New Bedford Art Museum’s Chihuly glass exhibit signals a rebirth

New Bedford Art Museum’s Chihuly glass exhibit signals a rebirth

The South Coast art community of creatives, connoisseurs, collectors and the curious are anxiously awaiting the Big Reveal at the New Bedford Art Museum this week, when “Luminous Silver,” a large chandelier-like sculpture by Dale Chihuly, will shed its jet-black sheath.

The 600-pound sculpture, created by arguably the most famous glass artist in the world (and his team of highly skilled assistants) is suspended from a newly installed I-beam over the museum’s main gallery, where it will permanently reside.

How significant is Chihuly? 

According to Mary Childs, executive director of the Sandwich Glass Museum, he is considered by many to be the leading contemporary influence in the studio glass movement of the 20th century.

Childs elaborated, noting that in accord with intense shifts in the evolving aesthetic of the moment, Chihuly experimented with bold color and abstract design in purely sculptural pieces as experienced in the works of significant abstract painters.

“Chihuly’s vibrantly hued sculptures sync with Rothko’s use of color as an instrument for expressing and evoking emotions,” Childs said. “His exuberant sculptural forms resonate with the primal energy and gestures of works by Robert Motherwell.”

She pointed out that Chihuly was instrumental in revolutionizing old school American studio practices by introducing American glass artists to the Italian traditional concept of studio “teams” led by a maestro, expressing her opinion that the current renaissance of interest in glass art can be traced directly to him.

Kirk Nelson, executive director of the New Bedford Museum of Glass, tells a more personal story about an interaction with Chihuly three decades ago. Nelson had organized a field trip for the museum’s volunteers to watch the glassmaster create art at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he had established that institution’s illustrious glass program in 1969. 

Entering the hot shop, Nelson and his colleagues saw Chihuly sitting on a folding chair near the furnace, mere feet from an impromptu audience gathering to watch the session. Chihuly had his tools at hand: a large sketchpad, a bundle of pencils bound together with a rubber band and inexplicably, a box of Wheat Chex breakfast cereal.

Perplexed, they watched as he lifted the first sheet of paper in the pad, sprinkled the Wheat Chex over the second sheet, and then folded the first sheet to cover them. He then picked up the bundled pencils and commenced to sketch out a gracefully flowing bowl form that would be realized later that morning as a stunning glass sculpture in his Macchia series.

The Wheat Chex beneath the paper had created a mottled effect that complemented the parallel lines of the bundled pencils, perfectly indicating the distinctive combination of mottling and threading desired in the final piece. 

Nelson continued, noting that Chihuly’s work, with its bold color and scale, often seems familiar but is infused with fantastically alien forms. He advises that visitors to the museum should “prepare to be astonished.” 

Without a doubt, both Childs and Nelson are well respected experts in the glass world with great admiration for Chihuly.

But why and how does the New Bedford Art Museum — a non-collecting museum — now have a major work by a world famous artist hanging from its ceiling? 

It started with a moment of perfect serendipity, soon followed by more than a little hard work.

Marisol Rosa, who currently holds the position of education and audience engagement manager at the New Bedford Art Museum, previously was employed as a teacher and counselor in the Elements Nature Program, a year-round, nature-based drop-off learning program for children, ages 5-10.

The ENP is housed at the Round the Bend Farm (RTB), a Center for Restorative Community in South Dartmouth, helmed by Executive Director Desa Van Laarhoven.

Not long after Rosa had put in their two-week notice to take the job at the museum, they were invited to join their former colleagues at a holiday party at Buzzards Bay Brewing.

Rosa was excitedly talking to a friend about a Chihuly sculpture that they’d seen when Van Laarhoven piped in — and I’m paraphrasing — “Do you think the museum would like a Chihuly?”

Van Laarhoven told Rosa that the philanthropists Duncan and Ellen McFarland, who through their Bromley Charitable Trust set up the 39-acre land trust on which the farm is situated had offered “Luminous Silver” to RTB.

But for logistical reasons, it was not the best fit. The two continued their conversation and shortly after, Van Laarhoven spoke to the McFarlands, who were generously agreeable to gifting the Chihuly to the New Bedford Art Museum.

Rosa contacted Suzanne de Vegh, who had become the executive director of the New Bedford Art Museum in the fall of 2022. And soon, things were off and running.

Much was needed to facilitate the donation: transportation, the addition of the I-beam, the installation of the artwork itself by outside specialists, the short-term concealment of the sculpture, press and public relations, and, of course, the series of events that would lead up to the Big Reveal.

De Vegh is a formidable administrator and curator with 25 years of hands-on experience in the New York City art world, including 6½ years at the prestigious Pratt Institute. She quickly began formulating an exhibition featuring top-notch glass artists to celebrate the donation of “Luminous Silver.”

Nelson acted as a consultant. Childs became co-curator. Soon, “Pathfinders: Paving the Glass Revolution in the U.S.” was underway. Alongside Chihuly, the exhibiting artists are William Beattie, Nancy Callan, KeKe Cribbs, Sidney Hutter, Dominik Labino, Nick Leonoff, Marvin Liposvsky, Harvey Littleton, Concetta Mason, William Morris, Steven Rolfe Powell, David Schwarz, Paul Seide, Therman Statom, Lino Tagliapietra and Toots Zynsky.

New Bedford Art Museum Executive Director Suzanne de Vegh admiring Dale Chihuly’s “Sconce,” part of the Pathfinders exhibit at the New Bedford Art Museum. Credit: Courtesy of Jayliana Brito

Childs arranged to have two additional works by Chihuly on display in the exhibition: “Sconce” on loan from Bill and Janet Emerson, and “Macchia: Pink and White with Yellow Lip,” from the collection of Edward Yasuna.

Longtime Standard-Times photojournalist Peter Pereira expressed his opinion on the current exhibition, saying “Suzanne has raised the bar, centering the museum to a point of national impact. I’ve taken a lot of pictures here. This is high level, as good as it gets.”

Lee Heald, who directed AHA! Night from 2007 until 2023, had this to say of de Vegh: 

“Suzanne came to New Bedford with new ideas and fresh interpretations of how we experience the arts with all our senses. She has boundless energy and good will, which together with the courage to experiment, has provided the New Bedford Art Museum with exciting exhibitions and thoughtful programs.”

Jonathan Howland, who serves on the Museum’s Board of Trustees, made some observations about the institution’s past and where it stands today.

He noted that “COVID was a gut punch for the museum. The epidemic left the museum semi-dormant, without a director, and in financial straits. We were fortunate to recruit de Vegh. She brings to our museum needed expertise in art history and museum administration. … She has brought a passion and energy that has elevated the museum to new levels.”

The wonderful current exhibition — born of a right place, right time serendipitous moment — would have gone nowhere without the right person to nurture it. And Suzanne de Vegh was the right person in the right place at the right time.

This is the rebirth of the New Bedford Art Museum.

Don Wilkinson has been writing art reviews, artist profiles and cultural commentary on the South Coast for over a decade. He has been published in local newspapers and regional art magazines. He is a graduate of the Swain School of Design and the CVPA at UMass Dartmouth. Email him at [email protected]

More stories by Don Wilkinson

The post New Bedford Art Museum’s Chihuly glass exhibit signals a rebirth appeared first on The New Bedford Light.