To enter the home of Dr. Richard and Barbara Basch is to step into a vitreous wonderland of color and light. Modern and open in design, the layout could almost be described as spartan if not for the unrelenting and almost intimidating presence of glass art populating every shelf and tabletop and pedestal, painstakingly arranged for maximum pleasure and immersion into a world at once startlingly present and simultaneously intangible in its completeness like trees transformed by the jungle into a greater and more primal totality.

At every turn, you will find the work of a Muranese master or some upstart American doing what America does best—putting their own spin on a classic approach. To take a guided tour is tantamount to a crash course in the history of the technique and its practitioners today (though the docent may flinch at the term and its implications). Walking through, one takes care to tuck their elbows, but Barbara says she can navigate her way in the dark, though she doesn’t have to—an illuminated glass sculpture by Jose Chartied shines from its custom wooden frame all night.  Since the couple donated their collection to Ringling College of Art and Design eight years ago, where it shows in themed selections yearly with tours led by Barbara, it became impossible to talk about the growth of studio glass in Sarasota without their mention, but with the incoming Basch Visual Art Center bringing glasswork to the college in a substantial way for the first time, the conversation takes on a whole new dimension. But the impact of the artwork reaches beyond the walls of a single home. Sarasota just saw the light, but the shine has been in the works for some time.

The world of American studio glass prior to 1960 was at a crossroads but the truck was idling. Viewed more as a craft material than an artistic medium, prevailing thought held that in fact it was a material artists could not work with on their own, due to its temperamental nature and the need for industrial-grade equipment. Accepted practice separated the construction of glass artifacts between two creators: the designer, who would conceive the idea; and the craftsman, who would then make it a reality. And if the artist wanted something in glass, they’d better be prepared to collaborate and compromise. Without full creative control, the medium’s potential languished. But in 1962, a teaching ceramicist named Harvey K. Littleton kicked the truck in gear and changed the course of American studio glass forever. In a letter sent to Harold J. Brennan, head of the School of American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Littleton expresses himself thusly:

“Design in this field has been so sterile and all attempts to instill life and freedom have been blocked by the seemingly insurmountable problem of the designer-artisan relationship. In pottery, this was solved by combining the two in the artist-potter. As a teacher, I am burning to prove that the ‘mystery’ of glassworking is as teachable to artists as we have proven the mysteries of pottery were.”

Armed with five graduate students and a small-scale furnace designed by a glass research scientist named Dominick Labino, Littleton set out to prove his point and in 1962, held a pair of humble but historic glassblowing workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art. The chemistry wasn’t fully understood, annealing a mystery and early works came out as little more than fanciful blobs or “dip n’ drip weed bottles” as studio glass pioneer Richard Marquis so colorfully put it. But the theory was sound and in one fell swoop, Littleton merged the role of artist and technician into one.

The Toledo Workshops, as they came to be known, opened the world of studio glass to generations of new artists, a place where now-celebrated figures such as Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly came into their own under Littleton’s tutelage. Artist studios sprang up across the country, as did devoted schools, including Chihuly’s own Pilchuck Glass School; collectors took notice and museums soon followed. By the 1980s, it was a global phenomenon, and a decade later glass conventions and conferences grew from niche affairs to drawing thousands eager to see what new creations American artists brought forth from the furnace. Littleton may be gone, but in his spirit, the world of American studio glass continues to grow, and thanks to community advocates, institutions and collectors, the movement may finally be coming to Sarasota in a big way.

Gathering The Glass

At the outset, Jane Buckman will deflect, giving credit to Richard and Barbara Basch for kickstarting glass appreciation in Sarasota with the donation of their studio glass collection to Ringling College, but as director for the Longboat Key Center for the Arts (LBKCA), Buckman has been crucial to the development of a studio glass audience in Sarasota by hosting dedicated exhibitions, lectures on glass and even an annual international studio glass auction since 2014.

It began with a solo exhibition of the work of Marlene Rose, a Clearwater-based glass artist represented by internationally acclaimed Habatat Galleries out of Michigan, but quickly grew into something more. Habatat owner and founder Ferdinand Hampson attended the show to see the space and see what Buckman was working with. Already familiar with the area due to the amount of glass collectors, Hampson offered to collaborate with Buckman in bringing studio glass to the region in a big way, even going so far as to lay the groundwork in the art world at large by dubbing Sarasota the “new art glass Mecca” in an article for Collectors magazine. 

One of the biggest impediments to the growth of a real scene for studio art glass was simply that there was not enough of it on 
display to generate requisite excitement. Like any painting or sculpture, glass must be appreciated in person to be fully understood—a picture on the Internet just won’t cut it. To directly combat this problem, Buckman and Hampson introduced the Glass Weekend—a multiday blitz of glass-related activity at the beginning of season designed to demystify the medium and familiarize the audience with its potential.

The inside of LBKCA transformed into an international glass auction house for the weekend, with vintage works from the likes of Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra featured in Masterworks in Glass, a collection from Habatat. With 42 pieces from seven countries up for auction, local and visiting bidders crammed the halls while international prospects gummed up the Wi-Fi with long-distance offers from across the world.

Over the course of the weekend, guest lecturers gave talks; the speaker list ranged from working glass artists Peter Bremers and Christina Bothwell to experts including Hampson himself. Home tours brought enthusiasts and would-be collectors to stand amidst the great glass collections of the region as far abroad as St. Petersburg and Clearwater and hear the stories behind them and imagine themselves one day living in such glittering refinement. And the galleries filled with glass.

From the Basch Gallery on Ringling College’s campus to the pop-up gallery in Whitney Plaza organized and stocked by Habatat and with a trolley running back and forth from LBKCA, glass was on display and accessible at a level previously unseen in the community. The next year, Alfstad& 
Contemporary would join in the effort, kicking off the weekend a day early on a Thursday and opening an exhibition from glass artist Michael Taylor, expanding the celebration to a four-day event.

Held annually since its inception, the Glass Weekend has been a success “on every level,” says Buckman. Calls come in as early as May, with collectors and appreciators asking which weekend in October to keep open on their calendars. Alfstad& returns this year, and now the Ringling Museum, celebrating the announcement of its Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion, will participate in some regard. As for LBKCA, the focus this year will be Czech glass; large-scale, heavy cast pieces that Buckman describes as decidedly “not Chihuly.”

“It’s growing and it continues to grow,” Buckman says of this local studio glass phenomenon, but again she shies from credit. She’s excited to see what the incoming Basch Visual Art Center at Ringling College will do for the movement going forward. “I see this as a whole Sarasota thing,” she says. “I’m thrilled that I get to be a part of it.”

A Bright Enthusiasm

For Buckman, studio glass may be a passion, but for Richard and Barbara Basch, it might be fair to call it an obsession. The couple’s treasure trove of art is the result of nearly 25 years of collecting, and they are not done yet. “Richard’s checking the price on another piece as we speak,” Barbara confides, her tone an energetic mix of half-harried resignation and unmistakable excitement as if to say questions of too much are far behind them. The couple is at the point where they have to rotate the collection, but there’s always room.

Exploring the works on display, it’s hard to fathom a conceptual through-line or stylistic constant. Particular artists reappear, but the only real commonality seems to be the medium itself, along with the draw its potential holds in these collectors’ eyes. “It’s so fluid,” Barbara says, making fists as if to grasp the ineffable. “You can do so much…”

Standing amidst the Basch collection is to see Littleton’s dream made manifest, with near every technique imaginable on display and the medium stretched, coaxed, forced and fired to each artist’s design and desire. Here, a flame-thrown piece by Lucio Bubacco, the Muranese maestro with the whimsical touch whose complex and subtly comic constructions bring canework to new heights; there, a bust in the Egyptian style with glass looking like alabaster stone under the touch of American artist Seth Randal. Organic and flowing works from Lino Tagliapietra give way to the geometric and architectural sensibilities of fellow Venetian, Livio Seguso. A Chihuly purchased in 1992 as the first piece in the collection still shows prominently. But Barbara is perhaps most excited about a new piece from Italian master Davide Salvadore, whose work will be on display in the Basch Gallery this year for the Glass Weekend. Shaped roughly like a blue-pronged scepter or oversized Christmas bauble, the work epitomizes Basch’s love for the medium in its display of versatility. Beginning with an expansive blown bubble, Salvadore adorns one side with several multi-colored murrines—medallions made from cross-sections of clustered cane and fused onto the sculpture—and carves the rest with a diamond-tip needle into swirling arcs and a faint battuto, mimicking the effect of hammered metal, before acid washing the whole thing to a more opaque and textured finish. The remaining length consists of four glass bubbles blown and fused inside another larger bubble.

But while the Basches have long been integral to the showing of studio glass in Sarasota, the pair now eyes the next step—fostering the creation of studio glass in the area and grooming the new artists necessary to populate a real and burgeoning glass art culture. The Basch Visual Art Center (BVAC), situated in the heart of the Ringling campus, will house classrooms, a gallery and the tools and space for students working in ceramics, wood sculpture, photography, printmaking and digital fabrication, but the biggest addition—the one that inspired the project—will be hot and cold shops for glasswork. With the option available, Basch foresees many students taking an interest in the medium and already cites one success story pre-BVAC, a Ringling student studying glass who graduated this past June and went on to work with artists like Laura Donefer at Pilchuck. “Kids may not think they’re going to major in glass,” says Barbara, “but it sure would give them the opportunity to try it and maybe they’ll get hooked.”

Through the opportunity students can immerse themselves in this sense of possibility and never-ending exploration that so entranced the Basches. With time, Ringling College could forge its own chain of mentors and artist apprentices à la Littleton to Chihuly to Martin Blank. “Our approach is going to be the future of studio glass and how kids are taught to make this beautiful thing and hopefully go into the field,” Barbara says. And for the community at large, BVAC will present an opportunity to see the process behind the piece and demystify the whole affair to create a welcoming environment for new collectors to explore.

“It’s a medium that needs attention,” Barbara continues. She is happy to see the Ringling Museum picking up the banner with the announcement of the Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion, which will prominently display both families’ collections in a gallery at the entrance for the Historic Asolo Theatre. “The three forces are coming together,” she says.

Casting Shadows

But not everyone in the glass world looks upon these new developments with an ecstatic eye. Over at Hodgell Gallery on Palm Avenue, Brian O’Connell sees storm clouds brewing in the glassy fog. To him, these latest expansions hailed as victories only further signs of a growing problem festering largely unnoticed in the city and county at large. Tall, articulate and direct in manner and speech, O’Connell is a numbers guy, as apt during conversation to recite the Dow numbers from 1981 as to reference the latest artist on the wall in order to make a point. And the numbers he’s looking at aren’t pretty.

The state of Florida has a population of roughly 20 million and Sarasota County 400,000, or 2 percent of that total. Yet the county consistently accounts for only 1.2 percent of sales statewide. “And if Sarasota County were a state,” he says, “we’d be 47th in wage.” Recent amendments at the county level have shifted the burden of taxation off of residents and more onto commercial businesses, making it more difficult to turn a profit, and although the county has seen its GDP grow by something in the realm of 1 percent every year since 2006, it lags sorely behind comparable economies in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Orange counties. “We’re doing terribly,” says O’Connell, and he feels it’s a problem that won’t be fixed as long as elected officials at the city and county levels cater to a voting population dominated by retired and wealthy residents with less of a stake in the functioning of the local economy. “So it doesn’t really matter if the economy works,” O’Connell says, “because it doesn’t really affect them.”

He sees the same mentality at play in recent developments at Ringling College and LBKCA, where the collecting community will enjoy novel sights and new opportunities but at a cost to 
local entrepreneurs. “These are commercial galleries in a not-for-profit college and a not-for-profit art center,” says O’Connell, singling out the partnership between Habatat and LBKCA as well as citing past collaborations between Ringling College and the Schantz Gallery in Massachusetts to bring the work of Lino Tagliapietra to the Basch Gallery. “What happens to all the money in sales?” he asks. “Most of it leaves this market. It doesn’t get recirculated.” (According to Buckman, LBKCA receives 5 percent of auction sales and 10 percent of gallery sales during the events.) Instead, it puts Hodgell Gallery in direct competition with some of the biggest names and galleries in the business—and during high season. As someone who has given hundreds of free man-hours of work to local collectors and institutions, including the Basches and Ringling College, O’Connell marks this latest turn of events a betrayal. “It’s very difficult,” he says, noting that glass art sales only represent 1 percent of the market. “It’s amazing we even have a glass gallery.”

But Hodgell has been in Sarasota since 1984; purchased in 1989 by O’Connell’s wife with him joining in 1993. He’s seen at least a hundred galleries open and close in his time but kept the lights on in Hodgell through a service-minded approach and some practical savvy. First, he says, the Sarasota art market is much better suited to sculpture than painting, despite what the number of galleries devoted to painting may attest. The first step is to realize that most potential buyers are those retiring to the community and purchasing a new residence that needs filling.

And in O’Connell’s judgment, for Sarasota that’s more than likely going to be a condominium with little space for wall furnishings but plenty of opportunity for sculpture. “I can site 30 sculptures in my client’s home or five paintings,” he says, and the choice was clear. It’s art, but it’s also business, and O’Connell knows how to play the numbers as well as pick the artists. At Hodgell, he’s shown over 300 artists, and at any given time there could be as many as 60 showing. This is a far different model from that found in typical painting-centric galleries, what O’Connell calls the “take it or leave it” approach of showing a handful of artists at most and sometimes devoting serious space to solo exhibitions, limiting options for prospective buyers on the prowl and possibly losing sales. Lastly, O’Connell says the key is to lift the burden of owning glass art from the owner, meaning offering his expertise in transport and installation, even going so far as to offer custom steel shelving of his own design to his customers. Using the same system in the gallery, he now displays 40 sculptures where there used to be eight.

O’Connell remains confident that Hodgell will survive and agrees there is amazing growth in the glass art scene in Sarasota—“Through the roof,” he says—but the product of that growth is a further instance of the divide between those who come to Sarasota to enjoy their fortune and those who came to find it.

Fine Art Glow

But the incoming Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion will be something that everyone can enjoy, says Ringling Museum Director Steven High. Made possible by major gifts from area glass collectors Philip and Nancy Kotler and Warren and Margot Coville, the 5,500-square-foot addition will permanently and prominently display studio glass from the two collections in a pair of gallery spaces also designed as the new entrance to the Historic Asolo Theatre. “It’s going to be a spectacular experience,” says High, imagining future visitors passing under the historic John Ringling gate, greeted by this great contemporary glass construction with fins running down the side and fine art shimmering and visible 
on the inside. “It’s putting the art out front,” he says. And as an added bonus, the pavilion will always be free to enter.

And for their part, the Kotlers express nothing but excitement at the work being done at Ringling College’s main campus and the LBKCA adjunct. Glass is a medium “unlike any other” they say, with, among other things, an interiority that other media lack. It also shines brightly in the 
Sarasota sunlight. “And we love that glass offers so much versatility,” Nancy says, echoing Barbara’s sentiments. Practicing law in Chicago, she was captivated by the glass sculptures in a colleague’s office, and when invited to view the collection in a home, both the Kotlers were hooked. “I was fascinated by the shape, the movement, the refraction—all of it,” Nancy says. “And that was it.” The couple bought their first piece, a relatively simple one of nested blown glass, and didn’t look back. “It just doesn’t get boring,” says Philip.

It’s this same excitement the Kotlers want to share with the community through the pavilion, particularly with the area’s students, who can immerse themselves in the world of studio glass at a younger age than most. “Hopefully it will become not just beautiful art but a resource for the community,” says Nancy. “There’s a strong desire on the part of the collecting community to educate the public and show them the work because many people have not had any experience with it at all.” Philip envisions economic opportunity for the region through studio glass. The Ringling’s Asian Art Center brought a surge in visitors, he says, and once the pavilion is completed and the glass on display, “it will generate a lot of excitement and people will drive to Sarasota to see the collection.” He recalls a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where an exhibition of studio glass opened next to one featuring Pablo Picasso and people walked past Pablo to see the glass. “The real excitement was seeing this new art form that they’d never seen before,” he says. Maybe, Nancy offers, a new commercial gallery will take note and set up shop in Sarasota.

“The whole area is thriving on this possibility,” Philip continues. High agrees, saying, “It’s been a thoughtful building of awareness, and we’re creating a focus on studio glass in the region.” Nancy is less reserved in her prediction: “There is no question. Sarasota is going to be the West Coast glass Mecca.”