Is there a formula for creating a successful hub for nurturing, enjoying and understanding any branch of art? There is, and here is how the Centro Studi del Vetro on the Island of San Giorgio in Venice have done it. It is all about building an interconnecting system, to which, this May, they added another vital element, the Archivio Generale del Vetro Veneziano, thereby putting the Centro into a world-class category for its field.
First, show actual art. For the past ten years the Stanze del Vetro, part of the Centro, have held two serious thematic exhibitions a year, the current one of the famous, abstract, sculptural, glass produced in Czechoslovakia under Communism, strangely free compared to the fine arts that had to toe the Socialist line (until 26 November).
Second, collaborate with anyone, near or far, in similar fields, so that you form critical mass and are seen to be an ally, not a threat. The indispensable ally in this case is the Fondazione Cini, which has much of the island in trust and is dedicated to research in the arts.
Third, get yourself into peoples’ diaries by holding a regular, major event, like the Centro’s well publicised Venice Glass Week, held together with the distinguished Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, which also shows glass and gives prizes to glassblowers. Over that week more than 100,000 scholars, makers, collectors and artists come from all over the world for activities, seminars, and fun, like the marathon run from glasshouse to glasshouse on Murano, and concerts by the glassblowers’ own choir.
Fourth, fund scholarships and internships to work on your material, to make it all available online and find the answers to questions such as why some glasshouses fail and some survive.
Fifth, publish your exhibitions and research and build up an essential reference library of books, periodicals, photo albums, videos and podcasts. The latest addition, the Archivio, is housed in the Sala Messina, a former monk’s dormitory in the Benedictine monastery on the island, which has been restored by the Cini, with funding from the regions of the Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, and the support of the Pentagram Stiftung, created by Marie-Rose Kahane and David Landau in 2011 to back all the Centro’s activities.
The Archivio now houses more than 200,000 designs, sketches and records for Venetian glass, the most complete holding of such material from the end of the 19th century to the present. The fact that it now exists is vital because historic firms such as Vetrerie Antonio Salviati have gone out business and their papers risk being lost or dispersed. As it is, 45,000 designs and records, and 948 photos from their 90 years of activity are now safely housed for posterity. The same is true for the 22,053 designs, around 12,000 photos, 31 production catalogues recording the activities of Seguso Vetri d’Arte. “Some of these designs had ended up in Germany being sold individually on ebay”, says David Landau, “but we managed to buy them back”.
The Archivio also includes small samples of glass made to the instructions of the brilliant young architect Carlo Scarpa for the MVM Cappellin & Co. firm, which he joined in 1921 and which he wanted to make more adventurous by reviving complex techniques such as filigrana a reticello.
And donations are already flowing in, such as 450 drawings by the painter Dino Martens (d.1970), the artistic director of Aureliano Toso. These are particularly interesting because they have pieces of glass attached to the sheets as colour samples, with arrows pointing to how they should be used by the glass blower. The presence of 82,500 publications, designs, photographs, and manuscripts by one of Italy’s most famous designers of modern times, Ettore Sottsass, who died in 2007, would be enough to make it a magnet for students of design in general. And anyone can consult it: just make an appointment and its permanent staff of two will make everything available to you.
But good as such a five-point formula for success is, it is not enough unless there is a driving reason to be doing the thing at all. David Landau says, “When I see so much potential to improve on things that are undeservedly forgotten or unappreciated, on knowledge, on sharing beauty and culture, I cannot resist trying to bring a change, to wake good people up, to function as a catalyst for change”. In this case, the change for which he and Kahane are working is no less than to save the ancient Venetian glass industry dying under the assault of cheap Chinese imitations, a general lack of appreciation and now the rise in energy prices. These virtuoso skills, handed down over the centuries, can lead, they believe, to great works of art being made when so-called fine artists and the craftsmen work together, a process that has begun but has not reached its full potential by any means yet.