Known as the “ambassador of wearable arts,” Lisa Berman was one of the first people to promote and sell art jewelry to consumers through her gallery, Sculpture to Wear. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast, where she talked about the history of the Sculpture to Wear brand, why architects were some of the first people to buy art jewelry and the important questions to ask before donating a jewelry collection. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome back to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Lisa Berman, owner of Berman Arts Agency and owner of the Sculpture to Wear Gallery for two decades. The gallery is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and was one of the first galleries on the west coast to promote art jewelry. Lisa is known as the ambassador of wearable arts. Her profession and passions intersect at fashion, art and jewelry. She’ll tell us all about her journey and how she makes this all work today. Lisa, welcome to the program.
Lisa: Thank you, Sharon. I’m really looking forward to this.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. You cross so many worlds: jewelry, art and fashion. I can find a little bit about you in each one as I do some Googling. You also have a very interesting history. You were one of the first people in Southern California to promote and sell art jewelry—in fact, your gallery was the way I first heard about art jewelry. Can you tell us about your journey in art, fashion and jewelry?
Lisa: Yes, definitely. It was a journey and it started as a teenager. Actually, I grew up in a family of fashion designers. My great grandmother was in the fashion industry and designed for the theatre. My mother had a company called Instant Reaction in downtown Los Angeles, and I used to ride my skateboard up and down the California Market. Then, I continued my love for fashion.
After I graduated from high school, I attended FIDM, where I decided that I was going to go into the business of fashion. I wanted to learn the business of fashion, and I did that, but even before that—let me digress in regard to jewelry. I had always loved jewelry and played in, of course, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s and my mother’s jewelry boxes, and was constantly either going to vintage stores or garage sales and putting things together and making unexpected and aesthetic choices. I was really excited by wearing something different, even in high school. A lot of times, people didn’t understand it and they made fun of me, but that was okay. I liked the individuality of expressing myself in an artistic way. That, of course, was celebrated and continued when I was in design school in Los Angeles, as I had mentioned to you, and from there, I went into designing mostly accessories, believe it or not, for the activewear industry.
I was working with Vuarnet and O’Malley and Mossimo—and we all know Mossimo’s designs at Target. I actually designed his very first handbag line. I still have some of those pieces with me today, and as a matter of fact, I did one just last week. I was in the fashion industry and accessories industry for a while, and then I took a jewelry making class with Trish McAleer, who you probably know from the Orange County jewelry scene. This is 34 years ago, maybe. I took the jewelry class with my mother and really fell in love with making jewelry, but I also found that I didn’t have the patience to sit there hammering the metal. I loved color and gemstones. They weren’t my passion, but I loved colors, so I did some research and found out that I could work with plastics. That was in the 80s. I took and earned a degree in plastic technology, which is all about mold making and manufacturing, etc. Karen McCreary was in my class at Long Beach State, and she and her partner at that time were actively making jewelry for the television show “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as we were in this class together. Of course, it was dominated by men. There were only three women in the entire class, and everyone was an engineer, aerospace engineer, car designer, etc. That really opened my eyes to other possibilities, so that was fun.
I do have history with some of these people for many, many years. From that particular course, I started designing accessories under the name “Statements Accessories,” and I wore all the hats. I was in my late 20s and thought I could do everything and probably had the energy to do so, but maybe not the experience or the wherewithal. I designed and manufactured handmade accessories, mostly with acrylic. A lot of these pieces were laser cut and then flame-polished because the laser machines and all the technology we have today would alleviate all the extra steps. Then I permaformed them, which was basically bending with heat. I sold to some boutiques and some major stores, like Bloomingdale’s and Broadway and Macy’s, and I did in-store trunk shows. That was a lot of fun, until I learned that there were issues of being undercapitalized when you’re waiting for large stores like that to pay you for six to nine months. It was definitely a learning experience. I learned everything from marketing to manufacturing to sales presentation. That really was a solid foundation for me to traverse into the next major chapter in my life, which was Sculpture to Wear.
Sharon: And how did you come to that? How did you discover art jewelry?
Lisa: I had been introduced to art jewelry on a cursory level through the work and the patronage of Helen Drutt. My family is from Ohio and we spent some time in Philadelphia. My mother introduced me to Helen’s artists, so I was made aware of those types of pieces. That was the beginning of seeing what was possible. I already knew about vintage jewelry, highly manufactured jewelry, but this was a completely different world. Then, in October 1998, I was introduced to studio jewelry, wearable art jewelry, through artists in Los Angeles and Cindy Brown, who would become my gallery manager for Sculpture to Wear. I acquired the name Sculpture to Wear. It was available for acquisition, so I did that in October 1998. Then, January 16, 1999, I had my very first show at Bergamot Station.
Sharon: In Santa Monica.
Lisa: Yes, Bergamot Station Art Center, which is still there. Ironically, it was in the very back of Gallery of Functional Art, which is owned by Lois Lambert. I had a few shows there and then eventually went on to open up my own gallery in Bergamot Station. It was really fortuitous. There were a number of artists that were in the inaugural show there who will be participating in my 20th anniversary show. It was a very exciting time with art jewelry. It was also an uphill battle coming from the fashion world, which was really trend-driven and very fast-paced in regards to making copies of pieces and creating five or six collections per year. This was the complete antithesis. These were individual pieces or extremely limited-edition pieces, and it was about the clientele. It was about introducing work that was unique and had mystique on its own without having a trend attached to it. It made a statement and didn’t necessarily have the usual components of jewelry, like gold or gemstones or pearls, even though they could incorporate them in a completely unexpected way. Literally, it took a while to introduce this thought process and it was an educational process. I remember having my books at the gallery constantly and referring to them and having pages marked. It was very rewarding when that bell curve began to turn.
There were also people—ironically, some of my first clients were male architects. Architects would come in and revel in these designs. They saw them almost as little working maps to what they were designing in their heads for buildings or homes. They would purchase pieces, mostly brooches, or they would bring in their significant others or wives and introduce them to the work. That’s how the doors opened up at Bergamot for this work.
Sharon: Wow! It’s so interesting to hear you tell the story because it underscores your strong personality. When you talk about swimming upstream, it seems like that’s everything you’ve done here, from wearing something different when you were a teenager to doing plastic jewelry. It seems to have led you to art jewelry, which is so individualistic, and about expressing yourself without a trend.
Lisa: It’s very fulfilling and it wasn’t always easy. My story is not too dissimilar from a lot of the artists who were exploring their own ideas of art and art jewelry and expressing themselves while they’re sitting at their benches day after day; then there was an opportunity to have their self-expression shown in an exhibition or gallery or in some editorial.
I don’t recall who created that title of “Ambassador of Wearable Art,” but I took that on a personal level, that I was their voice; I was their conduit to help explain their work to a larger audience, which were the collectors and stylists and publishers who were in the fashion magazines. That were really important, I think, to introduce this wearable art into the fashion magazines. Now we see a lot of times, people will open up Vogue or whatever it may be, and you see these large statement pieces. This is what these artists, the studio jewelers, wearable art jewelers, had been making already for decades. I was grateful to be able to help introduce their work into that world. One of the most important people to do that, even decades before me, was Robert Lee Morris. This will give you a little bit of background history of Sculpture to Wear Gallery.
I have been the proud owner for only two decades. It’s actually a 45-year-old brand from New York City. The original owner, Joan Sonnabend, her commitment was to show jewelry made by artists, for example, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali. She didn’t show anything other than wearables. Then she met Robert Lee Morris. Unquestionably, he was so innovative and his prices were also relatively accessible. He outsold all of the other artists combined in her gallery, which later closed. He went on to open Art to Wear in New York City, and this is where some of the most iconic and most adventurous pieces have come from.
Just to give you an introduction to Robert Lee Morris, since people are not aware of his imprint, he crossed over from studio jewelry and into Art to Wear into the tremendous global mainstream before we even used that word “global,” with his friendship with Donna Karan. She worked for Anne Klein in the 70s and decided to branch out on her own. When she did, she had this fantastic line. This was in the late 70s, early 80s. The women were coming out of the homes and into the workforce, and she created this interactive collection of pieces of clothing with his bold, gold jewelry. For example, you couldn’t wear the skirt without the belt, and all of this. That was how he helped her make her mark in the fashion industry, with big, gold pieces in accordance with her fashion collection. These are also the pieces that women still collect today. When I hosted his 35-year retrospective at Sculpture to Wear in 2005, when we had moved to Montana Avenue, women came out in droves. They brought the pieces they had collected from him from the 70s and 80s, and he actually brought a Dremel and signed them individually. It was a really exciting show. His book, “The Power of Jewelry,” talks a lot about this transitioning from studio jewelry into the fashionable world. He still lives in both worlds, so I’m happy to say he’ll be part of our 20th anniversary celebration coming up in September.
Sharon: That’s quite a journey! A couple of things, because we have all different audiences listening to you. You mentioned FIDM. In L.A.—and there may be one in New York, too—it’s the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
Lisa: Yes, FIDM is Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, and that is where I earned my merchandising and marketing degree. We also have Otis College of Art and Design, where they have a very formidable fashion department. I was actually on the Board of Governors for Otis for a couple of years, specifically focused on fashion. Digressing back to FIDM, they have a museum as well for fashion, and then of course you have FIT.
Sharon: Yes, and Otis had a partnership with Parsons out here for a few years.
Sharon: Helen Drutt is one of the masters when people talk about art jewelry. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Lisa: Yes. When you mentioned her name, that’s an emotional trigger for me because when we talk about my uphill journey, it was nothing compared to what she—I wouldn’t say endured, but what she came up against. I believe the reason that art jewelry is so important to the United States today is because she is single-handedly responsible for bringing art jewelry to the United States, period. That could be argued by someone, but that is my point of view. I have been honored to know her throughout the years. Certainly, there’s an opportunity to get to know her better, but she’s so important. She helps the artist, clearly, and the collectors, and she has been so focused on wearable art and studio jewelry. She and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, because I naturally have lived in the world of fashion and personal style while having this passion for wearable art, where she’s more focused just on the wearable art. For me, it was sticking to and maintaining my authentic voice, which is being comfortable in both worlds and expressing myself with an aesthetic that portrays both industries. I think that’s really important.
Sharon: Absolutely. What made you decide to close your gallery, Sculpture to Wear, on Montana Avenue?
Lisa: It was mostly a personal issue. I had just given birth, and unfortunately, my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I knew that I could handle having a gallery because I always had an amazing staff. I could handle having a gallery with a young infant, but I couldn’t take on that third element, with my husband being terminally ill. That’s why I did that, and it was a struggle to come back and figure out what was appropriate. I had been asked by a few gallery owners to either host a Sculpture to Wear show at their space or to curate various shows, and that brought me in. It led me back into my passion for Sculpture to Wear. It’s been interesting, because I would say that two elements, social media and technology, have played a role in how the industry has changed and how studio jewelry or wearable art has changed since I was involved in it and was immersed in it on a daily basis, seven days a week at my gallery.
Sharon: What are the trends you’re seeing? There’s so much talk about what millennials want. What are your thoughts about how places like Sculpture to Wear can continue to thrive and bring in new people?
Lisa: Well, Sharon, that’s the million-dollar question. I have a few thoughts on that. Sometimes, when I get a little frustrated, I think about the legacy. A lot of what I do is legacy-driven, and that comes from my great-grandmother; it comes from looking at what Helen Drutt has created. I’ll never forget, I was sitting in the middle of the atrium at Laguna Beach Art Museum and I was hosting a Sculpture to Wear benefit. It was pouring rain and no one was there. All of a sudden, I got this message from Robert Lee Morris, and I told him about my frustration and how I was just about to quit, and he said, “Lisa, I’m not done, so you’re not done. Go back and sell some jewelry.” It was so poignant. The timing was incredible.
I think what’s important in any legacy is education. It’s telling the story about why these pieces are important. It’s not just a piece of jewelry. It has importance because it tells a story, or there’s an element of cultural history that may be included in it. It may be 3D printed, but the aesthetic value comes from a tribal custom, whether it’s Sweden or Africa. When people are looking at something and they think it’s weird and they don’t know how to respond to it, and you begin to walk them through the journey about why that piece is made, how it was made, you can see they have an aha moment. Now, they still might not wear that piece of jewelry, but it becomes an understanding and an appreciation of the value of the piece and especially the maker. That’s legacy driven as well, and I think that that’s an important element to this, and also having museums collect this work. We know of the Helen Drutt Collection in Houston and Lois Borden’s collection at LACMA and we see these contemporary art museums, not just craft museums in New York, but contemporary art museums collecting this work. That’s really an integral and important step in creating awareness and credibility for this genre.
Sharon: You also mentioned that you’ve helped several collectors. You facilitated the process of them donating the collections to major museums, whether it’s art or art jewelry, and that people are often surprised at what it takes in terms of time. A lot of times, museums are not opening their arms and saying, “Oh, thank you.” What are your suggestions about what people need to think about if they want to donate a collection?
Lisa: Also, there are two possibilities. One is that there is a collector who wants to donate or they actually want to sell their collection. That’s another story as well. Even with a collector who wants to donate, you have to make sure that you are looking at the correct placement. Does it make sense for that small collection or that large collection for that particular location? It may be your first choice, but what are their values for presenting the works? Do you have confirmation that this will be on view every five years, or it will be on view every five months? Are they just about to close their museum or institution for renovations and, if so, where will these pieces go? Will they be loaned? Looking at the history of their collections, maybe they’ve collected historical costumes from the 1800s in the past, so how does your contemporary studio collection from the 50s, 60s and 70s or 80s fit into that? Is there a synergistic mission? How is your collection going to be viewed as a part of it, and how is it going to be integrated in a way that’s celebrated and noted, not just with the institution, but with the public? These are some of the questions that I ask, not only with the collectors and the donors, but also the institutions. Basically, it’s about interviewing all of the entities and making sure the right connections are put into place. It’s a laborious process, like you mentioned. Sometimes you think the museums are there with open arms, but the fact is, they collect responsibly. They want to answer all the aforementioned questions I posed—can they store it properly? What is their calendar like? Then there are committees, and sometimes the committee has just met and they don’t meet for another six months or whatever it may be, or there is a piece that was omitted from the proclamation and it has to be added, so you have to wait another six months. It’s a laborious process, but it also depends upon the size of the institution. That answers a little about that.
And yes, I worked with a private collector who just placed three pieces of studio jewelry into LACMA last year, and I’m happy to say that this particular collector acquired them from my own personal collection. When we met with LACMA, these were the particular pieces that they chose. One was a puzzle necklace and a William Clark, who’s a deceased artist jeweler from San Francisco. I acquired that from Velvet Da Vinci when they were still open. The last was a rubber necklace that was created by the inner tube of a golf cart in the Netherlands. That was a piece that I had placed into editorial on the cover of Bazaar magazine a number of years ago, probably 2001. Those are the three pieces.
Sharon: Wow! Lisa, before we close, tell me about Berman Arts Agency and what you’re doing there, and what Sculpture to Wear is today, because you’re virtual. What should people be thinking?
Lisa: The reason that I created the name of Berman Arts Agency is through my relationships in Sculpture to Wear. I had met a number of fine artists. I knew them from the art world, and they wanted to re-establish themselves in the community of the art world, and it would be odd to represent a fine artist or a sculptor or a photographer under the name Sculpture to Wear. So I selected Berman Arts Agency to cover that massive umbrella. Then, there were projects I wanted to do that were out of the direct scope of Sculpture to Wear, but still incorporated some of those principles. With Berman Arts Agency, I had an opportunity to place a photograph in The Getty, place those three pieces into LACMA, and I just secured a small museum show for Bonnie Schiffman at the National Comedy Center museum in upstate New York. I’m also working with Daniel Oropeza, who won Art Prize 2017. He just secured a location for his collection at an outdoor sculpture garden on the west coast, which will be unveiled later on this summer. So, those are things that were beyond the scope of Sculpture to Wear but still of interest, but my main focus and my main passion still is Sculpture to Wear. Having the Berman Arts Agency was also honoring the journey of a lot of these jewelers that I knew that had children, and because of their children’s interest in technology, had ventured into 3D printing or had gone into other avenues. They wanted to incorporate all these various principles and mediums into their own work, and how do I celebrate that beyond Sculpture to Wear?
And I’m honored to say that September 5th, we’ll be having a VIP opening for the 20th anniversary show of Sculpture to Wear at Ethos Contemporary gallery Los Angeles, at 1233 North Highland, and then we’ll have a main event on September 7th. I’m looking forward to a panel discussion and an interactive collector’s discussion on Saturday, September 21st there as well, and then the show closes September 28th. It’s a giant space. It’s 3,500 square feet, and I’m really excited to see what’s possible in a space that large and to reconnect with some of the artists I haven’t heard from or seen in years, and to collaborate with artists that have remained close. It’s a very exciting time.
Sharon: It sounds very exciting, and I know I’m looking forward to your show. I just want to mention to people who might not be familiar that LACMA is the L.A. County Museum of Art, fondly known as LACMA out here. Congratulations so much on your 20 years and on everything you’ve accomplished. I give you a lot of credit. I don’t know if it felt like it, but it seems to me that it took a lot of fortitude to keep going upstream. Lisa, thank you so much for being here.
To everybody listening, we’ll have Lisa’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode. 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 so much for listening.
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