By Jan Worth-Nelson
The ribbon-cutting at 10:30 a.m. April 21 of the Flint Institute of Arts blockbuster new wing, galleries, and studios will be the climax of a story rivaling the best door-stop novel.
It is about a middle-aged woman’s third marriage to a furniture baron named Glass, and how, maybe on a whim, she started collecting …glass. And it’s about how she became a respected and passionate expert.
It’s about a condo in Atlanta stuffed with millions of dollars of art.
It is about a famous Royal Oak art dealer who thought the “greatest single-decade collection of studio glass ever assembled” might tempt the FIA.
It is about FIA Executive Director John Henry’s sleepless nights, having fallen in love with 142 pieces of glass bought for the FIA, with no place to put them.
It’s about a climate-controlled storage unit on Dort Highway.
It is about a building project and monumental set of decisions for the FIA, the state’s second-largest art museum, now in its 90th year.
It’s about how those decisions unfolded simultaneous to the city of Flint’s worst crisis in decades, asserting a parallel narrative not in conflict with the turmoil, many key players believed, but a hoped-for redemption in the middle of it.
It is about the primal elements of earth, air, fire, and water, all combining in a material so common to everyday life that we hardly realize we see through it.
It is about Flint’s long and colorful history as a place of “makers” — and how industry through the past century here has always also birthed artists who find the materials and machinery at hand irresistible.
And it is even about C.S. Mott Foundation President Ridgway White’s grandmother, in a way, the late matriarch of one branch of the Mott family, namesake of the Isabel Foundation, which made the acquisition of a world-class collection possible.
“More great art!”
In summary, as John Henry says it, exuberantly, it is about “more great art!” as the FIA opens its Contemporary Craft Wing, state-of-the-art glass and ceramic studios and demonstration space.
The April 21 opening will be followed by a weekend-long family-friendly celebration featuring tours, lectures, and demonstrations.
The $10 million-plus project adds thousands of square feet of gallery space, the chance to see art-making in progress, and the addition of new FIA Art School glass-related classes — all expanding opportunities for artists and art students in the fifth largest museum-connected art school in the country.
The 11,000-square foot Craft Wing contains three galleries.
One features about 100 pieces from the Sherwin and Shirley Glass glass collection, purchased by the Isabel Foundation and on long-term loan to the FIA. The collection features 88 artists from 16 countries and, according to Henry, establishes Flint as one of the pre-eminent centers for contemporary glass art in the Midwest.
Another features selections from the Dr. Robert and Deanna Harris Burger Collection of more than 200 contemporary ceramic pieces. Deanna Harris grew up in Flint and took classes at the FIA in the 50s, according to Kathryn Sharbaugh, FIA director of development.
Also in a starring role is a more than 250-item paperweight collection built around a major contribution from the late Viola Bray that alone can boggle the eye.
In addition to the Craft Wing, on April 21, the FIA opens 3,900 square feet devoted to glass: a hot shop, cold shop, flameworking studio, sculpture studio, and demonstration space.
In the demonstration space, equipped with gleaming reheating and annealing ovens, there is stadium seating for 90 visitors. A $100,000 grant from McLaren Health Care will facilitate free glass-blowing demonstrations in the studio every Saturday for the next three years.
Those facilities will be available for local artists, and both Kettering University and the UM-Flint are expected to rent space, along with expanding programs of the FIA Art School itself.
The “Glass glass” story
Sherwin Glass started Farmers Home Furniture in Atlanta, which grew into a nationwide chain and made him a multi-millionaire. A legendary philanthropist and collector, he died in 2005. His third wife, Shirley, continued the glass collection and commissioned works that pleased her. Then she died in 2009, leaving disposition of the art to furniture company executives. Eventually the whole collection, mostly acquired over only 10 years, went up for sale.
That year, 2009, John Henry got a call from a Royal Oak art dealer, Ferdinand Hampson, a world-renowned glass art dealer, who had worked with the Glasses and knew that they had collected many great works of art.
Hampson also knew the FIA had a special interest and history with glass and ceramics — from the museum’s huge Edmund Lewandowski mosaics, built into the original structure in 1957, to its Viola Bray-based paperweights, to the 2009 installation of an enormous Dale Chihuly chandelier, and even harking back to the Vehicle City’s industrial past, which brought with it Flint “makers” devising Faience tiles in the backyard of AC Spark Plug.
Hampson says an original pool of 140 potential museum recipients, eventually came down to five, and then, John Henry says, after six years, to two. Finally the other party dropped out, and the ball landed in the FIA’s court. They approached the Isabel Foundation.
The Isabel Foundation steps up
Devoted primarily to Christian Science causes, the Mott family’s religious tradition, the Isabel Foundation, named for the late Claire White’s mother — the daughter of Harding Mott — also has supported the arts and culture. For example, it previously brought a notable Great Lakes art collection to the FIA.
Henry and Kathryn Sharbaugh, along with Tiffany Lovett, president of the Isabel Foundation [Mott Foundation CEO William and Claire White’s daughter and Ridgway White’s sister] flew to Atlanta to check it out.
What they found were two adjoining condos stuffed with glass.
“They were under tables, on the floor — it was so cramped we could barely walk around,” Sharbaugh recalls. Considering the importance of light to glass art, at first the group was a bit disheartened.
But then they traveled to the Glass mansion, a huge estate on the outskirts of Atlanta, where the space and light gleamed through some of the most dramatic items.
“We all started smiling,” Sharbaugh said. They could see the possibilities.
So began negotiations between the Isabel Foundation and representatives of Glass’s furniture empire. Sharbaugh and Henry confess they still are not sure how much the Foundation paid, but say the collection has been appraised for millions.
“We were in a very good spot at a very good time,” John Henry recalls — not only in financial terms, but in the quality and relevance of the art — a reflection of an explosion of contemporary work in glass around the country and world in the late 20th century and early 21st.
Creating space for all that new art
Once the purchase happened, however, the next problem was creating space for it. That began another challenge for Henry and Sharbaugh — making the case for a massive building project. Henry said he endured some sleepless nights as he and Sharbaugh shaped their arguments.
Once again the Mott Foundation came through, providing $8.5 million as part of a $17.5 million capital campaign. Ground was broken on the new wing in summer of 2016. It includes not just the galleries but a new 7,500-square-foot basement with more storage space.
The wing has 14-foot ceilings and 21-foot corridors featuring recessed skylights and custom cabinetry all designed to enrich the visual qualities of the glass and clay.
In the meantime, the furniture company wanted the glass collection gone. So the whole collection was crated up and moved to Flint in three-and-a-half tractor-trailers, Henry said.
Since the new wing was far from ready, the collection was tucked into a storage unit on Dort Highway, where it stayed for two years.
“It had to be climate controlled,” Sharbaugh says — “It’s glass – it can’t get hot, it can’t get cold.” And of course glass can break.
Eventually, as the new wing progressed, the collection was sprung from its Dort Highway hideaway. For two months, another wing of the FIA had to be closed so that photographer Douglas Schaible could capture the works.
All this moving and documenting was no small matter. One piece weighs more than a car. One playful glass fork is 9 feet tall — it once stood in Shirley Glass’s kitchen. Many have delicate branches and complex protruberances. (The images are reproduced in a stunning book, The Glass Glass Collection, published by the FIA.)
Glass is earthy but “other worldly” too
So what is it about glass?
“There’s something very special about glass,” Henry said. “It’s unique, approachable.”
“Glass is light,” he writes in the Glass Glass book, quoting artist Jaroslava Brychtova. “While glass seems to be an ordinary material (we use it every day and it surrounds us), its property of transparency lends it an other worldly presence, because it can be looked through, yet remain solid. “
And observers can see it being made, Henry continues: “It’s fire, all the earth elements. When it’s being made, within minutes, it’s in its finished form — that heat, that beautiful color.”
“Humans are comfortable with glass,” Sharbaugh adds. “We understand the material — it’s part of daily life.”
“It’s ubiquitous in our world, and we’re all qualified to be critics,” Henry said.
The FIA hired Brent Swanson of Detroit last year as the glass programs manager to run the hot shop and related studios. A graduate of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies and long-time glass artist and teacher, he says it’s an honor and a dream job.
“The real beauty of this place is that [Contemporary Craft] gallery, in conjunction with live demonstrations — and the ability to see what’s happening,” Swanson says. “I can pull from those ideas and demonstrate those techniques and people can go back and forth” to see how it’s made in the here and now.
“This is really going to rejuvenate people’s view of Flint,” Henry predicted. “It will demystify Flint to the outside world, especially people who have never been here”—another part of Flint’s story not always evident in mainstream media coverage.
For the Flint community itself, the new developments open more opportunities for making art “available, approachable and accessible to all,” according to FIA communications and marketing manager Chene Koppitz.
The FIA is open seven days a week, with free Saturday admission sponsored by Huntington Bank. Its overall 175,000 square feet houses 25 galleries, a sculpture courtyard, 15 studios and a theater. It hosts more than 160,000 visitors annually.
The FIA is located at 1120 E. Kearsley St., in the Flint Cultural Center. More information about the April 21 opening and FIA hours is available at flintarts.org or at 810-234-1695.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.