American Arts Trust

The American Glass Initiative


Can America's Art Glassmakers Survive?

The American Glass Initiative is a joint venture by two non-profit organizations, American Arts Trusts and the Made in the USA Foundation (read more about the Made in the USA Foundation Click to load the Made in the USA Foundation web site ).

Countries on the rise collect and invest in their own art, whereas countries on the decline reject and divest themselves of their art heritage. Glassmaking was America’s first industry — started in the Jamestown Colony in 1608. For more than 100 years, Steuben Glass (prounounced stu BEN) has been a symbol to the world of America’s technological and artistic skill. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best glass works that go back centuries. “Simple. Elegant. American” was their tag line and it was true. Unlike much manufactured glass, it was not based on the work of one designer, rather on the quality of the sand and the quality of the research and development of its parent company, Corning. The result was an incredibly clear lead crystal. A stable of fine artists, designers and glassblowers who pass their knowledge down to the next generation and the next created a unified design vision that was Steuben.


Steuben Glass


In 1932, one era at Steuben ended and another began. Fredrick Carder, the original driving force behind Steuben, leaves the helm, when the decision is made to go to clear rather then colored glass. He becomes design head of Corning. (read more about Fredrick Carder   Click to load a list of web sites on Fredrick Carder). His work, although always of the highest quality, existed in the shadow of America’s first great glass artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany (who died in 1933). Arthur Houghton, Jr. became the president and guiding force of Steuben in 1933 and for the next 40 years he realized his dream, to ''produce crystal in the highest standards of design, quality and workmanship, glass which would rank in history among man's greatest achievements.'' (Read more about Arthur Houghton, Jr. and the Houghton Family Jump to the bottom of this page to see a Houghton Family Histoical Background ) . His vision dovetailed perfectly with American Art Deco — the dynamism of that art movement symbolized the forward thrust of this country. The Gazelle Bowl designed by Sydney Waugh in1935 is iconic and captures the character of a nation about to rise out of the Great Depression.

For 60 years, glass art has been the official state gift of the US government to other governments. The first such gift of state was the Merry-Go-Round Bowl that President Truman gave to England’s then-Princess Elizabeth as a wedding gift in 1947. President Carter gave matching Steuben pieces to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachin Begin after the Camp David Peace Accord was signed. Every US President since Harry Truman has presented gifts of state made by Steuben Glass.

Time is a manmade invention. In reality, man creates two spheres of time, the “immediate” and the “all time.” Everything in immediate time is urgent-today-right now, but in the all-time clock view, much of what is urgent is forgotten, stripped away from consciousness and we are left with more profound matters. Today’s bad-girl Hollywood actresses will, a few decades hence, have no more meaning than Cornelia Otis Skinner (the vibrant young actress who was so famous in her era that a letter addressed to her by name only would be delivered to her wherever in the world she was that day). Today, the only symbols of her age might be Manhattan’s Chrysler Building or the aforementioned Gazelle Bowl (pictured above).


Steuben Glass


Art Glass is a refection of a nation’s taste level, its wealth and its technological achievements. Glass is as much science as it is an art and as much alchemy as it is science. Like recipes of great chefs, there is always a little something left out that can only be learned by the recipe being personally passed down. Master to journeyman, journeyman to apprentice — generation after generation. If this chain is broken, then the knowledge is lost forever. It is true that examples of the best of Steuben are housed at the Corning Museum in upstate New York, but that is not the same thing as the art being perpetuated along with the knowledge of how to make it. When Steuben shut its doors, saying that all the molds were to be maintained in the vault, 70 master craftsmen were let go. Some were absorbed by Corning to make things like gorilla glass for the face of IPhones. Some retired or opened small studios just to keep their hand in. Some of these hock the craft on the Internet. Some teach classes at the Corning museum, but that is not the same as having an apprentice, to whom, you teach the secrets you know over years. In all likelihood, unless something is done soon, that knowledge will be lost forever. (read more about the closing Click to load a list of web sites on Steuben Closing)

When glass became “mass produced,” there was no longer need for these master skills except at the highest and finest levels. In the present age of technology, after all, the past is something that can always be “Googled.” In the previous century, the place of art glass was secured by the needs of the upper class (and the middle class who tried to emulate its tastes). Tableware—specifically, stemware—accounted for the majority of Steuben’s income. During that time period, more extravagant creations of “real art” were justified. But that time is passing or has passed. Production line knock-offs look very much like the originals. Brides no longer register for everyday and fine crystal. And, rather than thinking outside the box, the powers that be looked at Steuben’s bottom line and went with the easy commercial idea: Make it cheaper and make it mass market. Four years later, that failed and the doors were closed for good—returning the revered name and molds to Corning.


Steuben Glass


In truth, the Steuben division never made a profit, so why after 100 years was that suddenly a problem? Perhaps because there was no one at the helm like Arthur Houghton Jr. or Fredrick Carder who has a vision. Perhaps the realization that the stemware needs of this nation were more than dwindling. Or, perhaps, that Corning, having created Gorilla Glass for Apple, is now a leader in what will become a revolution in “smart glass” and fiber optics, feels they no longer need an art wing to showcase their technology.

The art of glass and the technology of glass have flourished hand-in-hand since heated sand first melted on the bottom of a Phoenician pot and glazed it. Advances on one side made advances on the other side possible and that Ying-Yang relationship in glass art is unique.

The ART IS THE ANSWER idea is relatively simple. Understand the worth of a great American art glass company beyond its bottom-line value. Recreate Steuben as a not-for-profit division of Corning. Set it up so that initial funding and any shortfalls are raised from the groups with vested interest (listed below). Instead of relying on the tableware and animals with art at the fringe, put art front and center. Make the art for the people and put glassware at the expensive fringe for those who can afford it.

We envision monumental glass art works. Imagine the best of Steuben’s artworks super-sized. And who better to do them? When no one in the world thought it could be done Steuben poured the lens for the Palomar Telescope — a true marriage of technology and art. At the time, it was the largest piece of glass ever poured. Its trip across the country drew the kind of crowds that the Space Shuttle commanded this decade. Now, imagine that huge disc of pure crystal as the canvas for the magnificent copper-wheel etchings that are the main provenance of Steuben’s master artists. There most certainly is a market for wonders in our time.


Steuben Glass


American artist Dale Chihuly’s installations are renowned throughout the world. People and institutions continue to pay whatever it costs to display his stunning pieces. He is a singular artist. When he stops creating, no one will be able to fill his shoes. If Steuben decided to create monumental art pieces, they could offer a place and a style for today’s artists that would serve to train tomorrow’s artists too. The company would turn itself into a sustainable resource — just as Steuben did in its glory days.

Looking forward, Steuben becomes even more widely known and its artworks more prized. The smaller pieces (animals, vases and bowls) take on a special cache — a chance for people to own something from the same artist who created the monumental glass work on everyone’s “bucket list.” Tableware can return to its high-quality more expensive form; new limited lines can be created by acclaimed artists. How will these limited lines and higher costs create profit? They don’t, but they will keep the craft alive and return the world’s spotlight to new and innovative American art.

This type of association will go a long way toward strengthening the Corning bottom line, help re-establish the American glass industry and offer an alternative to the four-year college model for artisans. And, finally, it will reflect very nicely on the United States’ image.


Steuben Glass


We need to remember that our time is not like ancient Sparta — where a child was put on a hillside to see if he could survive. Art that celebrates our soul as a nation should be treasured for what it is, something truly transcendental. A nation might be rich in dollars, but history will remember if a country supports and holds sacred its art and its creators.

As just mentioned, this is the perfect time to refocus on the guild system of advanced education. College is very expensive and the once-promised jobs are no longer guaranteed to graduates. New technologies that will drive the world forward do not suit every student. A return to the old European guild system of training journeymen might be the educational model of the future.

Who should support this?
The Corning Corporation.
All United States glassmakers (because it highlights, in forums yet unused, the power and potential of glass and places American-made glass front and center as the perfect blend of art and technology).
High-end retailers who are hungry to sell goods that tell an “American story.”
The existent (as well as new) guilds that would gain a showcase for their importance to society as a whole.
America’s current educational system — craft skills readily can be folded into new forms of higher education.
Patrons of the arts and artists themselves.
New York and the entire northeast region could return to prominence in glass manufacturing.
Every American (including, but not limited to financial shareholders) will feel the pride of ownership in American glass that can once again be “the best of the best.”

That helps all of us.

Historical Background

The Houghton Family

It is important to understand that Corning/Steuben Glass Works has been a family-run business almost since its inception. The Houghton (pronounced HOE-ten) Family, in addition to its involvement with Corning, gives back to the country where its firm has flourished through government service, philanthropy (especially support for the arts), fighting for women's rights and as actors. All in all, a living embodiment of the American Dream: Start a business, prosper, pass it down through the family, do good for your community and nation, support and be active in the arts.

In this day and age, it seems as if the American Dream has shrunk to avoiding foreclosure. Often, the faces running our businesses are highly paid--but somewhat interchangeable executives — focused on parachutes and shareholders (who, in turn, are concerned with stock price, not the true value or worth of a company). It is good to take a moment to recognize that the driving force behind Corning (until very recently) has been members of one family.

(Click on the highlighted names for more of Corning’s history)

Amory Houghton, Sr. (1812-1882) founder of what would become Corning Glass Works

In 1851, a chance meeting with British glassmaker "Gaffer" Teasdale inspired him to see his future in glass. Houghton's ownership in the small glass companies Cate & Phillip (later called Bay State Glass) and the Union Glass Works led to his eventual purchase of the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works in Brooklyn, NY. Houghton's oldest son, Amory, also became involved in the family business and championed the idea of moving upstate -- where materials and real estate were cheaper. Houghton moved his company to Corning, NY and changed the company's name to reflect its new home.
Corning - Our HeritageHistory of the Corning Glass Works

Amory Houghton, Jr. (1837-1909) President of Corning Glass Works, and his younger brother, Charles Frederick Houghton (1846-1897) reorganized their father’s faltering glass business into the specialty-oriented Corning Glass Works. They fostered great respect from their clients by delivering precise results on custom orders--an outstanding legacy of Corning Glass.

Jesse Houghton Metcalf (1860-1942) US Senator.

Alanson B. Houghton (1863-1941) Vice President from 1902 to 1910 and President from 1910 to 1918 and his brother, Arthur Houghton (see below), comprised the third generation of Corning Glass and oversaw it triple in size while embracing both industrial science and bulk production. Alanson graduated from Harvard, then pursued post-graduate studies in Germany and France that convinced him that scientific breakthroughs could greatly benefit the family industry. Soon, Corning found itself more than ready to meet the exacting and expanding demands from clients such as Edison, General Electric and America's railroads. He served in Congress, as well as US Ambassador to Germany and, later, Great Britain.

Arthur A. Houghton, Sr. (1866-1928) President of Corning Glass Works

William Tully (1870–1930) New York State Senator

Katherine Martha Houghton Hepburn (1878-1951) suffragette and birth control advocate and mother of actress Katharine Hepburn (1907- 2003)

Amory Houghton, Sr. (1899-1981) President and Chairman of Corning Glass Works US Ambassador to France National President of the Boy Scouts of America

Alice Tully (1902-1993) philanthropist. Primary benefactor of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City

Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. (1906-1990) philanthropist, President of Steuben Glass Company (former division of Corning Glass) and patron of the arts (Chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic). Houghton, the great-grandson of Amory Houghton, joined the company after graduating from Harvard in 1929 and became president of its subsidiary, Steuben Glass, in 1933. Under his leadership, Steuben would become world-renowned in the next 40 years. Houghton destroyed old products that were not selling and created a quality glass business that incorporated imaginative design in technically superb crystal.

Amory "Amo" Houghton, Jr. (b. 1926) Chairman and CEO (1964 to 1983) of Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated) member of the US House of Representatives. He graduated from Harvard in 1950. Houghton also served on the boards of IBM, Citigroup, Proctor & Gamble and Genentech.
New York State of Mind - After

Arthur Houghton III (b. 1945) US Diplomatic Corps

Katherine Houghton (b. 1945) actress

Mundy Hepburn (b. 1955) sculptor

Schuyler Grant (b. 1971) actress

Kim Hoover De Allen (b. 1979) philanthropist

James R. Houghton (b. 1936) Chairman and CEO (1983 to 1996 and 2002 to 2005) of Corning Incorporated. He graduated from Harvard in 1962 and joined the family company that year. He is currently a Senior Fellow of Harvard College.

The Houghton Family now owns less than two percent of Corning Incorporated. As of 2007, there was no Houghton at the helm of Corning for the first time in 150 years. The company’s future success is not in question. But where does the heart of this great American-made company lie? Will Corning step up to honor Amory Houghton, Sr.'s American Dream and the work of his heirs to make it grow? Will the Corning crucible be used to create only profits for its shareholders? Or, will the company forge a lasting bond to the artists who create its products, the community and the nation who allowed it to prosper? American Arts Trust hopes that Corning will step out of "immediate time" and commit to Steuben and its artists "for all time."