Off the Cuff: Our Quest for More Glass

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

A photograph of FWMoA President and CEO Charles Shepard with a piece from the museum's contemporary glass collection.
FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In my last post, I talked at length about how the Museum has come to embrace contemporary glass sculpture. I’m thankful to everyone who made time to read that post, and I’m equally thankful for the questions that a number of people asked me after reading about the Museum’s passion for contemporary glass sculpture. In this post, I want to address some of those question and, in doing so, attempt to articulate a broader and deeper context for our interest in glass sculpture and our anticipation that exhibiting and collecting contemporary glass will further distinguish our museum throughout, and beyond, the Midwest.

Let me start by identifying a few of the things that I believe already distinguish the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. First, I would point to our being an institution accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and, as such, held to the highest professional and aesthetic standards in our field. Of the 33,000 museums in the United States, only 1,070 of those institutions are accredited. Our accreditation clearly sets us apart. Secondly, I want to mention our noteworthy commitment to serving all the people of our community and throughout the greater region with high quality, relevant programming. Thirdly, I would note that our ambitious exhibition calendar is distinctive because we annually feature more changing exhibitions of more diverse types of art than any museum of our size in the country.

Considering just these three laudable attributes of our museum, you might ask me, as one reader did: How will collecting and exhibiting glass distinguish us even further? It’s a great question and deserves to be answered. Let’s look first at glass as a medium for sculpture and consider, for a moment, just how different glass is from the more traditional materials sculptors have gravitated to over the past couple of hundred years: bronze, steel, aluminum, wood, and stone. Each of these artistically cherished materials was used to create some of the most beautiful and moving works of art that the world has ever known. That said, in the 50ish short years that a growing number of artists have turned to glass as a material for making sculpture, what they have discovered is that glass has fewer expressive and aesthetic limitations than any of the other, more traditional materials. And not only is glass more practically and aesthetically malleable, it can “use” light in ways that no other sculptural material can. Sculptor Peter Bremers brilliantly proved this very point in his two wonderful and groundbreaking installations, 7 Bodies and Perception, exhibited at the Museum in 2017. For each of the installations, Peter created sculptures of exactly the same size and shape but in different materials: glass, steel, stone, aluminum, etc. While each individual sculpture was aesthetically gorgeous, the pieces in glass stole the show because you could look into them, through them, and develop a visual “kinship” that just wasn’t possible with the pieces in the other visually impenetrable materials. My point is that once artists turned to glass as a fine art medium with which to make sculpture, the entire field of sculpture was transformed exponentially.

A group of students, led by a FWMoA docent, explore Peter Bremers' 2017 exhibition "Seven Bodies".
A group of students explore Bremers’ exhibition “Seven Bodies”. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

The summer afternoon in 1962 that Harvey Littleton and Nick Labino figured out how to cast glass into sculpture was as much of a game changer as the afternoon in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar. Look out, Woody Guthrie, because the times they were a’changing! In the same way, the medium of glass has forever changed sculpture and, in doing so, distinguished itself in the field of fine art. To circle back and answer our reader’s question, our museum will distinguish itself further institutionally by being among the first fine art museums to take glass sculpture seriously by exhibiting it, collecting it, and educating people about its evolution and future.

Another question came my way last week: What do I mean “our Museum should take art seriously”? I mean, for starters, that we should become knowledgeable about the medium, the processes, and the artists who work in glass. We should be diligent and discerning and use our skills to present the best glass sculptors to our audiences, in both solo and group exhibitions. We should build a strong collection of studio glass within our already ever-strengthening collection of other art forms. We should establish our integrity throughout the glass community and step up to play a role in encouraging other institutions to more fully recognize the impact that studio glass has had on sculpture in the 21st century.

That is a perfect segue to another question several readers asked: “We surely can’t be the only museum excited about glass! Art museums all over the country show and collect glass, don’t they?” There are certainly a growing number of art museums that pay some level of attention to glass sculpture – two that come right to mind are the Toledo Museum of Art and the Flint Institute of Arts (which has a new glass wing), and the Ringling Museum. But aside from a Chihuly chandelier over the admission desk, glass has caught most art museums flat-footed. To understand how this could happen, let’s take a look at how any art finds its way into a museum’s galleries or collection vaults.

All decisions about art in any museum in the world are made by a specialized group of the museum’s staff, the curators. Depending on the size of the museum, there might be a curator of paintings, a curator of prints & drawings, a curator of textiles, a curator of sculpture, and so on. Larger museums will generally have more specialized curators, while smaller museums are more apt to have fewer curators who wear many categorical hats. What they all have in common is that they are trained in the history of art. As an undergraduate, they will have learned about all the chronological periods of art and, in graduate school, they focus on one of those periods and, often, one medium within that period. My undergraduate advisor, a young, brilliant Harvard scholar, specialized in Carolingian ivories, for example, and his knowledge on that topic knew no bounds. However, he struggled to understand Impressionism, wrestled with Cubism, and was totally baffled by Minimalism. I share this to simply give you a glimpse behind the museum’s curtain into the real, and intellectually narrow, world of the curatorial staff. Due to the age-old prejudice of art history toward crafts, none of these curators will have encountered glass (other than Tiffany) in the classroom. And now that they hold either specialized or generalized curatorial jobs with official responsibilities to care for and present paintings, prints, photographs, etc., their dance card is pretty full. Further, even if one of these good souls developed a personal attraction to contemporary sculpture in glass while on holiday, they would have no clear path through the museum’s bureaucracy to share their discovery. Worse still, even if contemporary glass sparked more than one curator’s fancy, the tight budget would have to flex to fund an exhibition or a purchase of glass. Better to leave all that alone until someone in a C-Suite started noticing glass sculpture. So, as you can see, contemporary glass is generally just not on the institutional radar screen of most museums.

The last question I want to tackle in this post is: “Why is our museum on a different track with contemporary glass, and where might this lead us?” We are on a different track with glass than most art museums because of the encounter, which I spoke of in my last post, with glass sculptor Howard Ben Tre’s work while Amanda and I were on holiday, which opened both our eyes to the beauty, aesthetic merit, and dynamic possibilities for contemporary glass at our museum. Where could this lead us? What could a focus on contemporary glass mean for Fort Wayne? I will tell you that glass collectors all over this country are cheering us on. The world’s finest glass sculptors are, as well. My mailbox is brimming with emails from folks who want us to succeed at this. And what would that success look like? Maybe as many as 300 or 400 new glass sculptures by the very best artists in our collection. Possibly a new 10,000 square foot wing to house that glass collection, named for those who help realize our shared dreams for glass. And all my dreams include a steady flow of local and national visitors to our great city to see our exhibitions and view our ever-expanding pavilion for contemporary glass.

In a little over a year, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art will celebrate its 100th anniversary, and I am so very proud of what we have accomplished, serving our city with great art exhibitions and programs over the past century. I am also already very excited about what’s in store for our next chapter in history!

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