for our future. Whether it’s rethinking the paradigm so makers are more locally situated, whether it’s organizations who are involved in engendering and making change, they will all be represented on a panel called “Building Blocks for Our Future,” to be moderated by Rob Bates from JCK. An extraordinary voice and visionary, Stewart Rice, who is from Hoover and Strong, will be talking about his personal experiences of mining in Peru and Columbia and how Hoover and Strong has a tremendous commitment to ethical sourcing and responsible practice. Then we’ll have a panel on the power of the moving image, in which these three films and the broader issue of the impact of visual culture on realizing change will be considered. The final talk is going to look anew at the idea of leadership and succession, because in the jewelry industry, many businesses are family businesses, and someone might pass away and then a new generation takes over. Andrea Hill, who is extraordinarily articulate, will be speaking to the idea of succession as leadership, so that it’s an opportunity to lead, not just to receive the position, but to positively engage with and shape the future of the entity that you’re going to lead.

Sharon: Quite a full conference. It sounds fascinating.

Lisa: Thank you so much and shortly thereafter we’ll have year 24 for American Art.

Sharon: 24?

Lisa: Yes, that conference is 24. The conference on the arts and crafts movement, which takes the group to a different city each year with four days of delving and exploration, that conference is going into its 21st year. This year we’ll go to Chicago, which is a city of tremendous distinction with regard to architecture and metalworking.

Sharon: Maybe I misunderstood, because I thought you were saying this is the 24th year.

Lisa:  No, the American Art Conference, which looks at painting, sculpture, works on paper, etc., that is in the 24th year. That’s happening on May 17th and 18th. Then for the Arts and Crafts Conference, it is our 21st year, and that is happening September 19th to 22nd. We’ll be going to Chicago this year.

Sharon: Do you actually go out and tour?

Lisa: Absolutely. One of the reasons that I came up with the idea to go to a different city each year was that I thought it was imperative that people actually experience what environments that are in the arts and crafts idiom are like; what neighborhood means; what the impact of foreign influence in a particular area or region can be. So yes, we tour actively and meet with people who are important in one way or another to the movement, whether it’s a museum founder or someone who is committed to the preservation of an artist’s work or someone who is a maker him or herself and working in the ongoing living spirit, which, for us, is definitely not making copies. Copies are great if you need them. You have kids, you don’t trust your fumbling fingers, whatever have you. There are any number of reasons that one might opt for one, but in terms of being a reflection of the ongoing living spirit of the arts and crafts movement, that’s not what we’re after. We’ve had many distinguished artisans with us and we’ve toured many of their studios and museums and had them speak to us. That’s very much part of what the Arts and Crafts Conference is about.

Sharon: They all sound fabulous. I think it’s November or December when you usually have your fashion conference.

Lisa: Exactly, fashion jewels and design, and this year the theme that we’re talking about is blue. It will be our fourth color-themed conference. We’ve done green, red and white, and they tend to carry quite a lot of meaning and power. Color is one of the most visceral ways that you can communicate meaning, so we’re very much looking forward to the exploration of blue because, of course, there is everything from wearing something borrowed, something blue, to the blue jeans that you might be wearing, to the lapis that might be ground down for pigment, to stepping back and looking at the Earth, which is often referred as “Blue Planet.”

Sharon: They all sound fabulous. Thank you so much for telling us about Initiatives in Art and Culture. Everybody, if you’d like to learn more, we’ll have the website and the contact information in our show notes. 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. Thank you.