By the time you read this, celebrations will be underway for the 20th anniversary of Kath Libbert’s jewellery gallery in Salts Mill. The gallery is almost as much of a fixture as the Mill itself, and when I meet Kath I concede that I had taken it for granted until Jake Attree, a previous interviewee, pointed out that she was the only individual consistently bringing new artistic work to the village.
Kath acknowledges how easy it is for the kind of art jewellery that features in her exhibitions, such as the upcoming 20/20 show, to be overlooked. “It doesn’t get into the art press easily. Fashion doesn’t quite get it either,” she admits.
My other assumption was that Kath had had a smooth path into running a gallery. In fact her training was in psychology, and she worked for a number of years with children or in community work in psychology in Bradford and Leeds. “My trajectory was always to do with people,” she tells me, though she did take an evening course in jewellery while she was a student. I find it hard to believe her assertion that she “was pretty hopeless at it!”
What started her dealing in contemporary jewellery was initially just personal interest. “I love to wear it and buy it for myself. I was also always thinking of business ideas and one of them was whether I could promote the work of contemporary jewellers.” She started out in the early 90s from a table top in Leeds Corn Exchange, while still working full time for the Health Service. “I represented five people, and put in £1,000. I wasn’t doing it with the intention of anything other than a hobby, but people bought work.”
Saltaire also loomed large in her imagination at the time. “I used to come to Salts Mill more or less from the day it opened. It was a very special place. I was living in Leeds and there wasn’t a great deal special in Leeds in the 80s. There was this amazing building in Saltaire, there was a person that had decided to do something interesting with it and artistic endeavours were happening. And then, just going into the Hockneys… It was unique and uplifting!”
Putting the two together, she realised that the people visiting the Mill might be interested in the work she was showing. “I’d got a showcase at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I wrote to Jonathan Silver saying, ‘I’d like to invite you and see whether you might be interested in work from some northern designers for the Home.’ I wasn’t pitching to be here. I just thought it would be great to get some of this work here.”
Success was not immediate, even after an initial meeting with Robin Silver from the Home. Kath jokes about how she contemplated standing outside the Mill like a wartime spiv, with jewellery in the lining of her raincoat.
The breakthrough came when Clothes On Four opened in the Mill. Remembering her, Robin Silver suggested that she should pitch for a presence. “I was presented with the possibility that I could have a proper gallery here. It was incredibly exciting, incredibly overwhelming and I had about six weeks. He wasn’t saying they were taking me – I had to pitch for it.”
Those six weeks involved intensive market research and attempting to source work from jewellers, but also considerable soul-searching. “I had to decide if this was something I was going to go for. Was there going to be interest from the public? Was I going to get 20 jewellers to believe that Salts Mill was a special enough place and I was a competent person? What was I going to do with my other job?”
The elements did fall into place. Kath went part-time at her psychology job, hired a new graduate for the other four days in the week, and started the Gallery as we know it today. It took five more years to give up psychology and devote herself full-time to the Gallery. However she sees elements of continuity between the different aspects of her career. “With jewellery being very intimate and having lots of personal associations, it brings you into relationship with people. Obviously the intensity you get with someone when you’re working in therapy is different, but this is the more pleasurable connection!”
However there was never any doubt about how at home Kath felt in Salts Mill. “It’s a very democratic place,” she tells me. “The brilliant part is you have people who would never go into a formal gallery. Here, you get all sorts, and you have that fantastic opportunity to go, ‘Take a look at this.’”
Part of the mission has been to act as a bridge between visitors to the gallery and the kind of art jewellery it features. Exhibitions, of which there are a couple annually, involve interaction with the public – a quiz, a vote or more direct involvement. Kath shows me videos of people enthusiastically modelling items from the flamboyant Natural Histrionics show in 2013. “We let people declaim their enthusiasm for a particular piece by building a small stage and allowing them to be histrionic. People are very up for these things.”
She is also keen to emphasise how the gallery straddles the world of high-concept art jewellery – often made from materials like paper, plastic or base metals – and the more conventional jewellery world of precious metals and stones. “People bring us heirloom pieces,” she tells me, “that belonged to a husband or a grandparent and that they want to give new life to. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a stone out of an old piece and putting it into a new piece, sometimes it’s about completely reconfiguring something.”
I’m intrigued when she talks about a couple who brought in some moon rock to incorporate into an engagement ring. “You can’t really set around a little bit of grit, so we had to experiment with grinding things down, how much resin, what you mix it with… We like those challenges.”
Kath has always focused on promoting new talent, with annual shows for new jewellery graduates. She and her staff go to the Business Design Centre in Islington, where the degree shows have stands with graduates’ work at the end of June, prior to a new graduate show at the Gallery in November.
“It’s very important to me to showcase new graduates, and a lot of these people have gone on to do well,” she continues, mentioning Kelly Munro, whose work is based on the fishing nets and creels of her Scottish home town, and Genevieve Howard, also a musician, who makes pieces using Japanese linen paper, representing the physical notation of her favourite music. Meeting the public at the show’s evening event led to a commission from a woman who had lost her husband. “They had a significant song, and she asked Genevieve to make a piece based on the notation from that song.”
Kath’s championing of art jewellery and nurturing new talent has created a unique niche in the British jewellery world. London-based Electrum and the Lesley Craze Gallery both had a similar ambit, but both closed within the past few years. The esteem in which Kath is held was reflected when she was asked to take on the Lesley Craze Gallery. “I didn’t want to,” she says. “I don’t have a desire to be in London doing this. It’s the very particularity of what Salts Mill is that works for me. It’s my little family. It’s the antidote to ‘corporate’ here, and I’m not a corporate person.”
Having been part of that family for 20 years, the centrepiece of this year’s programme is an exhibition called 20/20. “The theme,” Kath explains, “is 20 international art jewellers to mark 20 years… and you need 20/20 vision to look closely and get the most out of it.”
Going through the highlights, she mentions Jing Yang, from China. “Her exhibition was like going into the British Museum. You see all these vases on podiums, but it’s called I Am Not A Vase. They break apart and they become necklaces. In China a beautiful woman is often called a vase – beautiful but hollow. She’s challenging that.”
The makers involved are typically diverse, coming from South America, East Asia and many parts of Europe, picking up an international theme at the Gallery – an aspect Kath has pursued since full time involvement in the business allowed her to attend major jewellery shows, such as Munich’s Schmuck, the source for most of the 20/20 exhibitors.
I’m shown some items that have already arrived, and am particularly taken with Carina Shoshtary’s graffiti-based work and Yojae Lee’s insect brooches, the latter both large and delicate at the same time.
To engage the audience further, there will be a cryptic quiz, with spyglasses and jeweller’s spectacles for those who haven’t got 20/20 vision, and with entry into a prize draw. “It’s a way of saying thank you for looking closely,” says Kath. “It’s a playful, engaging way of celebrating the 20th anniversary, presenting 20 artists who are doing things that require 20/20 vision.”
The exhibition should prove to be a fitting way to sum up the life of the Gallery so far, and make a statement for the next 20. As Kath says,”20 years is a long time, but it doesn’t feel long. I feel pretty much like I did. My excitement and interest is pretty much as it was to begin. I always enjoy coming into work. It feels just as fresh and new.”
For more details of the 20/20 exhibition, go to www.kathlibbertjewellery.co.uk