UPDATED 6/28/20 7 PM
In the first weeks of June, as Black Lives Matter protests swept the U.S. and the world, the Glass Art Society received a letter from artist, executive director, and educator Nate Watson, who provided a sharp critique of the glass-art community as a place with a lot of work to do to diversify. The letter was deemed so urgent, GAS published it online in advance of the release of its regularly scheduled newsletter.
In addition to his role as executive director of Public Glass in the Bay Area, Nate Watson is part of an artist collective called Related Tactics, which brings together artists and cultural workers to collaborate on projects that deal with "the intersection of race and culture." The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet recently spoke with Nate about his letter, the response, and how the glass-art field might respond.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: In your statement that is being readied for publication in the Glass Art Society Newsletter, you cite the lack of representation of African Americans in nonprofits and university programs in the U.S. as evidence of an arts community that has fallen "so far behind in supporting equity and opening doors for everyone." Do you see glass as behind other art fields in fostering diversity in the ranks of nonprofits and universities? And do you see this as something passive or active -- that the glass community is so far behind because there weren't the same proactive steps that other art fields have taken, or do you think there are aspects to the glass culture than have actively excluded people of color from its ranks?
Nate Watson: Lets just put it out there as a starting place that Black and Brown people have generationally not been afforded the same access to economic, cultural, and educational opportunities as their White counterparts. This is fact. Due to the aforementioned issues, representation by African Americans across ALL art fields is and will likely always be lesser. Is this passive or active exclusion? Probably both, but either way, the effects are built into the foundations of our glass field and its going to take a very “active” effort to unravel all of the issues that have had decades to cement within our culture. I suppose that some of the particular problems in glass can be attributed to factory culture or regional norms, but within the American Studio Glass movement specifically, there’s an added class issue that pushes poor people to the margins or never lets them in. So now you have the foundations of an entire field with only one racial/cultural perspective, one class perspective, or a combination of the two, and so how could it even be possible for Glass not have an immense deficit when it comes to diversity? Leadership or gateway positions are the most important ones because they influence agendas: who gets an internship or job, who gets into an undergraduate or graduate program, and who gets curatorial control in galleries & museums. An audit of inclusion is very easy to do by looking at the websites of all of the colleges, universities, galleries, and museums within the glass industry, and the numbers are striking! You can compare these numbers to those in other mediums and, although the issue of a severe lack of diversity is profound across the arts landscape, Glass is an egregious offender.
Glass: Are there any specific comparisons where the lack of representation in glass really stands out for you?
Watson: The California College of the Arts where I teach has the same number of tenured African-American painters on faculty as every glass program in the U.S. combined.
Glass: You identify "words, propping up of black faces, or sudden unburying of works by black artists" as insufficient to solving this. Do you feel there is a rush to paper over this problem in response to the historic Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country and ushered in a new awareness of racial inequality in the U.S.?
Watson: It's impossible to know whether this sudden rush to show the work and projects of Black Artists is sincere or if it's just the only thing that feels okay to post on Instagram right now. I do know that in the lead up to this year's GAS conference, lots of images were posted to get people engaged, and I can’t remember one significant representation of an artist of color. Not to say there wasn’t one or a couple, but I can tell you that I looked for one everyday, and I felt sad for my community, sad for my students of color, sad for the youth from the community programs that get invited to participate in summer craft school programs, and sad that images representing artists of color existed all along but had been left out…. Until, of course, the protests. I can tell you that it feels a little disgusting that posting brown faces working in glass studios is the reaction to people being killed in their beds and choked on the streets, and I’m not sure if words and public declarations and 10-year agendas are healing to those who have been impacted most.
Glass: At one point in your statement you use the pronoun "we" -- where you write "We were wrong all along to be content amongst ourselves," and reference artwork that has "little connection to the realities of the world that is burning our eyes open now." Do you see yourself as not having spoken out enough about this issue? Have the recent events galvanized your activism? Can you talk about your plans to help affect change?
Watson: I said “we”, because I wanted to establish myself and other POC’s as part of the whole community that I’m addressing. I said “we” not because I feel particularly complicit, but because I want people in our Glass Community to understand clearly that there have been witnesses to the deficits that got us to this moment of reckoning. Some of us have been observing and have understanding the issues and problems for a long time, but haven’t been able to get attention for the issues until now.. I say “we” because just maybe by using language that locates us all in this together, then perhaps those in positions of power within our industry will act in ways that help the “us”. So if I have to be honest, the use of “we” is a strategy or something to do with diplomacy to disarm those who might feel like they need to say all of the things that they have done, rather than recognize the many things that have NOT been done.
In regard to my own activism; the work of my collective, Related Tactics; my position as the executive director of Public Glass; and my presence in the glass department at the California College of the Arts are all forms activism. Forging a position in a field where the folks who get to decide whether I move forward or fade away, is activism. Creating opportunities for women and biPOC’s with the platforms I have is activism. Continuing to make myself available to answer questions about activism is activism. My existence is activism? So no… the recent events have not changed or enhanced, my trajectory at all.
When I was invited to demo at the San Jose GAS conference in 2015, I used the platform to talk about police killings and what it meant to be a community bonded together with shared concerns. No one cared about that until the search for images of Black representation ensued two weeks ago. I literally stood in front of 100 glass makers and asked them to think and care about something that threatened the life of the person they came to see. My plan to help affect change is to continue to choose projects and direct efforts and conversations that address things that truly matter.
Glass: I found it very powerful where you talk about glass companies and organizations using images of black people as "trying to make a statement about how 'woke' they are." Are you calling for those organizations to translate the visuals into concrete actions -- "offering a seat at the table" as you put it? What does that look like?
Watson: Absolutely I’m calling for those organizations, institutions, businesses, and everyone in our Glass Community to translate those thousands of social media posts and statements about diversity, privilege, and implicit bias, into concrete action. We should all expect the words from our peers and colleagues to be honest and to mean something. That said, many of the so-called actions that have already occurred and those now in the works fall short, mostly because they are often fragmented, temporary, occur at the lowest levels of a school, organization or company, and frankly do not represent a sincere investment in people. A seat at the table, literally means a seat at the table. It means serious efforts to recruit diversity into the places in our community where there is none. If you can’t find the people to fill high level positions, we need to ask ourselves why? How are our programs set up. Are we paying a fair wage and is the environment hospitable to folks who are different than those already there? Offer the seat, but prepare your house for new guests as well…
Glass: You've mentioned to me that you moved from Louisville to the Bay Area of California, in part to escape persistent racism. And that you were heartbroken to find racism present in a supposedly enlightened cultural center. Is that something you want to elaborate on at all?
Watson: I did grow up in Louisville where my parents prepared me so well for dealing with racism, that for a long time, I barely acknowledged that it was happening all around me. I had no illusion that coming to the Bay Area would free me of all of the ugliness, but I certainly didn’t expect to see a video of the police in Oakland shooting Oscar Grant in the back while face down and handcuffed on a train platform. Out of all of the police killings, that got to me most until Brianna Taylor, and now we’re full circle. I’m devastated. I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m tired and I’m certain now that there is no safe place for me to be. I suppose that is why I care so much about how we make our glass community as inclusive, safe, and supportive as it can be. Art IS the greatest privilege. It can be absolute freedom, but at this moment we’ve not made this joy available to the many who need it most.
Glass: You talk about a moral obligation anyone who's made a declaration on where he or she or it (institution) stands. What are the most immediate action steps that an organization or an individual can take to fulfill this obligation?
Watson: I think that its as important for me as an individual as well as for each organization to first acknowledge that we currently do not have all of the solutions. Not knowing the answers is a realistic starting place and why many of the plans and statements coming out, don’t hold weight. The obligation is to concede that the spaces where decision making happens, are usually homogeneous in some way and therefore can only fail at any attempt to truly support diversity. So, in my humble opinion, there needs to be an aggressive and sustained move to bring in different voices, if for no other reason, than to vet the flurry of ideas pouring out at this moment.
Glass: You've been one of the driving members of "Give to Glass," in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you see the "Give to Glass" organization expanding its focus to include diversity in glass, or will it primarily be focused on providing a way for glass nonprofits to partner together to raise funds and awareness? Do you see it as being a venue for affecting some of the changes you are advocating for?
Watson: Just to clarify, Give to Glass is the campaign launched by the Glass Impact Group that is a nationwide coalition of community focused glass studios that are all 501c3s. The mission statements, the programming, and the efforts of every organization involved is aligned with confronting issues of access, diversity, and social justice. Commitments of funds and resources are indicative of our industry's priorities, and it's my opinion, the non profit studios have been undervalued individually and collectively as the primary spaces that nurture our emerging artists and form the foundations from which new artists, new ideas, and a new way forward can exist for our glass community. It has always been our hope that this coalition can raise awareness and the support that eluded some of the solo efforts of the participating organizations. So, no there has not been a shift or expanding of focus, just perhaps a clarifying of what these orgs have always done and why these orgs are worthy of more support than they've received in the past.
Glass: You also mentioned Crafting the Future. Can you share your perspective on that organization, and are you working with them at all?
Watson: I think Crafting the Future is at its core a beautiful project and a sincere effort. I think that in many ways it resembles some previous efforts that have not gone far enough, but the difference now beyond the diversity of its leadership in Corey Pembleton, is that the organization is addressing what happens with young people beyond their experiences in the summer workshops. I think that the university partnerships and internship opportunities being discussed now are exciting, but in order to truly be different and to move the needle on getting these youth into our field and into impactful positions, we need to discuss how we will compensate students for their work. There is a relatively quiet system in our industry that gives opportunities and access to those who actually don't need to be paid a living wage to participate. This gives a leg up to those with wealthy parents, and this generally excludes more people of color. Young people from households that don’t have resources to support them, need to be compensated, not just allowed to join. Because all of the Glass Impact Organizations have a history of running successful youth programming in under resourced neighborhoods, have established professional artists/mentors on staff, and an embedded focused on diversity and social justice, a partnership with Crafting the Future could be incredibly powerful and effective in accomplishing many of the goals that are coming out this moment. So, yes we are talking with the folks at Crafting the Future, and I hope that we can establish a strong partnership soon.
Glass: You are the director of Public Glass. Can you talk about some of the initiatives your organization has undertaken to address some of these issues. Are you looking for partnerships with other glass organizations, and if people are looking to brainstorm ideas, are you open to them reaching out to you personally?
Watson: Public Glass is very much focused on eliminating barriers to entry and creating not only opportunities for those in our community, but supporting efforts nationwide and around the world through coalition building. Just because Public Glass has a black director, doesn’t mean we don’t have issues that need to be addressed and hard conversations to have. We are currently focused on bringing more diversity to our Board of Directors and we’ve been working hard to establish partners locally for our Light a Spark youth program. We’re currently working with Kipp San Francisco College Preparatory to integrate our glass programming into their curriculum in a way that reinforces and expands upon what students are getting in their classes. Our board is very supportive of these efforts and the only thing we don’t have in place in the level of funding that will allow us to plan ahead and focus more on the youth we serve. I’m also trying to leverage my relationship with the California College of the Arts and other institutions to prepare youth for the positions that I hope will be more available to them once our glass community processes what is truly required to move us into the future. We are always looking for partnerships and I would very much encourage anyone who wants to work toward addressing the issues around access, inclusion, and the structural changes that need to be made in our glass community to reach out to me personally.
Glass: Finally, please feel free to add anything additional that these questions don't cover. I really appreciate your statement and action in publishing it.
Watson: I’m so grateful to finally have the platform to speak to a broader audience about the issues that small groups of us have been trying to bring attention to for a long time. As much as I spotlighted a collective responsibility for the problems we’re trying to reckon with now, I want everyone to know that a collective conversation and effort is the only way we’ll be able to correct for what we have not given enough attention to previously. Our conversations about collecting and curation should not be separate from those about education, funding, and diversity. Our conferences should bring us together, not separate us into hierarchical groups where we talk about the problems on one side of a convention center, and those who can help fund and help solve the issues are pulled to the other side. We are truly in this together, and to be critical of our community is to care about the quality, impact, and future of our community.
6/28/2020 7 PM EST: Editor's Note: This article was originally published with background on the Glass Art Society's "Glass Pledge" initiative to provide additional context about the organization that first published Nate Watson's letter. The sentence about the "Glass Pledge" and a screenshot image from the GAS website were removed from the original version of this article so as not to imply that Nate Watson endorsed that specific initiative as the best way to address the issues he identifies as needing action.