Charles Shepard, FWMoA President & CEO
Amanda and I are just back from our annual trek to Royal Oak, Michigan to attend (and help jury) Habatat Galleries’ long-running and historically significant exhibition, the Glass International. Each spring for the past 50 years, Habatat has invited an ever-expanding roster of the best glass artists from around the world to participate in this spectacular exhibition, which has long been recognized as the defining moment for glass sculpture in that particular year. The attendees – artists, collectors, scholars, and art lovers – revel in the celebratory nature of this four-day extravaganza while recognizing that the history of contemporary glass has gradually, year by year, been assembled within these gallery walls.
As with most events, COVID disrupted the trajectory of the International for close to two years; but, in 2022, which the United Nations has triumphantly declared as “The International Year of Glass”, the Habatat team (Aaron Schey, Corey Hampson, and founder Ferdinand Hampson and his wife, Kathy) have succeeded in bringing this important exhibition back to the art world’s center stage. Always breathtaking, this year’s International reset the bar. Featuring 95 invited artists who, collectively, are exhibiting close to 500 works in glass, the International is aesthetically more magical than any exhibition I’ve ever seen. Amanda and I arrived on Thursday afternoon, a full day before the exhibition would welcome, first, the VIP crowd and then the public. As we stepped into the first of Habatat’s many galleries we were visually immersed in a veritable sea of glass sculptures created by the world’s best artists in the medium today. The beauty and variety were stunning. Equally stunning was the realization that we were standing in the midst of, quite likely, $30 million worth of magnificent glass sculpture.
We tore ourselves away from this splendid exhibition to go back to the hotel to get spruced up for the cocktail party and Strolling Dinner that were just getting underway in the Somerset Ballroom, prior to the much-heralded event of the evening, the Masterworks Auction. There were to be 45 lots on the block that night and, as I often say, some of them were meant to be in our Museum’s collection. As the auctioneer welcomed us, the very chatty crowd quieted down and the fun began. Our sights were set on several choice pieces but we were determined to only chase these works if our bidding competition seemed faint of heart or just didn’t understand the particular piece. The crowd was spirited and the bidding was robust, so we lost several great things right off the bat; but then, a terrific Caterina Weintraub lampworked Bunny came up and my paddle shot into the air! Caterina is one of the new kids on the block in glass, a little less known to the folks in the room that night. The hammer came down and Bunny was ours! Shortly after that success, we had the winning bid on a very nice Ethan Stern hot sculpted piece and a handsome Joel Philip Myers piece, Contiguous Fragment, from the Michael Belkin Collection. During the next half hour, I had to pull my bid paddle down quickly a few times to avoid overspending. Before the night ended, however, the Museum landed a Chihuly basket and an elegant, laminated piece by Pavel Hlava. I felt we had succeeded in our mission for the first day of the International!
Our real work, however, started the next day as we gathered after breakfast with our fellow award jurors to get our instructions from the Habatat Galleries leadership team. The jurors Habatat selected for the International 2022 included Amanda and I, representing the Fort Wayne Museum of Art; curator Dr. Chassica Kirchhoff from the Detroit Institute of Arts; collector Trish Duggan, who founded the Imagine Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida; and Jane Buckman, the Director of the Imagine Museum. The intimidating goal of the jury at the International is to select 24 pieces that we deem worthy of receiving special recognition. Our process, as always, involved dividing our jury team into three “groups” (Chassica went solo) who were charged with scouring the several hundred-piece exhibition for 2–3 hours and creating three separate lists of the best of the best which, by mid-afternoon, we would ultimately haggle over to determine the 24 award winners. The “looking” stage was pure fun as we all walked room-to-room ogling the array of fabulous sculptures. The harder stage, as you might guess, starts when you must make decisions about which artists and pieces should earn a place on our lists. Given that all the work was excellent there is, admittedly, a certain degree of subjectivity in play as our lists developed. That becomes evident when we first get back together to start the haggling. Someone admits their admiration for whimsicality; another confesses a penchant for geometry. Inevitably, the first round of wrestling with the lists leads to more looking. I will say, though, that, as a jury, our thinking had more in common this year than not. We still didn’t get our final decisions made until midafternoon but, when we handed our list of award winners to Habatat’s logistics leader, Debbie Clasen, we all were united over our collective choices.
With that bit of hard work behind us, we rushed off to clean up for a second night of festivities with all the artists in the International exhibition and dozens of glass collectors, many of whom were our competitors at the auction the previous night. The Hampsons hosted all of us at their gracious Bloomfield Hills home for a cocktail party followed by a sumptuous dinner. Glass was all anyone wanted to talk about, and I’m delighted to say that a very high percentage of the guests that evening were up to speed on the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s growing glass collection and the impressive progress that the city is making in its urban development. It truly was quite a party!
Prior to the pandemic, there was an unspoken post-party ritual which involved a number of the artists and myself finding our way back to the Somerset Inn’s bar to nurse a couple of rounds and hatch future plans before calling it a night. On this chilly Friday evening, after close to two years of isolation and separation, the group happily found their way back to the red leather stools of the Somerset’s watering hole and the place came alive. Peter Bremers from the Netherlands, Steve Linn from France, Latchezar Boyadjiev from Bulgaria (now LA), and so many others gathered round, everyone talking at once, a symphony of glass conversations. For a few hours that night it seemed like the bar of the Somerset Inn had transformed into the United Nations of glass sculptors. How appropriate, I thought, for this to take place at a bar in Michigan during the UN’s official International Year of Glass. We were making history.