Off the Cuff: My Perspective on the Future of the Glass Medium

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Recently, in both live and virtual formats, I’ve noticed an increased amount of talk and consideration about “the future of glass”. It reminds me of the discussions that proliferated in the 1970s about the “future of painting” as the Minimalists gained some swagger in the art world and started predicting the “end of painting”. Clearly, only a fraction of the painters of that time were pursuing some version of reductivism, but people – and publications – couldn’t stop chattering about the futility of trying to pursue a painting career that focused on anything but nihilism. I’ve certainly not yet heard anyone predict the end of glass art as we know it, but there is a heightened level of anxiety about the potential for the glass medium to evolve. Let’s keep things in perspective: glass as an art medium has evolved throughout time. Even if you just want to think in terms of the last 60 years of American Studio Glass, the evolution of the medium, from Harvey Littleton’s early glass workshops in the ‘60s to the hands of the first 100 glass artists who Harvey taught or inspired, is extraordinary. As a museum director and art historian, I view the continuous evolution of the many media of the visual arts, including glass, as a vibrant force. The future of glass, therefore, is not easily predictable; given the growing pool of talented artists and the strong number of solid teaching programs in glass, the medium is certainly not ending. The future of glass is squarely in the hands of the artists working today and those they influence in the future. I have a boundless feeling of confidence in these artists to continuously find ways to uniquely exploit the properties of glass and create ever more aesthetically brilliant work that will evolve successfully with each new generation.

Even as I suggest that we do not need to be anxious about glass art, at least in terms of its creation, I will say that we should be uneasy about its future in terms of appreciation and recognition by the art world in general, and art history in particular. Glass deserves to be, and needs to be, recognized as the legitimate equivalent to the other media that fill the pages of the hundreds of art publications, textbooks, online platforms, and the press. It baffles me that there is continuous, institutionally supported scholarly research and discourse focused on both historic and contemporary painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, etc. but virtually none on glass (unless the institution is focused exclusively on glass). We see an ever-growing number of colleges and universities that are investing substantial amounts of money in studio glass programs and facilities to attract students who want to learn to make glass art, yet they are making virtually no investment in teaching their art history students anything about how to understand and appreciate glass art or its history. Essentially, this means that the only critical thinking about glass art is taking place within the community and, thus, having little impact on the rest of the art world. The effect of this on the future of glass is that glass art, and the artists working with it, could be forever relegated to the sidelines of the art world. We all presently bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get art museums to pay significant attention to glass art beyond hanging the obligatory glass chandelier and featuring an occasional glass survey exhibition. This is not likely to change significantly in the next decades unless our future museum curators and directors become more educated about the significance of glass as a dynamic and important media in the fine arts, recognizing that the majority of the country’s museum leadership comes out of the art history programs of our colleges and universities.

With that in mind, I suggest that unless the content of those art history programs changes to include glass art and its history, most museum management decisions about exhibitions, collections, research, and resources will continue without any serious consideration of glass art. It’s not that art museums, both now and in the future, don’t, or won’t ever, feature glass here and there, but they will not take it seriously because glass isn’t even mentioned in the dozens of texts used by tens of thousands of students in Art History 101 & 102. Consider that two of the most time-honored art history texts assigned to college undergraduates, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art and H. Arneson’s History of Modern Art, make no mention of glass art whatsoever. Perhaps that’s because these were first published before the studio glass movement really got underway, but, how do we explain the omission of glass in another more up-to-date and very popular book among undergraduate art history students, Contemporary Art: 1989 to The Present, edited by Suzanne Hudson. This text contains essays by forty of the top critics and art historians in the world, none of whom even touch on art made with glass. Given that the history of art is the bedrock of art museums, the lack of teaching about art in glass threatens the future assimilation of glass into the larger and more appreciated category of the “fine arts”.

A recent glass acquisition by the museum. Jörg Zimmermann, German, b. 1940. Wabenobjekte (Honeycomb object). Blown glass with metal mesh and inclusions, ca. 1989. Museum purchase with funds provided by June E. Enoch Collection fund, 2022.405. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The potential failure of glass art to assimilate more fully into the fine arts also has the potential to threaten art in glass in both the marketplace and exhibitions at fine arts institutions. In the marketplace, most valuations of art (especially the secondary market) are supported by evidence of the relative importance of the art offered for sale which, in turn, is strengthened by evidence of work by this particular artist being exhibited or collected by a number of fine art museums. Consider this extreme example: in 2009, Sotheby’s auctioned off Andy Warhol’s 1962 screenprint, 200 One Dollar Bills, for over $43.7 million. How is this possible? Precisely because Andy became one of the darlings of the fine arts press and, subsequently, the favorite of every contemporary fine arts curator in the ‘60s. This cemented his place in both art history and the art marketplace. It’s important to remember, though, that in the years before Andy made this screenprint he was a window dresser and graphic designer. As such, neither he nor his work were assimilated into the fine arts world. His aggressive self-promotion, chasing young curators down both on the job and after hours in the hippest clubs, ensured he got his foot in the door. I’m certainly not suggesting that glass artists should follow Andy Warhol’s example but, rather, am using Andy’s story to illustrate that assimilation is not only possible but beneficial.

Everything I’ve just described as happening in the realm of the fine art world also occurs within the realm of art in glass, except without the strategic leverage of art curators and the institutions for whom they work. In the glass world, a gallerist plays the role of curator and the gallery is the de facto institution. The aesthetically experienced gallerist judges a given glass artist to be worthy of exhibiting, and collectors look to the gallerist to confirm that this or that artist is important in the world of glass and, therefore, worthy of collecting. Unlike a museum curator, a gallerist is never in a neutral position with regard to the artists presented in their gallery because the curator has nothing to gain (monetarily) from putting this or that artist in an exhibition. The neutrality of both the curator and the art museum can make a major contribution to both the future of an artist and, in the case of contemporary studio glass, the future of glass as a medium. The power that art curators and art museums have is that the public in general, and the collectors more specifically, look to them to establish and maintain the standard in art.

The future of glass rests on our ability to convince academic and art museum leadership to acknowledge that art in glass is a worthy medium that meets and exceeds their institutional standards. I urge my colleagues in the museum field to simply open their eyes and let the glass do its magic. I did – and that led our museum to begin seriously exhibiting and collecting glass. We then made an investment of time to train our curatorial and education staff in the processes used in its making, in the history of its creation, and in the individual stories of its diverse creators. Together, we are making a serious effort to educate ourselves in how to understand and evaluate the aesthetic merit of both individual and bodies of work. As an institution, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art not only believes in the future of glass, but we are also working hard to play a role in its formation.


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