Dietz and the Newark Museum Embrace Polymer

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Posted in Interviews

This Pier Voulkos Neckpiece and 40 other polymer works were
recently acquired into the Newark Museum's jewelry collection.

When you’re born with the name Ulysses Grant Dietz, you just might have come into this world with a penchant for leadership. Luckily for the polymer jewelry community, Ulysses turned his attention not to military or political affairs, but to a life’s mission of preserving, protecting and defending his nation’s artistic heritage.

As Senior Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts at the Newark Museum, with its 80 galleries of display space, he oversees a collection that begins with jewelry but ranges out to ceramics and silver as well. In other interviews, both in print and on video, Ulysses has been labeled as a “national resource,” a man with “encyclopedic knowledge (who) has helped put the Newark Museum on the map as a vanguard of modern decorative arts.”

When you talk to Ulysses, it’s clear that he carries a love for the objects in his collection almost as much as the attachment for his own children. That’s why he refers to museums as the proper home for things of fragile beauty, because “it’s safe.” Protecting the precious, whether infants or aged art jewelry, is a mark of the character of Ulysses Grant Dietz.

In a recent interview, Elise Winters asked him about his background as a curator.

EW: Where were you before Newark?

UD: My training as a decorative arts curator began in 1978 with a graduate program through the University of Delaware. I was a graduate fellow at the Winterthur Museum outside of Wilmington, starting out at the Newark Museum in 1980 with a special interest in the 19th century and then expanding since then to the present day. I’ve been particularly interested in jewelry more recently, especially as it connects to the decorative arts.

EW: How did you get your reputation as a jewelry historian?

UD: That goes back about a dozen years to the 1997 show, The Glitter and the Gold, an exhibition I co-curated with Janet Zapata about the gold jewelry industry in Newark. A lot of people might still be unaware that Newark was the center of solid gold jewelry manufacturing from the 1850’s to the 1950’s. For decades, there wasn’t a jewelry store in America that didn’t carry Newark’s goods. As long as there was this kind of industry in America, Newark was its capital, producing 90% of the gold jewelry in this country at its peak. For instance, there was Krementz and Company, the last survivors. They didn’t sell under their own name, but manufactured for Cartier and Tiffany in their Newark Factory. It was a kind of industry practice to remain anonymous in favor of the retailers. In our newest gallery today, there’s a section on Newark jewelry.

EW: I’d like to know more about the new gallery.

UD: We’ve just opened this last August the Lore Ross Jewelry Gallery. Mrs. Ross left the Museum a large bequest and we named a permanent jewelry gallery in her honor. In the gallery we have jewelry from the 1600’s to the present day. Even without extensive publicity, people in the jewelry world have come to see the collection and learn about it. In the museum, we’ve created a context for Newark’s jewelry, but have long had a focus in acquiring European and American work as well. For instance, we bought two pieces of George Jensen jewelry back in 1929.

EW: How does your jewelry collection serve your local community in Newark?

UD: We think of our local community as all off the 2.5 million people in northern New Jersey. And yes, we think that jewelry is of interest to everybody, and that the interest is endless.

Kathleen Dustin, Tornado Cuff, 2005
permanent collection of the Newark Museum

EW: Why would the Newark Museum be an attractive venue for jewelry donations? If somebody is interested in donating, there are so many other prominent places that would come to mind.

UD: Well, let me admit that the Met does have glamour that we can’t match, and frankly it can get anything that it wants. But really, what can you give them that they don’t already have? I can make a clear claim that we are more committed to jewelry than most other American museums –including the Met– are. Our dedication to jewelry as a medium is well established with the galleries we have built.

Collectors have donated to the Museum of Art and Design, but MAD’s interest centers on contemporary studio jewelry, both wearable and unwearable. For me, wearability is crucial; I can’t buy a piece of jewelry that can’t be worn.

To us, contemporary art jewelry fits in as a component of our larger vision about what the decorative arts is. The way my department collects is to document interaction between design and production in daily life. This is a museum of objects that interact with the way people live. And I believe that when people visit the Newark Museum they come to see jewelry that informs, that sheds light on history.

EW: Has it been difficult to get donations from jewelry collectors?

UD: The reality is that the great stuff in our collection, we have bought. Frankly, the people who love jewelry have not yet learned how to give it away.

Elise Winters, Con Brio Necklace, 2004
polymer, 14kt gold, mica, 24″ long
permanent collection of the Newark Museum

EW: One exception might be work from the polymer art community. You did just accession part of my own polymer jewelry collection that is now being divided among major museums in the country.

UD: The polymer jewelry that you showed me was a revelation. I knew it was out there but never focused on it. To me, the polymer pieces shed light on a new medium, a new aspect of the art jewelry world – they fit into my contextualization about things you wear, human body adornment that provides a new aspect of design and material. It’s exciting to me, a new aspect of our collection. I do want artists in the polymer community to know, their presence in our museum matters.

EW: Will polymer have a place in the new Lore Ross Jewelry Gallery?

UD: I have a spot reserved…I’m definitely planning to add another case in the gallery and will place polymer pieces in it. It’s an exciting new aspect of our collection.

Ulysses Dietz has recently added Dream House: The White House as an American HomeDream House to his long list of publishing credentials.