Off the Cuff: Embracing Contemporary Glass

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

A photo of FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard standing next to a work of studio glass.
FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

My personal and professional appreciation of glass art began when my wife, Amanda, and I were on vacation in Traverse City, MI in the summer of 2012 and stopped by the delightful Dennos Museum Center to see what might be on exhibition. What else would two museum people do in their downtime? Visit wineries and eat tapas? Well, that too, but the Dennos is a favorite of ours and a trip or two to their galleries is one of the highlights of our visits to Michigan. This particular visit was no exception because they were featuring an absolutely stunning exhibition of the glass sculpture of Howard Ben Tre. We were both in awe of this beautiful, powerful, and stoic work. Where did the work come from? Who curated this wonderful exhibition? The answer was right on the wall in front of us in the introductory text panel: “This exhibition was curated by Ferdinand Hampson of Habatat Galleries“. I snapped a quick photo of the label on my phone and we vowed to call him the next day. That call was, to say the least, fortuitous. Ferdinand was entirely charming, all-knowing on the topic of studio glass, and brimming with enthusiasm for our budding but heartfelt interest in glass. Our conversation that morning touched on dozens of things, but one thing was emphatically clear: we would work together to launch a glass initiative at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art! The planning began immediately and our Museum’s future with contemporary studio glass began to take shape.

A shot of the initial glass hallway at FWMoA, where studio glass pieces purchased by the museum continually come on and off display.
The first iteration of the changing hallway exhibition of contemporary glass at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Early this summer, just after we returned from our Traverse City vacation, I got a lovely note from my friend Merrily Orsini, the President of the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass (AACG), who invited me to give a virtual presentation to a group of AACG members. I was honored, and felt like I had a number of things to share about our museum’s progress with our now eight-year old studio glass initiative. As I write this post, I can happily tell you that I am on the home stretch of my preparations. FWMoA Marketing Coordinator Kaitlin Binkley designed the dynamic presentation that will provide the visual foundation for my upcoming verbal presentation of the Museum’s ever-expanding relationship with contemporary glass. Looking back through these images over the past few days in preparation for my talk reminds me how bold our first steps in the realm of glass sculpture were, and renewed my confidence that our museum could truly become a center for contemporary glass. I am both excited and honored to present to the members of this vibrant, national organization, whose mission is clear and straightforward:

The Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to further the development and appreciation of art made from glass.

I have met a number of wonderful AACG folks at different functions over the years, most notably at Habatat Galleries’ annual International Studio Glass Invitational Exhibition in Royal Oak, Michigan. There, and at a variety of other contemporary glass events, each AACG member I talked with was supportive and encouraging of our fine art museum’s embrace of studio glass and my curatorial perspective that sculpture in glass brings fresh relevance and integrity to the field of contemporary sculpture. When Habatat Galleries founder Ferdinand Hampson first asked me, back in 2013, to serve as one of the award jurors for the renown International Invitational Exhibition, it was due to my having a background in sculpture, even though I had no experience with glass as a medium. I accepted his invitation only because I felt comfortable judging three-dimensional art, whether it be in steel (think Mark di Suvero), stone (think Darrel Petit), or glass (think Chihuly). I confess, however, that I was totally unprepared for the overwhelming experience of viewing what appeared to be a sea of gleaming, aesthetically perfect glass sculptures flowing through the spacious galleries of the Habatat flagship gallery. That first long day of judging, which I happily repeated over the course of several subsequent years, taught me that the issue was never to decide which pieces were worthy and which were not; the critical distinction was which exponentially worthy pieces would we choose over pieces that were simply very, very worthy. That experience was the next step in my initiation into the world of studio glass sculpture.

Continuum rests in the foreground of this image, with the sprawling downtown of Fort Wayne in the background.
Continuum rests in the foreground of this image, with the sprawling downtown of Fort Wayne in the background. Darrell Petit, Canadian, b. 1960. Continuum. Stony Creek granite, 2015. Museum Purchase, 2016.128.

Our award-winning choices that spring day would be exhibited at the museum that summer as The 41st International Studio Glass Invitational Award Winners, along with two other contemporary glass exhibitions that we curated: Dale Chihuly: Secret Garden and The Next Generation of Studio Glass. For marketing purposes, we unified the three separate exhibitions under the banner The Summer of Glass 2013. The response from our regional audience was astounding and, although Fort Wayne was not yet a tourist mecca, we discovered that we were attracting visitors from all over the Midwest who specifically noted in our visitor log that they came for the glass. On opening night, we celebrated with an exclusive fundraising event, the Epicuratorial Dinner, (with Ferd Hampson as the keynote speaker), which sold out in the first couple of days. As we had guessed at the outset, the main draw initially was the Chihuly  name, much in the same way that a painting exhibition, for example, will appear to have a little more luster if there are a few Picasso’s sprinkled into the mix. I’ll admit that I was more than a little worried that our visitors would be drawn in by the mystique of Dale Chihuly and, once in the doors, would be insufficiently attentive to the work of all the other glass artists. Such was not the case. Guest after guest gushed to us that, while the Chihuly exhibit was a motivating factor for their visit, the glass sculptures by all the other artists were what took their breath away. Visitors to the three exhibitions of The Summer of Glass 2013 returned to see it all again in numbers that were unprecedented. And as the summer came to an end, and the leaves started turning colors, we installed several new, terrific exhibitions which we had curated for maximum effect that fall. As expected, people lined up at our doors to see what was new in our galleries, but most stopped by the Visitors Desk to ask if glass was coming back.

Well, dear Reader, as you know, glass would be coming back again and again! The Summer of Glass returned in 2014 featuring The 42nd International Studio Glass Invitational Award Winners Exhibition, as well as another head-turning exhibition, Peter Bremers: Inward Journey. The Summer of Glass roared back twice more in 2015 and 2016, centered around the 43rd and 44th International Studio Glass Invitational Award Winners Exhibitions. Along with those two exhibitions, we featured solo exhibitions of Christina Bothwell, Albert Paley, Davide Salvadore, and a stunning two-person show featuring sculptor Steve Linn and portrait painter Robert Schefman.

It was just after the 2016 iteration of The Summer of Glass that I began to wonder if we were being unnecessarily constrained by this seasonal concept for our glass exhibitions. Why, for example, couldn’t we present knock-out glass exhibitions throughout the year? Our audiences were clamoring for more glass and the glass artists were wishing for more museum exhibition opportunities. So, we experimented with moving The 45th, 46th, and 47th International Studio Glass Invitational Award Winners Exhibitions to late summer/early fall dates. Then, we presented the exhibition Peter Bremers: Looking Beyond the Mirror in the winter of 2018 and Dan Clayman: Shift the following winter. To change it up even more, we then brought forth solo exhibitions for Tim Tate and Marlene Rose in the spring of 2019, and solo shows for Michael Estes Taylor and Bertil Vallien later that fall. In the midst of all that, we created the Madge Rothschild Atrium Gallery and began populating it with work from the museum’s glass collection, starting with the 52-foot Repose In Amber by our good friend Martin Blank, which was gifted to the museum by generous collectors Nancy and Joel Barnett of Chicago.

Installing Repose In Amber was an energizing, all consuming, and uplifting experience for both our curatorial staff and for Martin and his team. The sculpture fit into its new home like it was absolutely meant to be exactly right there. And it just stuns everyone who enters the Museum. The visitors’ awe at this giant, gorgeous sculpture egged me on to expand the Rothschild Gallery space and fill it with even more glass from our permanent collection. I’m happy to say that, despite starting our Contemporary Glass Initiative with a fairly modest acquisition budget, we were blessed in 2018 with a generous $1 million gift from the June E. Enoch Foundation to continue our collecting. I’m also extremely thankful for the generous gifts of glass (and funds for glass) from a growing number of collectors around the country. Just a few months after installing Repose in Amber, a Los Angeles collector called to offer us a gift of another Martin Blank piece, Dream Sequence. Then, Daniel Greenberg and his wife, Susan Steinhauser, offered to donate a large Steven Linn sculpture, Rodia’s Tower. This spring, collectors Charles and Sandy Hall presented us with a very generous gift: one “house” and one “ladder” by Therman Statom; two tall, figural works by Stephen Dee Edwards; and one tall “head” sculpture by Bertil Vallien. Lately, it seems that every few months someone reaches out to us with a gift of glass sculpture. These gifts are so very welcome and they contribute mightily to our effort to create a large and significant collection of studio glass as we pursue our institutional dream of our Museum becoming a center for glass in the Midwest.

President, CEO, & Head Curator Charles Shepard oversees FWMoA's curatorial team installing a new work of contemporary studio glass.
Curatorial staff installing a new work of glass are overseen by President, CEO, & Chief Curator Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Here, surrounded by our world class print collection, our contemporary painting and sculpture, our historic cut glass, and our quilt collections, plus twenty-six changing exhibitions annually, a substantial studio glass collection would be our crown jewel. What impact could this concentration on studio glass have? Well, considering that our immediate metro market is a population of about 1 million people, and, as we are positioned at the crossroads of America, we could regularly welcome visitors from many other states quite easily. We would be poised to introduce tens of thousands of people (or more) each year to experience the highest quality studio glass! And, given our Paradigm Gallery, which focuses on sales of art (as opposed to museum trinkets), visitors could top off their experience by purchasing a piece of glass for their home.

As you may have already guessed, I’m very excited about contemporary studio glass and the role I see it playing at FWMoA. Even more important is that we strive to be vocal ambassadors for glass and glass artists, and are dedicated to using our resources to promote studio glass across the broader cultural landscape. First rate galleries and top-notch art fairs like those that the new group, Intersect, produces are terrifically effective in presenting contemporary glass to both neophyte and established collectors. But an art museum’s expertise lies in its long-established ability to bring art – especially contemporary glass – to a far broader public: all people, all ages, all the time. Just as an example, in the past two years, 20,000 school children toured our glass collection while visiting the museum on a field trip. When it is deemed safe for schools to let in visitors again, our Gallery on Wheels outreach program will bring studio glass and other art to close to 30,000 additional children directly in their classrooms. These children will learn about glass and develop an appetite for seeing more of it year after year.

A school group, led by FWMoA Docent Michael Greene, gazes at a glass sculpture by Peter Bremers.
A school group, led by FWMoA Docent Michael Greene, gazes at a glass sculpture by Peter Bremers.A school group, led by FWMoA Docent Michael Greene, gazes at a glass sculpture by Peter Bremers. Peter Bremers, Dutch, b. 1957. Iceberg & Paraphernalia 11-219. Kiln cast glass, 2011. Museum Purchase, 2014.81. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

There’s still more that I could share with you – it seems like there is something new every week – but I’ll save all that for another post. I thank you for your time and for bearing with me while I tried to convey my enthusiasm for the most important media of the century: contemporary studio glass!

4 Replies to “Off the Cuff: Embracing Contemporary Glass”

  1. What a great combination of the personal and the professional in this posting. How nice to see how the FWMoA is developing its studio glass collection.

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