Art glass is becoming a booming class act

Artopia closes.Flame Run opens.The king is dead. Long live the king.Art appreciation in Louisville is booming, but increasingly it seems to be appreciation of art glass.

The FirstFriday gallery hop around the East Market art district continues to fuel the art party crowd, and the map edged further east with Friday's opening of Flame Run, an art glass studio with a gallery.Despite years of legitimate griping that Louisville art patrons too often leave town to buy art, now it turns out that a 40-strong group of serious collectors from the New York area has lobbied for a guided tour here. What are they looking at? Art glass. The Metropolitan Collectors will be in Louisville in October.

The art department of the University of Louisville just issued a national posting for another full-time faculty member, who will teach — you know the answer by now — art glass and other media. The position will be funded though an unusual community-based fund-raising effort in which the university will match $40,000 a year for the next three years.

It may seem that it's all about glass, especially with the recent announcement that Artopia, a performing and visual arts studio in St. Matthews that didn't offer hot glass, will close Sept. 1.

That decision was based on declining enrollment but should not be construed as a lack of community interest in visual art, said executive directory Elizabeth George, head of the Louisville Visual Art Association, which began Artopia five years ago.

"I think there is an art boom — an art glass boom undoubtedly," George said. "We should be very proud (of the region). There's so much going on."

Jettisoning Artopia makes budgetary sense for the LVAA and allows the group, long noted for having too many plates in the air, to juggle its community art commitments more carefully.

Let's re-examine the facts of art ebb and flow.

At least 23 new galleries of various sorts have opened in Louisville in the past three years, encompassing everything from the dead-serious 20th- and 21st-century landscape paintings handled by the new St. Matthews Gallery to a slew of trendy, by-the-way shows at shops like Nitty Gritty in the Highlands.

The U of L expansion, when broken down, becomes maybe 20 students out of an astounding and record 600 art students in the department.

Two years ago, the art department reduced its rolls by 110 students, who were ousted for "poor performance," and instituted a selection policy for incoming freshmen over and above the university's general entrance policies.

"We have too many students," said Jim Grubola, a 28-year veteran of the department, head of the drawing program and current chair of the fine art department and director of the Hite Art Institute.

John Whitesell, who has taught at U of L for 32 years, was department chair 10 years ago. "We had 350 students then," he said. "We thought that was high. We're maxed out everywhere now. We don't have enough room for the people who want to be sculptors."

There is even a waiting list for the master of arts and teaching degree.

So it's clearly not glass that's driving numbers up at U of L. It's just one medium among many.

Still, who could deny that art glass does have the glimmer, glitz and glamour that seems to be on the decline in the worlds of painting and sculpture? And the team process of making art glass is powerfully engaging — almost a performance art of its own.

No one seems to be getting tired of glass yet, although the medium has struggled to mature in a short period (see accompanying chronology) and to be accepted more broadly as just one more medium in the art kit, rather than an aberrant craft.

Flame Run's opening in Louisville this weekend is significant not because it's another gallery or because it's another open-studio, art-as-entertainment art-glass venue, like Glassworks.

Flame Run represents seven young artists putting their hearts and varying stacks of personal capital and equipment together in a bet that they can make a living at art in Louisville. The founder and co-owner is Brook White, a former artist-in-residence at Glassworks and an instructor in last year's initial art glass program through UofL.

Louisville art dealers such as Billy Hertz and Chuck Swanson (both painters who run galleries) seldom to never deal in art glass and will candidly admit that the art market went flat in the recession that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Brenda Deemer agrees, saying 9/11 brought a suddent stop to otherwise steady growth at her B. Deemer Gallery in Crescent Hill.

Since then, though, growth has continued — albeit at a snail's pace. Deemer has an interesting perspective on the art throes of Louisville, in the context of the larger art world.

"I think the glass thing is a trend," she said. "I think it's a very hot item right now. Glassworks is such a wonderful place."

But perhaps it has been "a matter of exposure," she wondered. "I think the public has just been more exposed" to art glass.

What is interesting, she said, is that the accepted name-brand or star system of artists dominated by painters and sculptors from Picasso to Jackson Pollock to Claes Oldenburg seems to have disappeared. The only art star on the horizon most people know, she bets, is glass artist Dale Chihuly.

Deemer speculated that Louisville and the entire art world are in the middle of a new sort of specialization.

For instance, she said, "I think I'm 'the painting gallery.' I don't sell ceramics. I don't sell sculpture because I wasn't real successful with those before. I have to pay the rent."

Following that thinking, Galerie Hertz does tend to handle sculpture. And Swanson Reed Contemporary takes on new-edge art, being one of the few places to experience video art, for instance.

Maybe such specialization comes with a new depth of offerings.

It is a critical mass that may not have occurred so dramatically without the added weight of Glassworks and its promotional machinery, or without the presence of a strong contemporary glass gallery, Tobin-Hewett.

"It's amazing what's happening in Louisville," said Merrily Orsini, a former painting and quilt collector whose head was turned by glass.

Orsini, whose marketing and public relations firm, corecubed, handles a few art clients including Flame Run and Tobin Hewett Gallery, likes to joke that she and her husband had to get married because "we bought a piece (of art glass) together."

Her husband is Rick Heath, a principal in Heath and Associates, expert witnesses in industrial accidents.

The work that sparked a marriage is "Sultry Buns Smith," a monumental vessel by Danville, Ky., hot-glass artist and teacher/mentor Stephen Powell, whose steady fine-arts glass force is another factor behind the art-glass dominance that appears in Louisville.

"When we started collecting in glass, there was no place to go in Louisville to see glass," Orsini said. "We shopped in Seattle, New York, Venice, Paris and London. ... Now, Louisville's on the map."

600450 Art glass is becoming a booming class act

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