New Space, New Light

View of the Special Temporary Projects Gallery and the Body and Narrative Gallery in The Corning Museum of Glass’s new Contemporary Art + Design Wing, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners. Photo by Iwan Baan. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.

When Spatial Negotiation II was gifted to The Corning Museum of Glass in 2007, curator Tina Oldknow knew there was nowhere to put it. Massive in scale, it was far too large for any existing exhibit space in the museum. But the size of the galleries wasn’t the only concern at the time. It had been roughly 10 years since the last expansion, and in that time, the annual visitation had more than doubled (to 440,000-plus in 2014), and the average visit time had more than tripled, to 4.5 hours. The museum had fundamentally run out of room.

Since The Corning Museum of Glass strives to be the international authority on glass, it became clear that the world’s largest glass museum would need to get bigger. And with the scope and scale of contemporary glass ever increasing, it was time to create a space to showcase the museum’s extensive contemporary collection in the best possible way.

“I truly hope this expansion is going to change both the way people see the museum and the way they experience glass,” says Karol Wight, president and executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass. “I think this expansion is really enabling us to do what we do best: To tell the world about glass and to do so in the most compelling manner possible.”

Thinking Outside the Vitrine
In the spring of 2012, the Museum broke ground on a $64 million, 100,000-square-foot wing that would add a 26,000-square-foot contemporary gallery and a 500-seat demonstration theater for live hot glass demonstrations and design sessions.

Architecture firm Thomas Phifer and Partners was chosen to design the museum’s new Contemporary Art + Design Wing. Phifer was inspired by the material, and focused on the best ways to showcase the work that would go inside the building. He created a white, minimalist box, which he describes as a vitrine – a glass-paneled container – in which the objects can live.

“First thing we did was take a glass object out into the sunshine and we looked at it and it just exploded with light,” says Phifer. “That was a wonderful moment for us, because we discovered that glass loves light.”

This inspired Phifer to do something that is impossible to do in most museums due to the need to protect fragile objects from lots of light. Because glass actually thrives when bathed in light, he would create a ceiling made entirely of skylights.

“Glass has never been displayed this way before, and we are really looking forward to pushing the boundaries of contemporary art in glass,” says Wight.

Other characteristics of the gallery space include curvilinear walls liberated from corners, edges, and flat surfaces found in most museums; and a “porch” feature that wraps around the perimeter of the five galleries, serving as a “threshold to the landscape,” as Phifer says. The Porch looks out onto the new one-acre Museum Green.

Showcasing Objects in the Contemporary Galleries
The Contemporary Art + Design Wing is the largest space dedicated to contemporary glass anywhere in the world. Filled with more than 70 works from the museum’s permanent collection – 30+ on view for the first time – the five themed galleries feature the best examples of contemporary glass made during the past 25 years.

The Nature Gallery is dedicated to sculptures that refer to the natural world, including Katherine Gray’s “Forest Glass” (2009). An installation comprised of thousands of reclaimed green, colorless, and brown drinking glasses arranged to resemble three trees, the piece is a commentary on the process of creating glass, which historically required the burning of timber to power the furnaces. Gray questions the impact of glassmaking on the environment in the past and present.

The History and Material Gallery will display works that reflect the manipulation of traditional forms in glass and focus on its material properties. “Carroña” (“Carrion”) (2011) by Javier Pérez is a new work sure to be a museum favorite. The fallen chandelier exploits the beauty and drama of Venetian chandeliers, while evoking opportunistic birds gobbling carrion by the side of the road, a metaphor for the gradual disappearance of the traditional glass industry in Murano, Italy.

The Body and Narrative Gallery focuses on works inspired by the human body, like Karen LaMonte’s “Evening Dress with Shawl” (2004), a haunting evocation of the beauty of classical statuary.

Another gallery is dedicated to Contemporary Design, showcasing international design in a range of objects like functional glass vessels, furniture, lighting, and design art. Works by many artists and designers will be displayed, including prototypes made in the museum’s GlassLab Design Program, a collaboration between international designers and the museum’s master glassmakers.

The final gallery is dedicated to Special Temporary Projects, and will be a changing space in which large-scale installations can be displayed. The first is Kiki Smith’s “Constellation” (1996), a room-sized meditation on the infinity of space and the human desire to understand it. Twenty-six hot-sculpted glass animals of different sizes represent different animal-themed star patterns. Constellation will be on view for one year.

While at the museum, use your mobile device to join the free Wi-Fi and explore the galleries with GlassApp, a tool to help you connect with the objects on view.


by Kimberly A. Thompson