The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG), the finest glass museum on the planet, added a new wing in 2015, like adding a younger brother, shiny, big, precious—it's a $64 million expansion—and equally bold. While CMoG boasts the world's best collection of art and historic glass, from a glass portrait of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh to contemporary glass sculpture, the new Contemporary Art + Design Wing takes the glittery, clear, light-filled, breathtaking qualities of glass to an astonishing new place, and that space is a giant white glass box with curving walls and a ceiling that's mostly glass, glass that's mostly sky, and visitors walking around with their mouths agape over the experience, which was, said architect Thomas Phifer, "inspired by the image of walking into a white cloud." The art doesn't hang from walls, it floats and glitters in space. It's the largest space in the world devoted to contemporary glass.
Built to accommodate the growing number of visitors to CMoG, the expansion's 26,000 square feet of gallery space showcases large-scale contemporary art and the glassmaking process itself. "Glass has never been displayed this way before," says Karol Wight, president and executive director of CMoG, "and we are really looking forward to pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and glass."
Entering from the main lobby, visitors are enveloped in white light filtering through the skylight roof and down between the concrete beams twenty feet above. With otherworldly light and high ceilings, it is clear that the place is one of reverence, whether or not you recognize the names of the world famous artists who created the works. Lino Tagliapietra, Klaus Moje, Roni Horn, Ann Gardner, and Karen LaMonte are just a few of the artists that more than 400,000 visitors will encounter this year.
The pieces of art, such as Forest Glass by Seattle-based artist Katherine Gray—more than 2,000 glasses arranged on ten shelves suggesting three trees, with brown hues shaping the trunk, greens creating the trees' canopies—are bathed in natural light raining down from above.
Architect Phifer was tasked with designing the 100,000-square-foot expansion, including gallery space, a hot shop for glassmaking, and administrative offices. The award-winning architect designed the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the United States Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"The first thing we did was take a glass object out into the sunshine, and it just exploded with light," he says. "And that was a kind of wonderful moment for us, because we discovered that glass loves light."
Building the expansion was no mean feat. "The seemingly simple 'white glass box' was anything but simple and required the overcoming of multiple engineering and design challenges," says Bob Gray, National Enclosure Company Project Manager. "It had never been done before." The glass panels, one ten by twenty-eight feet and 6,000 pounds, were maneuvered by a crane and vacuum lifter, and nothing broke.
In most museums, light is something to be feared. It fades paintings and tapestries, and can heat up display cases and harm artwork. But most glass is immune to the damaging force of light. Instead, glass comes to life with light—literally, it's made with very hot light—two thousand degrees or more. And a classic reminder of that remarkable process is Steuben Glass, the famed artisan shop whose factory operated on this spot from 1951 until 2011, was adjacent to the museum, and is now part of the expansion's footprint. (Prince Charles and Lady Diana received Steuben glass as a wedding gift. Pope Benedict XVI received a figurine as a gift.)
The architect's vision for this factory was to create a twenty-first century hot shop, the Amphitheater Hot Shop, with equipment for artists and glassmakers to show off their skills to as many as 500 guests at a time. It's one of the world's largest facilities for glassblowing demonstrations and live glass design. "We wanted to build the best hot shop in the world, where any glass artist would want to work," says Eric Meek, manager of hot glass programs at CMoG. "This creates new opportunities for artists to engage with the Corning Museum of Glass, and for the community to be able to watch an amazing level of talent come to our town."