An Evolving Market of Light and Color: Collecting Modern American Glass Art
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO COLLECTING AMERICAN STUDIO AND CONTEMPORARY GLASS ART
In the 1970s, a prediction was made that Studio glass would become the “antiques of the future.” Due to the growing interest in Studio and Contemporary glass art in recent years, we may well be on our way to having a future generation that remembers Great Grandma’s Sliced Arc by Harvey Littleton displayed on the shelf or Uncle Pete’s prized Volante vessel by Toots Zynsky.
With the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the Studio glass movement in 2012, the market for this type of glass art is no longer a novelty. Although certainly impacted by the Great Recession, a decade later demand has returned to steadily increasing values as the Studio movement becomes recognized as an important part of American cultural heritage. One reason for the rising values of Studio and Contemporary glass is the result of longtime and ongoing exposure to a wider audience. Consider museum exhibitions and symposia (e.g. Corning Museum of Glass), inclusion in art fairs (e.g. SOFA), temporary installations (e.g. Chihuly at the Biltmore), periodicals (e.g. Glass Quarterly), workshops (e.g. Penland School of Crafts) and societies (e.g. Glass Art Society). In addition, glass art has successfully made the transition from being viewed solely as a form of craft to also be treated as a fine art in its own right. With this change in status, some choose to describe these glass forms as a type of sculpture, but many appreciate them as hybrids of various categories: sculpture, fine art, design, craft, social commentary, poetry, and alchemy – no wonder glass art continues to gain traction by crossing boundaries and appealing diversely.
WHAT IS THE STUDIO GLASS MOVEMENT?
The defining characteristic of the Studio glass movement is the creation of glass art by a maker who is involved from initial concept to finished product while working with a small-scale furnace or kiln. The genesis story for the birth of the Studio glass movement (“Movement”) invariably begins at the Toledo Workshops. During the summer of 1962, ceramics professor Harvey Littleton and research scientist Dominick Labino demonstrated hot glassmaking techniques of the Toledo Museum of Art premises in Ohio. Although there had been earlier innovators like Louis Comfort Tiffany who had experimented with the pure aesthetics of glass at the beginning of the twentieth century, it had not yet become a widely embraced material for artists to use independently. Littleton was the next in line to take on the challenge in the United States. After visiting glass makers in Europe, Littleton believed there was a way to achieve a studio environment where the entire process could be performed without depending on an industrialized space. The combination of Littleton’s zeal and Labino’s low-melting glass formula sparked a Studio phenomenon in the glass world that continues today.
The Movement gained initial momentum during the late 1960s mainly due to numerous colleges adding glassmaking to their studio art curriculum. Littleton himself founded a glass program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where acclaimed artists such as Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly first learned about the medium. Many students also later established glass schools and workshops outside of the university system, like Pilchuck, where artists could meet, exchange knowledge, and inspire one another. Although early Studio makers were experimenting with the sculptural potential of glass, they were limited in technical knowledge and often relied on the single method of glassblowing. However, the next generation began to focus on exploring various techniques. This desire for more skills in craftsmanship was greatly aided by visits to European glass centers and visiting glass masters from countries such as Italy, the Czech Republic, and Sweden. This international dialogue not only helped artists learn new skills, but also spurred the Movement to occur on a global scale. In fact, the Movement can be viewed as still ongoing and presently in its third generation of the Studio ethos. Many current artists often choose to build on what previous makers have discovered and seek to find new means for glass to speak beyond its materiality.
GENERAL LANGUAGE OF GLASS
The marketplace uses several phrases to describe modern glass art made during the 1960s to present day. Terms frequently used include “Studio glass,” “Studio movement,” “Contemporary glass,” and “Contemporary craft.” They are often used interchangeably among buyers and sellers. The underlying characteristic for all of these terms is the small-scale production in contrast to mass factory or industrially produced glassworks. Studio and Contemporary glass are also frequently associated with design. This is especially the case in the auction environment in which glass works are often sold as part of modern design sales. Such an association has benefited Studio glass values since twentieth-century decorative arts have become quite fashionable. Such variations in description indicate that the Movement is still a relatively new field of scholarship with well-defined terms and phrases still to be determined.
Another set of vocabulary to keep in mind are techniques. With advances in technology, there is now a multitude of ways to transform glass. Since the formation process is often a significant component of the glass collector’s fascination, the method used to create a specific work is almost always mentioned in its description. A few techniques that you may read in a catalogue or museum label are hand-blown, mold-blown, cast, molded, pressed, kiln-formed, lampworked or flameworked, etched, engraved, cut, laminated, cased, fused, slumped, cold-worked, hot-worked, etc. If you are curious to delve deeper into the glass art world, become familiar with the general concept of these techniques. It will not only give you a greater appreciation for the skill involved but also aid in identifying the works of particular artists. While most makers will experiment with a variety of methods, they usually find a favored technical mode. Like the painter’s hand seen in the brushwork, a glass maker’s trait is often revealed by means of construction.
THE MARKET LANDSCAPE
The glass art market is still a friendly one for both novices and seasoned buyers as there is a broad spectrum of price points to begin acquiring. Since there are thousands of artists who have worked in glass over the past five decades —from revered pioneers, popular contemporaries, up-and-coming artists, and all the lesser-known makers in between— it is up to the collector to deem what is worthy of buying. Today, a discerning buyer often purchases at different market levels including retail galleries, directly from the artist, studios, and auction houses.
Galleries have played a crucial role in the Movement since the beginning by spreading the glass gospel thereby generating broader interest in the medium. The existence of retailers exclusively selling glass art continues to be a strong indication of consistent demand. Galleries like Habatat, Heller, Schantz, Holsten, and Ken Saunders have been in the business since the early days of the Movement and are known for representing quality work.
Gallery dealers have also been influential in fostering creatives and nurturing collections. They take special care to be on the lookout for new talent graduating from art school. Most makers are eager for gallery representation as it is the most common way to cement one’s reputation and establish a market value. Inclusion in exhibitions and receiving awards are also common ways to demonstrate prestige and enhance the artist biography. The next step is for the works to be placed in reputable public and private collections, which the dealer can be most helpful in achieving. Yet despite progress made in the art world, high-quality glass works still does not achieve the soaring prices as seen in more traditionally perceived mediums of fine art such as painting.
Visiting artist studios is another popular option for the collector to meet the artist and acquire works with more personal and experiential meaning. After all, observing the glass making process is a dynamic one, especially when hand blown. Hand blowing is the shaping of glass after heated by fire through the use of a metal pipe. Many large metropolises have studios where you can observe glassblowing and sometimes give it a try yourself. If you happen to be in St. Petersburg, Florida, visit the Duncan McClellan Gallery. The former fish and tomato packing plant has been converted into a multi-functional space and provides occasional glass demonstrations.
The resale environment at the secondary level is the market which has seen the most recent growth. Since the majority of retailers tend to focus on offering newly made pieces fresh to the market, you are more likely to find the reselling of Studio objects at auction houses and estate sales (Although some galleries are certainly dabbling in the resale as well. For instance, Habatat has a couple of auctions a year while Wexler has a select secondary market listing). As mentioned previously, glass art is often incorporated into the design sales of regional and international auction houses. Rago, Wright, and Toomey are a few regional houses that have developed reputations for selling modern glass. In general, market values in the secondary market for well-established, first and second generation Studio artists are generally more stable than for emerging or mid-career artists. This not surprising since most Contemporary artists have not experienced the same level of recognition as the Studio pioneers.
Several museums are also actively purchasing glass art examples for their permanent collections. Like the private buyer, curators and directors may purchase at retail and auction usually with the aid of grants and funding. However, the preferred acquisition method of cultural organizations is through donation. Thanks to the downsizing and charitable giving of Baby Boomers, more and more Studio pieces are being offered as gifts to museums and institutions. Such opportunities to curate new collections will shape the American glass art narrative, influencing who and what will appear in the art historical annals. And in turn, the varying market levels will respond accordingly.
CONDITION IS ALWAYS A FACTOR
As is true when collecting any type of object, condition is always an important consideration. The inherent nature of glass makes it a medium vulnerable to breakage. Therefore, it is not surprising to find minor nicks or some surface abrasions. The older the piece, the higher the chances that it has experienced some type of wear, particularly if it has been frequently handled and/or transported. Obviously, the best case scenario is for a piece to be in perfect condition without alterations by damage, repair, or loss. A major chip or crack may make the piece no longer collectible. For good quality glass art, a general rule of thumb is that collectors are more willing to overlook damages or repairs that are not readily visible to the eye until upon closer inspection. If a glass piece has more modest market demand even in excellent condition or there are numerous pieces that are similarly available, the presence of wear or damage will more greatly compromise its desirability and overall value.
Another condition issue to be aware of is glass disease. Also known as glass illness, the chemical composition of the glass becomes unstable resulting in a gradual deterioration of the material which at various stages can appear as weeping, crizzling, cracking, and ultimately fragmentation. Unfortunately, this type of damage cannot be reversed although conservation treatments can be performed. While glass disease is more commonly found in antiques, early signs of weeping can even appear in a younger piece if it is kept in a very humid climate. Any type of condition issue and its value impact for a piece should be evaluated case by case.
When prospectively buying glass art in a resale setting, it is best practice to request a written condition report. Such summaries are especially helpful when previewing an auction online since you cannot make a physical inspection personally. Make sure you inquire about the condition of an item early enough before the live sale so that specialists have time to respond, and you can ask any follow-up questions. It is also helpful to have documentation of an item’s condition before shipping or long-term storage. If any unfortunate damage takes place, a description or photographs of an object’s appearance before the incident will serve the owner well when filing a damage claim with insurance.
Since so many Studio artists experiment with formulas and techniques, all sorts of condition issues may reveal themselves many years from now. As the owner of a glass collection, an important part of your stewardship is to monitor the condition of pieces and engage a conservator when needed.
The market for Studio and Contemporary glass is shifting from a niche interest to becoming a more widely-recognized area of art collecting. With the exception of a handful of esteemed makers and studios, works by early Studio pioneers and well-established second-generation artists command values on the higher end of the spectrum and will likely do so for the foreseeable future. However, there is still plenty of room for makers to rise to prominence. The inherent decorative quality of glass and the means by which it was made are often points of interests for buyers. In contrast to other collecting categories, visual appeal and subject matter rather than historical significance remain the more important factors of value. This focus on aesthetic preference rather than cultural importance will likely change as more scholarship emerges. But for now, buying habits seem to be more closely aligned to design trends and the enjoyment of ownership rather than as investment pieces. With some discretionary income together with a passion for the interplay of light and color, many individuals can enjoy participating in this evolving area of the art market.
Courtney Ahlstrom Christy, ISA CAPP, AAA AM is Co-Editor of Worthwhile Magazine and Principal Appraiser of Ahlstrom Appraisals LLC. Courtney can be reached at ahlstromappraisals.com.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2018
A FEW RESOURCES
 Hampson, Ferdinand. Studio Glass in America: A 50 Year Journey (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.), 12.