No Sign of Slowing Down: The Corning Museum of Glass Turns 70!

For America, the 1950s was a decade of highs and lows. In the wake of the second world war, the nation experienced a booming economy, a rapidly growing population, and watched as its cities and suburbs spread across the land to house a new generation. But the 50s were also the dawn of new conflicts, including the Cold War and the fight for Civil Rights.

In the spring of 1951, five people witnessed the unfolding of this new America from the small galleries and offices of the newly opened Corning Museum of Glass. Those five made up the entire staff back then! Conceived as an educational institution entirely separate from its benefactor, Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated), the Museum sought to expand the world’s understanding of glass. And ever since, the Museum has inspired people to see glass in a new light, a mission that remains at the forefront of our institutional culture 70 years later.

The Corning Museum of Glass in 1951.

To celebrate the Museum’s 70th anniversary, we’ve taken a trip through the archives to highlight some unforgettable moments.

So, let’s go back to where it all began.

In May 1951, the same year as the publication of J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and televised debuts for the Today show and I Love Lucy, The Corning Museum of Glass opened its doors for the very first time. The Museum was the idea of Arthur Houghton and his cousin Amory Houghton who, together, developed the Museum’s charter, assembled a collection of 2,000 glass objects, hired the original staff, proposed the first exhibitions, formed a research library, and, not insignificantly, developed the beloved Hot Spot logo. No small feat!

Among the first five employees was Director Thomas Buechner who served until 1960 (and then again from 1975-1981). Buechner was followed by Paul Perrot who took the helm for the next 12 years, overseeing substantial growth of the collection and staff, including the hiring of Dr. Robert H. Brill and Jane Shadel Spillman, who both sadly passed away earlier this year.

Aerial view of the flood in 1972.

The 1970s may be remembered for many things, but it’s likely that none stand out like the great flood of June 23, 1972. The Museum was under the directorship of Dr. Brill who was in Afghanistan when storm Agnes hit and recalled with the famous telegram “… Museum destroyed, return immediately.” Back in Corning, he found his staff undertaking one of the greatest cleanup operations ever seen by a museum, with galleries submerged in mud, and artwork and rare books damaged by the floodwater. Restoration would take almost four years to fully complete, although the Museum opened a mere 39 days later on August 1, 1972. This difficult time serves as a testament to the skill and determination of the Museum staff then and now. The high-water sign in the admissions lobby remains a popular site for visitors today.

By 1978 the Museum was outgrowing its original footprint and construction began on the Gunnar Birkerts building, which would eventually open in 1980. A large, majestic building with flowing curves and enough space to house the Museum’s collection, now home to the 35 Centuries of Glass galleries. At its center, the newly designed library was situated on an upper level to protect it from future flooding.

The Birkerts building under construction.

The Library went through further transitions in the following years under the guidance of Director Dwight Lanmon, becoming The Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library in 1984. For a short time, the Libraries holding were temporarily situated offsite until its current home was completed in 2000. The library’s collection has grown from 500 books to more than 500,000 print items, in 50+ languages, as well as over 300,000 digital files. The Rakow collects materials from all parts of the world, in any language and in any format, if it pertains to glass art, science, history, and glassmaking.

In 1996, with David Whitehouse now as director, the Museum unveiled The Studio, a state-of-the-art teaching facility for glassblowing and coldworking. Under the management of Amy Schwartz, The Studio has welcomed hundreds of thousands of students over the years, helping glass enthusiasts of all skill levels, from guests young and old that try Make Your Own Glass experiences to glass artists of multiple disciplines returning for intensive courses. The Studio celebrated its own 25th anniversary on Monday this week—May 24, 2021.

Bill Gudenrath, Amy Schwartz, and David Whitehouse on the opening day of The Studio.
Bill Gudenrath, Amy Schwartz, and David Whitehouse on the opening day of The Studio, 1996.

“I can’t believe it has been 25 years! I’ve loved watching people mature as artists—people who were here as students who now have wonderful careers. I’ve loved seeing all the friendships and other relationships that have grown from spending time at The Studio. The staff here has become like family and seeing people return year after year is fulfilling. I’m eager to grow The Studio in the future.” 

Amy Schwartz, director of The Studio
Glassblower and Blown Away finalist Janusz Poźniak during the first 2300° of 2020.

The Studio’s unveiling kicked off additional expansion throughout the Museum that would all come to fruition by 2001. A new Sculpture Gallery, Hot Glass Show demonstration stage, and the interactive Innovation Center filled with scientific curiosities all opened at this time.

Hot Glass demonstrations revolutionized visitation to the Museum. In tandem, the Museum launched a highly successful new program—2300°, a fun night of glassblowing, guest artists, live music, dancing, and a good amount of merriment. What isn’t to love? The 20th season of 2300° was unfortunately cut short in 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The new millennium was a busy time. Attendance continued to rise year after year as visitors from around the world descended on Corning to experience the beauty of the collections.

Exhibitions such as Glass of the Maharajahs (2006), Voices of Contemporary Glass (2009), Mt. Washington and Pairpoint Glass (2011), and René Lalique: Enchanted by Glass (2014) showcased the Museum’s diverse collection.

In 2012, the Museum announced its next ambitious expansion: the Contemporary Art + Design Wing and a new Amphitheater for hot glass demonstrations on the site of the former Steuben factory. Present for the groundbreaking was Marie McKee, president and CEO, and Karol Wight, who became president and executive director upon Marie McKee’s retirement at the end of 2014. The expansion was completed in 2015 and the Museum experienced its busiest year on record with more than 425,000 visitors.

Groundbreaking for the North Wing expansion at The Corning Museum of Glass
(L to R) Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, Senator Tom O’Mara, Karol Wight, Corning Inc.’s Wendell Weeks and Jim Flaws, Marie McKee, and Mayor Richard Negri turn the soil at The Corning Museum of Glass North Wing expansion groundbreaking in 2012.

In the years that followed the Museum has continued evolving. Nevermore so than in 2020 when we felt the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the shuttering of our doors for more than three months from March to July. Faced with the first closure since the flood in 1972, the Museum responded by putting the safety of its staff, guests, and collections paramount. With new institutional values centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Museum has faced the challenges presented by the global pandemic with resolve.

“I feel privileged to be leading a museum such as this, which from its very inception has placed sharing the story of glass at its heart, for our local, and now global, community. We have thrived as an institution because of the support of Corning Incorporated and the larger glass community. I look forward to another 70 years of inspiring creativity, engaging further with our local community and the world of glass, and inspiring those who walk through our doors every day to see glass in a new light.”

Karol Wight, president and executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass

Looking back at 70 years of innovation, experimentation, glass made and glass broken, exhibitions, celebrations, growth and loss, adversity, endeavor, and triumph, there are so many reasons to be proud of the achievements of the Museum and the many hundreds of staff that have worked here over the years. We continue to learn so much by looking back at where we’ve come from and grow in new, challenging, and exciting ways when we look to the future.

We’ll keep looking at glass in a new light, and we hope you will, too.

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