Over the last few years, the contemporary art world has seen artworks made with what used to be considered “minor” mediums come into vogue, from the fiber arts wonders of Sheila Hicks to the ceramic investigations of Takuro Kuwata. Now, with buzzed-about emerging artists like Korakrit Arunanondchai, Ivana Basic and Agnieszka Polska featuring blown glass in their installation, the ancient and delicate practice of glassmaking is having a major moment.
Perhaps serious artists have always been seduced by glass—and not just “glass superstars” like Dale Chihuly who works exclusively with the material. A myriad of art stars—from Robert Rauschenberg and Lynda Benglis to Tauba Auerbach and Kiki Smith—have created significant works in glass, and since the ‘70s one organization has made it a little easier for great artists to explore all the artistic possibilities glass has to offer.
UrbanGlass (originally called the New York Experimental Glass Workshop) was founded in 1977 on Great Jones Street by three art school graduates (Erik Erikson, Richard Yelle and Joe Upham) who realized just how difficult it was for artists to find the necessary space and tools for glassmaking in New York.
They started by extending studio space and classes to working artists—as well as the kilns, rollers and pipes necessary for traditional glass firing and blowing. The group moved to SoHo in the 1980s, but after rents in that area inflated in the ‘90s, a move was made to Brooklyn’s spacious Strand Theatre: a 100-year-old vaudeville theater in Downtown Brooklyn that would eventually become 20,000 square feet of studio, store and gallery space. Along with the move, a new name was born: UrbanGlass.
Each year the organization offers three jury-selected artists visiting artist fellowships—around 80 fellowships since the program began. The opportunity allows them to push their craft into new territories through the use of glass. Julianne Swartz, a 2015 fellowship winner from upstate New York, had previously worked in sculpture, photography and installation, but the time she spent in the UrbanGlass studio was revelatory. “I was struck by the physicality of blowing glass,” Swartz said. “The working time is so fast and unforgiving. You respond to what it does-like dancing with the material.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of this beloved establishment. They’ll celebrate the achievement with a gala in May, honoring artist Thaddeus Wolfe and Heller Gallery’s Doug and Katya Heller.
“I think our survival is a testament to the need we serve, which is even greater today than when we were founded,” says UrbanGlass Executive Director Cybele Maylone. “The other part of our longevity comes from the fact that we’re the only organization on the East Coast that does what we do.”