Charles Shepard, President & CEO
I talk often about the importance of Harvey Littleton’s first glass workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1963. Harvey’s leadership and innovation inarguably launched the movement that both championed and legitimized the medium of glass, now perhaps the most significant medium in contemporary sculpture. Since its inception studio glass has certainly breathed new life into the field of 20th century sculpture more than any other material, save for maybe the introduction of “industrial steel” pioneered by Mark Di Suvero. Aesthetically, however, the weakness of industrial steel as a medium was that, due to its inherent characteristics, it tends to produce work with a similar look no matter the artist. Comparatively, the medium of glass offers artists so many more options and opens myriad opportunities for self-expression.
That said, the artists working in glass needed champions to turn this new kind of sculpture into a movement; and, as was the case with most new forms of expression in the 20th century, those champions were not to be found in the curatorial offices of any fine art museum. By nature, and by training, most museum folks spring to life only after a new trend is vetted for a decade or two and proven to be sufficiently safe for visual consumption. The real champions are the art dealers who, by virtue of their experienced eyes and knowledge of the marketplace, are better situated and prepared to see and understand the potential of new kinds of art. Dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, for example, went way out on a limb when he became the first champion of the scruffy painters Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, all whose work was initially deemed unrefined and aesthetically inappropriate. Durand-Ruel recognized the potential of this new style of painting and, using the strength of his gallery, helped shape this new work into the Impressionist movement, eventually finding collectors who would support it.
Similarly, around 1945, Samuel Kootz and Betty Parsons each opened galleries bearing their names and became the torchbearers for the young, struggling artists who are recognized today as the Abstract Expressionists. Kootz, a former advertising executive, was a natural promoter, and he thoroughly believed that in post-war America there was a large audience of potential collectors for contemporary American and European art. Kootz saw it as his calling to announce the spectacular importance of this new art, and he used his gallery exhibitions as a means to introduce it to the masses. Betty Parsons did exactly the same thing, albeit less flamboyantly, and their good-natured rivalry exponentially fueled the careers of a generation of aspiring artists. A decade later a newer dealer, Leo Castelli, entered the gallery scene with a similar enthusiasm for contemporary art, although his interests leaned more toward art being made in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Eventually, he was referred to as the “Godfather” of contemporary art. Certainly, there have been scores of other important art dealers who did their part to champion new art by acquiring it, exhibiting it to ever wider audiences, and promoting their artists to art critics, collectors, and museums. But Paul Durand-Ruel, Sam Kootz, Betty Parsons, and Leo Castelli are legends in the art world whose own careers were dedicated to building the careers of their artists. These dealers realized the importance of being among the first to recognize the potential of a new form of art and to work tirelessly to create a market for it.
As I write about these legends, I can’t help but see the similarities between what these great gallerists did for Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, etc. and what Ferdinand Hampson’s Habatat Galleries has done for 50 years for artists working in the medium of glass. Hampson was on the scene as this new art form was being explored, and he opened Habatat as the first gallery which focused solely on fine art created in glass, fully dedicating himself and his gallery to the task of being the key champion of this new art. Ferdinand’s task was, arguably, greater than that of the other gallerists I mentioned earlier because painting (as a mode of artistic expression) already had an audience, even if painting in the new modes of Impressionism, Expressionism, or Minimalism did not. The primary challenge for the earlier gallerists was to convince people who already believed in painting that these new “styles” were legitimate and desirable. By contrast, working in glass was not known to be an avenue for artistic expression. There was no audience (and, therefore, no collectors) whatsoever for art made of glass. Some fine things were known to be made of glass, to be sure: goblets, celery trays, and knife rests. Ferdinand’s job was Herculean: he had to first convince people, who by nature and nurture saw glass as distinctly unrelated to fine art, that glass was now a perfect medium for art and worthy of their discerning attention. There were few collectors, no sympathetic curators, and certainly not a mention in any of the contemporary art history texts that were used to introduce both undergraduates and graduate students to the fine art of the world. Think about that for a moment: I learned that Duchamp’s toilet was art and that a naked hippie spreading jam on a Volkswagen was art, but I never heard that glass could be used to make art.
But Ferdinand and his Habatat Galleries persevered; through the presentation of hundreds of exhibitions at Habatat, countless public lectures, and tours of artists’ studios, Ferdinand Hampson created an audience where there was none and a collector base of visionary people. Ferdinand believed in the aesthetic potential for the glass medium and he made believers out of us. He convinced us to become ambassadors and help him spread the word. Over time, he opened the eyes of many in art museums and showed us how art made of glass could play a role, maybe even a major one, in our service to our communities. That the Fort Wayne Museum of Art has developed a large (and growing) collection of significant pieces of art in glass is the direct result of my listening to Ferdinand’s message about the validity of glass as an artistic medium. As I look forward to the future role that our growing collection of sculptures in glass will play at our museum, I pause to celebrate the role that Habatat Galleries has played in this very dynamic art movement over the past 50 years. Ferdinand Hampson and Habatat Galleries have forever changed the landscape in the fine art world, and we are all the better because of his distinguished work.
See glass sculpture from the FWMoA collection year-round in the atrium and hallway.