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Thursday June 28, 2018 | by Andrew Page

Longtime executive director of the Glass Art Society Pam Koss reflects on her 14-year tenure and her marvelous Murano send-off

One thing the outgoing executive director of the Glass Art Society wants everyone to know is that she is not retiring. On Friday, June 29th, after 14 years at the helm of the artists' organization whose annual conference is a must-attend event for artists, collectors, and suppliers to the field, Pamela Koss is moving on, eagerly looking forward to starting the next chapter of her career. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet caught up with her during the closing night party of the 2018 conference, a historic event in Murano, Italy — a longtime dream Koss finally realized last month. Still keeping a vigilant eye on the proceedings around us, and occasionally breaking away to direct staff and volunteers, Koss was able to sit down for a chat after the fashion show, in which artists wearing heavy glass costumes had all safely disembarked from gondolas. A raucous Italian party band was playing note-for-note renditions of American R&B dance classics while the attendees danced away in a historic churchyard that had been outfitted with a high powered sound system and massive video screens. The shiny new technology was a sharp contrast with old world architecture and this mix of old and new permeated the historic conference and seemed to help break through some of the centuries-old traditions of secrecy about glass process and technique.

The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: So, how do you feel right now?
Pamela Koss: I have to say how grateful I am to have been part of this event, and have this city be able to change from its initial stance at the beginning of the planning four years ago. We had been shopping the idea for a while and everybody said no, it couldn’t happen. When the Murano community decided to be part of this, it was something that made me very happy. We had a very tight team, and although it was logistically harder than anything I had ever done, it was so necessary. We needed to have something for the glass world here, to respect and honor those who had come before us, those still working here, and what they have shared with people.

Glass: What do you mean when you say it was "harder than anything you've done"?
Koss: Resistance is always there for something new, and frankly most people here hadn't been familiar with the Glass Art Society. Everyone on this island knows about glass, and for us to come and ask to do something like this, well, I approached it with respect and dignity about what was here. I'm honored that they embraced this and worked with me, and it was wonderful. The Italians this week were so happy — everyone’s walking down the street with smiles on their faces.

We wanted to come here, but we also knew we had a group that had been part of GAS who’d come and demonstrated and taught with us over the years, for which we had great respect, and we wanted to have those people be part of the planning.

Glass: What was the thing that surprised you the most?
Koss: It was surprising how, as we continued to have meetings, even those who didn’t take meetings in the beginning began to understand and develop trust in me and the idea of this conference. And the people here, Marina Tagliapietra [Lino's daughter] and Cesare Toffolo, and obviously Lino Tagliapietra himself, to be such a major part of this event just made sense to them. For me, the biggest accomplishment is that people came here and were so happy. That is everything for me. I wanted to come here with respect and we did that. I love this community and all these people who helped to make this happen.

Glass: I've been to many conferences in many different locations, and while there's much that is different, there's also something recognizable that makes it a GAS conference. What do you think are some of the trademarks of the conference under your leadership, what are the Pam Koss stamps?
Koss: Again, it’s comforting for people to know what to expect, that where it takes place, the conference is going to have a format. It’s nice to have a map of the venues. People ask me about these conferences, and for me it’s like a puzzle — the picture is different with every puzzle you put together, and so are the pieces.  

For example, the conference here in Murano had a concert where Bill Guddenrath played Bach; in 2017 in Norfolk we did performance art at different venues indoors and out; but we’re always changing it up. But it's always helpful to have people attending knowing how it’s going to go. My background was in tourism and economic development, so these were some of the pieces of it that I put together.

Stephen Rolfe Powell and Lino Tagliapietra join Pam Koss on the stage in Murano. photo: manuel silvestri

Essentially it’s a successful formula to get people together. When I took over in 2004, I tried to realize which were the most important pieces and I dropped the things that didn't work as well. The past 14 years have been a constant fine-tuning. Different markets are different, so each conference was a whole new ball game. We had to reach out farther to different venues, and one thing we did here that we never did before was to offer all the tours at the same time as the conference was going on. We felt it was so important to give people the experience to be inside these places. A unique thing about this, when we started siting this and choosing where we were thinking to go, we found that even some of the people who grew up on Murano had never been inside to see these places, it was such a new experience even for them! It wasn’t just doors opening to our people. We had 100 kids from schools here in Murano who volunteered and did these tours along with their parents who donated their time, who just live here, and who wanted to be part of it — and they've been coming out of this saying it was fantastic.

Glass: Why was a having Murano conference such a major focus for you?
Koss: I came into the glass world not knowing much about this special part of the art world, but I had been to Murano before, and the more I learned about glass, the more the connection between the glass artists I met and Murano became stronger and stronger. And when we’re looking at different places and different cities to hold the conference, I realized that if you were going to go to the center of things it would really be here in many ways. But Murano wasn’t ready back in 2009 when I first started floating this idea. But in the last several years there have been a lot of different shifts, market changes, and the pressures that people have had to shift and adjust. They weren’t as used to working together when we started to plan, but in the process, I think many found it fun and a new way of doing things.

Glass: Why did you decided to step down?
Koss: Because I wanted to take a break from this, spend some time with my family. It doesn't mean I'm not going to be in the art world. The last three years have been really intense, and I just want to explore something different. It’s hard to do that when I’m so immersed in this. I'm not planning on retirement, but I have loved this job. And I love this community, can’t really explain to you how much this all means to me to be here and to have done this.

Glass: Why did you take this job back in 2003 or 2004?
Koss: Well, I was a photographer and I always have loved art, but I had realized I didn’t like doing commercial photography. This job seemed like something that took art and involved my business skills, and it really brought the two together for me. I remember my very first glass fashion show in New Orleans, which was during my first conference, and it was also one of the most outrageous of the shows. Watching it all I was thinking to myself, I don’t know if these are my people. But I can tell you now that these definitely are my people! 

Glass: How has it changed you to be part of the glass community?
Koss: Well, you realize how diverse people are. What I love about this group is that they are highly educated people, doing things that they love. The most courageous thing you can do, I believe, is to be an artist. It's not easy. If people don’t like what you made, well, maybe you don’t eat. My goal from the beginning has been to help  people be able to do what they want to do, and also eat, also make livings. I have so much admiration for all the artists here.

Pam Koss flanked by artists Debora and Ben Moore in Murano. photo: manuel silvestri

Glass: Can you talk a little about the finances of the Glass Art Society, and what impact this event this event will have with all the special needs to bring in equipment and logistical challenges?
Koss: The Murano conference lost money, yes, but I also want to add that I am a very fiscally responsible person. With the reserves that GAS has built over the years we are able to do this. The idea has always been you just don’t make money internationally, you lose revenue streams. This is so expensive to do here, to bring things in on a boat, all the things we don’t think about.

Glass: What advice do you offer your successor?
Koss: Keep an open mind. There’s a lot of changes happening in this glass world these days, and I think it hasn’t quite settled out as to where these new directions are taking us. We realize that economics will only allow you to do so much, you have to find the creative thread through your life. I wish them only the best.

Glass: Will we see you at future conferences?
Koss: You know, it would be very nice if I actually got to see a conference for a change. I would love to be able to experience the GAS conference as an attendee.

Last night, I came back from doing several stops I had to make, and sat down with a group of people. There were some Seattle people and international people from all over the world. They were all like “you have changed the face of history,” and I am just so deeply floored by that. It was a very emotional moment for all of us. I think this is a step towards something very good if we all pay attention to what just happened I look around at this group of people here at the conference, and I think back just a few months ago when they wouldn’t take the meeting. And now, look. Everything turned out and they're all happy. Sure there were bumps along the way. Sure there were times when I thought maybe it won’t happen. But I really stayed focused on the end game and by the end we have 1,800 people here, with even more here at the closing party.

GLASS: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for 35 years.