The State of the Glass Nation

After my trip to the 50th Glass Arts Society Conference in Toledo many issues have surfaced about the state of glass as it will proceed into the 21st century. While much of the event was filled with the delight of seeing many old friends, several key points about Art, money, and education were brought up at various points. Given that our movement is only 5 decades in the making, a relative infancy given the global history of glass, we are currently at a turning point in the artistic and cultural significance.

I have to say that my favorite highlight of the conference was the acceptance speech given by Beril Valin for his life time achievement award. Aside from the fact that I am regularly astonished by the craftsmanship of his work, his monumental monologue cemented his status as a true Artist, the capital A earned a thousand times over. “Ice, horses, glass, art”, an eclectic opening that through few words and an authoritative voice describes the basic nuances of his process. What followed was an insight to the life of a man who thrived from the epicenter of our origins in the glass movement, but whose work was about much more than just craft and material. Rarely did he mention process, but rather focused on the stories behind the objects. The narrative structure that consistently finds its way into his work is what separates him from so many of our compatriots. It was humorous when he asked if anyone wanted to talk about his “boats”, and then decided that they were too well-known to bother discussing. Not that these are unworthy objects of conversation, but their merit has been waxed before. He goes on to describe about the tragedy of too much cobalt in his tank, resulting in a tar pit of pending disaster. Yet he persevered, went with his gut, and created a completely new body of work that transformed the ice like totems of his past into dark, heavy, monolithic sculptures which almost border an antithesis of glass. That is the demeanor of an artist who is constantly progressing, changing his methods and reacting to a material that at times has a life of its own. This seems to be the future of our medium, a time where we must look inside ourselves for the inspiration to motivate the material.

Probably the most distressing revelation in the conference came during the panel discussion, Post Studio Glass, led by Tim Tate, Matthew Szosz, Alexander Rosenberg, and Andrew Page. While I have been a regular commenter in Tate’s Glass Secessionism movement, I often take the side of the devil’s advocate, questioning if we need to ratify ourselves against our glass culture, or face the reality that we must integrate into the Fine Art philosophy that nearly every other material has. So, it begs the question of what makes us so special. Honestly, the only definitive thing that I can come up with that exudes beyond strictly formal contrasts is money. Or more specifically cost. This burden of currency was the driving force in the conversation, not what I hoped would be a discussion of our generation’s adaptation of craft towards progressive innovation. Unfortunately, there was neither consensus nor true insight of how we go facilitating the future of glass. If money is the question then we need to stray away from the poor business examples of the previous generations, the weekend warrior, backyard burner, and communal catastrophes which have transitioned into a dark premonition for investors.

When the materiality of a craft is taken with such austerity, the artistic and fiscal integrity is often overshadowed by a flashy bravado that is the product of such an alluring process. Yes, I admit that we must pay homage to such relics of our past, maybe even exhibit a little jealousy for missed experience, but given our global economic situation that type of model is no longer able to succeed. Even the avid collectors that created the glass megastars of the Chihuly’s, Morris’s, and Lino’s have begun to tighten their budgets, this ripple extending thought the entirety of our way of life. Now that we have entered a new century we are coming to a crossroads of an artistic, economic, and academic divide, a place where we must make important decisions about the future and sustainability of glass. Private studios and production glass are no longer a reliable possibility for the blooming glass artist; it is nearly an insane thought to believe that one should open a shop in the face of the hardships of expanding overhead, an ever fickle market, and the goliath of the Hobby Lobby glass machine. So is our movement dead? Far from it, we just must make shift from the garage gloryholes to the institutions of the future. So how do we go about doing this?

For the almost the entirety of our movement the  upper education sector has been the most supportive setting for the development of glass as an expressive material, the original foundation of which I am proud to say is my alma matter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I know, I know, Littleton, Toledo, Chihuly, Pilchuck, wax and wane, but this was the first permanent fixture in North America in the academic world, and fortunately it still exists. While many institutions created astounding programs across the country and overseas, over the past several years we have had to overcome the overwhelming monetary drought that plagues nearly all universities. Budget and program cuts, material shortfalls, and the difficulty expressing the importance of art in the modern world have caused several programs to either downsize or shut their doors, those left standing often the cornerstones established at the beginning. Escalating this, tuition at every major university has escalated to an exorbitant amount, by the time you are out you have spent enough to have paid for most of a home home, or at least a couple of luxury cars. Not that I believe my education in the Fine Arts to be a foolish choice, it just takes a strong will, little absurdity, and a blessing from the glass gods to make it profitable. Compounding this, the humanities at the university level tend to be at the bottom of a very large totem pole, struggling to pull in finances as administrations transition their attention to other career and research driven programs, or their football programs. It can often become a struggle to find a balance between money and innovation, but the first and foremost goal should be research and education, not the procurement of revenue. Am I saying that upper education in glass is facing an imminent shut down? Hardly, but the current infrastructure makes it exceedingly difficult to expand and explore in hard times.

While smaller public establishments like Pilchuck, Penland, Corning, Haystack, and other glass summer camps have offered the glass experience for decades; their current escalating costs have deterred a considerable number of possible pupils and fostered what can be construed as another elite group akin to the university experience. When the fee of attending is equal to and sometimes exceeding a semester’s worth of tuition it is hardly a reasonable option for the already starving artist. However, I must give humble praise to the efforts of all of these institutions to make available scholarship, work-study, and teaching assistant positions for those that would otherwise not be able to afford such an experience. If it were not for such generosity I myself would not have been able to have opened my eyes to the exponential possibilities in glass, yet my experiences have been far from the norm. Aside from the fiscal issues the sheer time commitment and travel glitches that add to the hardship of committing to such an endeavor. It is simply the size, structure, and limits of these establishments that have caused monetary woes to overshadow their importance over the past decade.

Fortunately what have come to the forefront have been the smaller collegiate and public sector programs that are stepping up and adopting the material, incorporating practical and profitable opportunities into their curriculum. While I enjoy the close knit camaraderie that comes from the university setting and have loved every opportunity working within its confines, it is exactly that cloistered demeanor that omits the inclusion of a culture necessary to support it in a larger capacity. This is where the openly public organizations come into play that could lead the next fifty years of glass making. What seem to be the most prolific opportunities are housed within truly public arts centers, those without major university affiliations or ridged curriculum. So what is it about smaller institutions that make them so palatable to benefactors and the public? It is based upon a manageable size combined with a more integrated relationship with the community. To start most follow an intelligent business model which is based upon more reasonable expectations, supported not only though large sponsors, but also by a regular income from local residents. I recently applied this methodology in the Mad Gaffers student organization, implementing blow-your-own events alongside our regular end of the semester sale. The result, free network TV advertising, record breaking sales, a turnout that forced extended hours, and added $1000 to the studio budget for every day we did it. What appeared to be the greatest draw was the direct interaction that the participants got to have, even though we did most of the heavy lifting. It was a happening that we were able to offer that most never get to experience, or if they do it is generally second hand. The physical involvement automatically creates a relationship that binds us with the community, showing that we are much more than just a vendor of pretty glass. From a business standpoint it is also about filling a smaller price point that a greater percentage of the public is able to see as reasonable. This allows studios to remain open because they are able to meet a fervent demand which is more easily adaptive than a traditional platform. Smaller enterprises are also able to diversify their content, allowing for flexibility when it comes to visiting artists, student return rates, and the ability to acclimatize with new trends and technologies. Fundamentally there is also closer access to the administrations that govern these facilities, allowing those that are managing a stronger connection garnering a cohesive ability to discuss concerns and celebrate success. Unfortunately for many already established in academia, adopting these tactics would require a redistricting of curriculum and authority, something that few institutions will relinquish with a smile.

For me glass is much more than a hobby, literally and figuratively it is the lens through which I see the world. And what I see before me are clouds that will bring a storm, one that will either wreck our ship, or send us coasting to a new shore. So do I believe that we are doomed, doomed, dooooomed? Short answer, no, but we have to remember to try and stay ahead of the curve, instead of attempting to slide back down it. In the end the exposure to glass through basic public outreach will create auxiliary donors that will rejuvenate the importance with collectors and benefactors at elevated levels. If we are supportive to each others endeavors we have a chance to rise to a pinnacle that will establish our place in art and culture through the next century.

This entry was published on July 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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