In early 2018, St. Pete’s already impressive collection of museums became even more so. The Imagine Museum opened its doors in late January, boasting one of the foremost glass collections in the country, curated by the highly-respected Habatat Gallery. The museum and its mission, “to inspire and uplift and educate,” are a vision of the museum’s founder Trish Duggan.
“When you build a museum, you’re lucky if you can get a collection sometime within that third year of operation,” says Imagine Museum executive director Joanna Sikes. “But this museum got to start with a collection. So it immediately can do its mission.”
With this staple on Grand Central District, St. Pete has secured its foothold as the epicenter of a truly American art form – the Studio Glass Movement.
The studio glass movement was born out of the Toledo Museum of Art, where Harvey Littleton held two studio glass workshops in 1962. He was the creator of the first glass furnace small enough, and inexpensive enough, to be used for independent artists within their own studios. Littleton later added a glass program to the ceramics program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where he taught. His students would eventually include Dale Chihuly, Marvin Lipofsky and Fritz Dreisbach, each of whom became seminal artists within the movement.
More than any other movement or material in history, Americans carved a niche in studio glass, and are renowned throughout the world for their contributions. Americans weren’t the first to use glass – the material dates back to Roman times. But they were the first to take glass outside of a mold – to “let the glass lead,” as Sikes says. “It’s not all glass blowing,” she said. The techniques are multitudinous, “they slump, they mold, they lamp work.”
The foremost name in the studio glass movement is Chihuly, whose infamous and colorful glass installations are displayed the world over. St. Petersburg is home to one of his most famous collections – displayed on Central Avenue, just a few blocks from the Imagine Museum.
Sikes spent 30 years working with Chihuly and developing recognition for the movement as a whole. “I really wanted to have a part to play in the arts,” she recalls, “so pretty early on I decided that I just didn’t want to work necessarily for museums, I wanted to work for artists – I wanted to get close to that process.”
And its not just exhibitions, glass museums and displays. St. Pete’s glass artists are incredibly active as well. The Warehouse Arts District is home to a plethora of local working artists, as well as visiting artists from across the country. Chihuly, his colleagues and proteges helped the studio glass movement catch fire in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the country. Now, St. Pete’s scene is stealing the spotlight.
“Part of it [studio glass] had a prominence to the Pacific Northwest, which is the whole Seattle scene, and it’s still alive. But here it’s on fire,” says Sikes. “Everyone that I work with in Seattle is here blowing glass at the various facilities.” Those facilities include Warehouse Arts District staples like Duncan McClellen Art Gallery, Zen Glass Studios, Morean Arts Center, and many more small studios.
The Imagine Museum provides a jumping off point – a venue to “uplift, inspire and educate” visitors about this uniquely American art form. With appreciation and education – one hopes – come dollars and cents in the pockets of working artists.