Clear vision

China recently opened its first glass museum showcasing both the country’s heritage and contemporary international designs. Among the exhibits are creations by the University of Wolverhampton’s staff and graduates, which form part of the permanent collection.


Glass has a long and illustrious history in the Black Country. Stourbridge and Dudley have been home to world renowned glass companies such as Royal Brierley and Stuart Crystal, and the industry can trace its roots in the area back to the early 1600s.

Pioneer

The University of Wolverhampton was a pioneer in the education of glass art, and its glass design course was the first in the country. Established in 1854, the course has been in continuous operation ever since and over the last 40 years distinguished alumni have successfully launched educational glass and professional practice all over the world.

Among the celebrated graduates is Professor Zhuang Xiaowei, who studied for a Masters in Glass at the University. He attributes his own artistic and professional success to his time at the School of Art & Design (SAD).

When he was appointed as the Director of the new Shanghai Museum of Glass, he decided to return to his artistic origins and include striking artworks by staff and graduates from the University of Wolverhampton in the collection. Stunning glasswork by current staff members, Professor Keith Cummings and Stuart Garfoot, along with former Dean of the School of Art & Design Professor Andrew Brewerton, were acquired as part of the permanent collection, alongside works by successful graduates, David Reekie and Colin Reid.

The official opening was attended by the Dean of the School of Art & Design, Dr Bryony Conway, who facilitated the acquisition and shipping of the precious works. At the grand opening, Dr Conway spoke about the University’s delight at being associated with this new venture.

“I think the museum highlights the very significant contribution of Wolverhampton to the development of glass art in China. It also raises the profile of glass at the University. Our students graduate from a highly regarded course. In addition, there is the international link which we learn from – it is never a one-way flow.”

Andrew Brewerton was instrumental in setting up this link with China. He visited China in 1996 and put on an exhibition, the New Glass Economy, in Shanghai. This was followed by the commissioning of a glass sculpture for the new Shanghai Public Library, made by alumnus Colin Reid.

Iconic landmark

The Shanghai Museum of Glass is an iconic building in itself, created within a former glass factory. The space integrates the building’s original structure and unique characteristics whilst also benefiting from modern functionality. Its mission is to share the countless possibilities of glass, and the museum is designed to juxtapose the past and present. The ground floor focuses on the history of glass in China, while the first floor is an exhibition of international glass art. The beautiful displays are a mixture of contemporary Chinese and international artists, over half of whom are from Wolverhampton.

So what is the secret of the success and longevity of the glass design course? Bryony Conway attributes this to the broad appeal of the course and staff expertise. “We have wonderful facilities and a fabulous academic and technical team. It is a course that allows for a variety of different pathways.

Students can focus on glass art or follow the architecture or design pathway, and that is represented in the expertise of the staff team.

“Professor Keith Cummings started his life as a fine artist, and is particularly strong in glass art, with his original and complex art forms. He is a hugely influential scholar of glass art.

“Stuart Garfoot spent 20 years working for German companies Rosenthal and Thomas as a designer, and his design work is absolutely beautiful – pure, modern classic design. David Green is a specialist in architectural glass and we recently recruited a research fellow, Dr Max Stewart, who has developed his own work in highly expressive glass sculpture.

“Art, and particularly glass, is not only about the creation of beautiful objects – it also requires a scientific understanding of the material.”

Industry links

Also key are links with industry, and the School of Art & Design is continuing to build upon these. Representatives of the glass industry have created the British Glass Foundation, and they are working with the University to organise an international glass symposium in 2012. Dr Conway also explains that a glass stakeholders group has been established to ensure the region makes the most of its glass heritage and works positively together.

As well as being located in a transformed glass factory, the Shanghai Museum of Glass can trace its own roots to strong partnerships with industry. After completing his Masters at Wolverhampton, Zhuang Xiaowei returned to Shanghai University but found there was no glass workshop and no money to develop this area. He went out and worked with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in China, encouraging them and helping them to develop successful glass businesses. They provided him with the material and the resources to get a glass programme off the ground at Shanghai University.

Dr Conway continues: “It is the glass industry that is financing the Shanghai Museum of Glass. That is a really powerful lesson for us. They are working closely with industry to make a success of the development of academic glass.”

So what makes the Wolverhampton glasswork on display in Shanghai special?

“Personally, I love the magical quality of glass, the way light interacts with glass,” Bryony explains.

“A piece by Stuart Garfoot, Ice Chi Family, uses bits of crushed glass – like ice chips – on the graceful forms, and the depth of the purple is gorgeous. The deep red of Colin Reid’s column of glass has an amazing vibrancy about it. There are some wonderful pieces.”

For more information about glass at Wolverhampton, visit www.wlv.ac.uk/sad

Photographer: Simon Bruntnell