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50th Anniversary of Contemporary Glass Key Information


50th Anniversary of Studio GlassA Curator’s Look at Contemporary Studio Glass

By Gerald W.R. Ward
Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

October 2011

My crash-course into the world of contemporary studio glass started one day in late 1996 or early 1997, when in the course of a chance meeting in one of the Museum’s galleries, our Director, Malcolm Rogers, suggested to Jonathan Fairbanks and I that our department might want to organize a show of contemporary studio glass in late 1997. This sounded like a great topic, although the timetable for an MFA exhibition was a bit short, especially if we were to prepare a catalogue of the show. But Jonathan quickly assented and immediately enlisted the invaluable help of Pat Warner, volunteer extraordinaire. With the assistance of the entire Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, and with the key support of Dale and Doug Anderson and many other collectors and artists, Jonathan and Pat pulled it off.

“Glass Today by American Studio Artists” opened on August 13, 1997, and before it closed on January 11, 1998, it attracted more than 250,000 visitors, making it one of the most popular museum exhibitions held anywhere in 1997. The catalogue, designed by Cindy Randall, created a permanent record of seventy-four works of art made by twenty-eight artists, ranging alphabetically from Howard Ben Tré to Toots Zynsky. The Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass also lent its support to this project, marking the Museum’s first, but not the last, association with the AACG.
“Glass Today” exposed me to the amazing world of American studio glass for the first time in a serious way. Since the 1970s, I had had some curatorial involvement with contemporary silver and furniture, but had never previously focused on the magical properties of glass and the astounding versatility of the artists who work with it in the myriad ways that its unique properties allow.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to serve as the curator for the Museum’s exhibition of about 120 objects from the collection of Ron and Anita Wornick. “Shy Boy, She Devil, and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft” featured work in many media, including a substantial number of works in glass by American, British, and European artists.  In preparing for the exhibition I had the privilege of seeing the works in situ in the Wornicks’ homes in San Francisco and Napa Valley, and was blown away by the power of glass objects to transform a domestic interior. The Wornicks’ collection includes significant objects by Dale Chihuly (of whom more in a minute), Clifford Rainey, Bertil Vallien, Richard Jolley, Maria Lugossy, Hank Murta Adams, and many others.

Several years ago, I was given the assignment by Patrick McMahon, our Director of Exhibitions and Design, of serving as the Museum’s curator for the “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition held to great acclaim at the Museum from April 10 through August 9, 2011. This show attracted more visitors - in excess of 372,000 - to the Museum than all but four other exhibitions in the institutions 130 year history - quite an accomplishment for a living artist, and a living American “craft” artist to boot. Our accompanying book, supported by the AACG and again designed by Cindy Randall, had to be reprinted and eventually sold out.

It was a joy to be associated with the Chihuly exhibition. Most visitors were wildly enthusiastic, often gasping as they rounded a corner in the exhibition to see the Mille Fiori display, for example. Some even squealed. People went through the show with smiles on their faces and often engaged strangers in conversation. Many people told me that, even though they had lived in Boston for years, they had never previously visited the Museum.  

How to account for the slack-jawed response that the show generated? Each individual responded in their own way, but a few reactions were widespread. People were astonished at the technical virtuosity revealed by the objects, as well as by the size of many of them. The show was almost like a medieval Wunderkammer in its ability to evoke a sense of wonder and amazement. Chihuly is a notable colorist, and the colors of the pieces also elicited many favorable comments. And the seemingly inherent contradiction between the size of the objects, the complexity of the installations, and the fragility of glass also drew much commentary. It was art for art’s sake, and it was refreshing to see the public’s response to such a presentation, which people responded to viscerally but also intellectually.

At the end of the show, a groundswell of opinion led the Museum to mount a public campaign to retain the Lime Green Icicle Tower - 43-feet tall, ten thousand pounds, 2,342 icicles - as a fixture in the Shapiro Family Courtyard in the Museum. Although several donors provided large gifts that made the purchase possible, thousands of individuals contributed to the drive by stuffing bills in a donation box or texting their contributions to the Museum. It was an exhilarating and gratifying effort.  

Chihuly, however, is but one of the bright stars in the world of contemporary studio glass, now approaching its fiftieth anniversary. From its origins in the workshops of Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino through the course of the last five decades, studio glass has steadily emerged as a world-wide avenue of the arts to be reckoning with. Populated with major international artists, whose diverse work transcends the tiresome “art or craft” debate and who create sculptural forms that delight the eye and exercise the mind, the field is supported by enthusiastic private and public collectors, active support groups such as the AACG, and by many major museums. One can only wonder what the next half-century will bring.

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