The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

UrbanGlass Remakes a Brooklyn Landmark

UrbanGlass, which re-opened its doors on Fulton Street to some fanfare last month, is letting no grass grow under its feet. One of the newer players in the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District is asserting its presence with conviction as it presents The Act of the Table, a mixed-media performance by The Burnt Asphalt Family, on Saturday, November 16th at 8 p.m. Already sold out, the highly anticipated event demonstrates how food prep can become spectacle. Burnt Asphalt will combine hot glass, baking, sautés, flambés, appetizers, and desserts in a visual and sensual feast for audience members to partake of.

The Burnt Asphalt Family performing Act of the Table Photo: Burnt Asphalt Family.

The performance is a showcase for UrbanGlass’s impressive new studio spaces in the erstwhile Strand Theater at 647 Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn, which has undergone an astonishing transformation. When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, armed with a ceremonial red hammer and shielded by safety goggles, broke a sinuous ruby-tinted glass ribbon in early October and formally opened the site, the glassworking facility and exhibition space returned to its former home after two years in wait in the Gowanus Canal environs. During that time, the venerable building underwent a $41 million renovation championed and funded by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, transforming UrbanGlass into the largest and perhaps most influential studio glass facility in the country.

The name says it all. What is perhaps most remarkable about UrbanGlass’s renovation is that a major glassworking facility is returning to the densely populated confines of downtown. According to Cybele Maylone, UrbanGlass Executive Director, due to the specialized nature of studio glasswork, virtually none of the country’s large artist glassworks facilities are in urban areas.

Massive, energy efficient furnaces dominate UrbanGlass's studio space. Photo: UrbanGlass.

Ms. Maylone spoke about the significance of her organization’s return to downtown: “We’ll be bringing this community of artists back to this neighborhood. The [Downtown Brooklyn] Cultural District is fantastic—we are surrounded by organizations like BAM and Mark Morris. But in terms of artists making visual work, producing material culture, we are unique.”

About the upcoming Burnt Asphalt Family performance, Maylone said that “most of the artists who use our studios are creating object-based work; that said, there is a tradition of artists using a glass studio for performance work as well. In that way, The Act of the Table—which is a live, immersive installation piece—is very much in line with this neighborhood being a destination to see cutting edge performance.”

For long-time devotees of New York’s only open access non-profit studio—meaning that anyone who has demonstrated technical skills is eligible to rent space—UrbanGlass’s remodeled interior is virtually unrecognizable. Gone are the oppressive workspaces of the 1918 interior, replaced with soaring ceilings, gleaming new equipment, and great volumes of light, both natural and artificial. The roar of the blast furnaces, which seemed a necessity due to glassmaking’s intensive process, is also gone, perhaps the most notable alteration in UrbanGlass’s 17,000 square feet of studio space.

Artists at work blowing glass In UrbanGlass's newly renovated studios. Credit: UrbanGlass.

Architect Thomas Leeser of LEESER Architecture redesigned the studio layout with Brian Kibler, UrbanGlass’s Director of Operations, into something that expertly meets the needs of the 300 artists and 600 students that annually utilize the organization’s facility. According to Leeser, “It was imperative to create a highly transparent environment to provide UrbanGlass with the public exposure it deserves.”

To that end, UrbanGlass now has a storefront presence on the ground floor of a revitalized Fulton Street in the form of the Agnes Varis Art Center. The Center, with interiors designed by UrbanGlass board member Jeffrey Beers, encompasses both the Robert Lehman Gallery and the Store at UrbanGlass. It offers impressive visibility to an organization that two brief years ago was mired in the darkness of the Strand’s top floor.

Born in Soho, Came of Age in Brooklyn

UrbanGlass was born as the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in the hothouse Soho atmosphere of 1977, founded by Joe Upham, Richard Yelle and Erik Erikson. It was a time when the American arts scene was experiencing a creative renaissance by looking to pre-industrial and applied techniques that hearkened back centuries. Upham and Yelle had been students of Dale Chihuly at Rhode Island School of Design, himself in turn a disciple of Harvey Littleton, generally considered the founder of the American Studio Glass movement.

The vision and perseverance of the founding members sustained the organization in its early years, affording a tenuous existence that ever so gradually transformed the workshop into a stable entity. In 1988, Upham, Yelle and the NYEGW board had the foresight to take advantage of a city program that looked to repurpose the abandoned Strand Theater by turning it into an artist workshop.

The Strand, constructed in 1918 as a movie palace and vaudeville theater that showcased the likes of Harry Houdini and John Phillips Sousa, had gone into foreclosure and been taken over by the city by the 1950s, which converted it into a multi-use space, housing a printing company until the late 1990s.

The workshop was able to raise a “couple of million dollars, a vast sum at the time,” said then-director Tina Yelle. Board member Jane Bruce said in an interview published in the September 2013 issue of Glass Quarterly that “when the organization moved to Brooklyn, it became more of an institution, which it needed to be because of the increased scale of operation.” It was then that the organization changed its name to UrbanGlass.

Ms. Maylone, appointed UrbanGlass’s executive director last May, said that in 1988, “Fort Greene had yet to experience the kind of rapid change that it has over the last two decades. [Urban’s leadership] looked at this neighborhood and thought…it’s a space…that’s incredibly convenient. The mission of the organization is about access, so to be able to be in a neighborhood that’s accessible by public transportation from just about anywhere in New York City is also really important.”

When the city, through the Department of Cultural Affairs, approached both BRIC and UrbanGlass in 2003 about renovating the building as part of the larger BAM Cultural District Plan, the expectation was that UrbanGlass would be out of operations for no more than six months; but it was later determined that the building would need to be vacated for two years, with no certain return date. The move was fraught with difficulties: there were no furnaces, for instance, at the Gowanus location. Artists had to pay to blow glass at Brooklyn Glass, a much smaller facility that was adjacent to UrbanGlass’s temporary location. Goodwill with the organization’s stable of artists and with student clients from NYU, Pratt Institute and elsewhere was put at risk. Without a hot shop, the economic engine of the glass studio business, the organization had to make do with a bare-bones staff.

During this time the board stepped up resolutely. UrbanGlass remained open, and the funds for staff and operations, according to Board Chairman Lawrence Pitterman, came directly from board members and “some very modest studio and education income.”

DCA: The Public Sector Factor

UrbanGlass’s good fortune results in large part from the largesse of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Mayor Bloomberg, who opened the city’s coffers to ensure that the Strand renovation would be fully funded and implemented. The revitalized structure is to be known as BRIC House—which includes, in addition to UrbanGlass, BRIC, the well-known not-for-profit arts and media programming organization, and Brooklyn Cable Access TV (BCAT), now known as Brooklyn Independent Media. It came about as the consequence of a public-private partnership, with UrbanGlass receiving funds from glass giants Corning Incorporated and Tiffany & Co., as well as the Agnes Varis Trust, and the Dana Foundation.

DCA ponied up $41 million for the elegant project, which represents a further extension of the BAM Cultural District, anchored by the Academy of Music itself and bolstered by the Mark Morris Dance Group and the newly opened Theatre for a New Audience.

The Department’s intentions were articulated by Danai Pointer, Director of External Affairs for the Department of Cultural Affairs: “Through DCA’s capital program we’re committed to assisting the nonprofit cultural community.”

“Glass is a very particular medium and it needs to be created and presented in a space with optimal equipment, environmental, and safety features,” said Ms. Pointer. “This project enables the organization and its constituents to produce their work with ease of operations in the most ideal setting with the latest technology and equipment.”

According to Board Chairman Pitterman, the extensive funding BRIC House received is a result of the environment that Mayor Bloomberg has created that has allowed cultural organizations to thrive. “At the end of the day it’s kudos to Bloomberg,” said Pitterman.

New York City Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, who as District 35 Council Member helped secure funding for BRIC House, was eloquent about the importance of the project: “UrbanGlass transformed lives, similar to the glass and wet clay they molded into beautiful, radiant and bold pieces of art...[It] was a hidden treasure behind a brick wall and now is on full display in the district.”

Looking to the Future

At over 17,000 state-of-the-art square feet, UrbanGlass is in the enviable position of being able to provide space for a variety of purposes. Executive Director Maylone notes that some things will be changing as the organization returns from Gowanus and steps into its seven-league boots. There is now ample room for dedicated classes, for instance. As Ms. Maylone points out, “students and the professional artist community were all sharing the same space. Which was really hard…for the artists—you know we have real maestros who work in our studios—and then they’re working alongside an 18-year-old NYU student…It was also hard for the students to have to share space with people who are so extraordinarily talented that it could be intimidating.”

In fact, it may be an expanded focus on education rather than its strategic location that will certify UrbanGlass as the new focal point of the American Studio Glass movement. With two furnaces designated for student work, a classroom developed specifically for studio glass education, and greatly expanded offerings for students ages 10 and up, the organization will easily double or triple the number of students it serves annually.

Which is not to underestimate the impact that the organization’s spanking new public face may deliver. Speaking about the Agnes Varis Art Center, Ms. Maylone said “I think that a new or casual visitor to UrbanGlass will be able to come to our arts center, which is something we’re really excited about, and see the extraordinarily diverse way that artists work with glass. I think…that will be exciting and surprising!”

With The Act of the Table and A Tree Grows, audiences will be able to judge for themselves. The Act of the Table is sold out (a waiting list is available for possible cancellations); A Tree Grows is on view through January 4.


Michael Randazzo

Chip Brenner


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues