Thursday June 20, 2024 | by Emma Park

SPECIAL REPORT: The Battle to Save the National Glass Centre

In 2024, British glass is in a state of profound crisis. Budget cuts are eviscerating programs at arts institutions around the country, which have been battered by post-Brexit inflation and export/import tariffs, the Covid pandemic, and the loss of E.U. arts funding. As the Art Newspaperput it in a July 2023 special report sparked by the closure of the major British art fair "Masterpiece," being one of the most expensive of the arts to operate and one of the least widely understood, has been particularly vulnerable to overzealous administrators in a time of national belt-tightening and a policy shift towards prioritizing STEM subjects.  

In Scotland, North Lands Creative went into liquidation in August 2023 after 28 years of glass education and artist residencies. The University of Wolverhampton announced in 2021 that it would be halting student recruitment for 138 of its courses, including its bachelor’s degrees in glass and ceramics. All of its glass courses are set to be “taught out” in the next year or two, with the final date still unconfirmed. Also in 2023, Nazeing Glass Works, one of Britain’s oldest glass factories, shut down its furnace forever, just a couple years shy of its centennial.  

Perhaps the biggest blow of all to British glass comes from the National Glass Centre in the northeast of England. In January 2023, the University of Sunderland announced the closure of the NGC’s signature glass-and-steel building; in March this year, the closure of its glass and ceramics department was also confirmed.  

Zora Palova and Stepan Pala, Light Transformer, 1998. Three slabs of cast blue glass on on a black pedestal.

Housed in a dramatic structure with architectural references to the shipbuilding industry that once thrived here, the NGC was founded as a charitable trust and opened to great fanfare in 1998. Built on the site of a former shipyard, it was designed in a marine-industrial style that also provided a visual link with St Peter’s Church, whose seventh-century windows bear witness to the earliest glassmaking in Britain. The NGC was established with $21 million of funding from the Arts Council England (ACE), a local corporation, and the European Regional Development Fund (while Britain was still in the E.U.). Sunderland City Council and the university also contributed.  

The NGC launched with the ambition of, among other things, drawing tourist money to this economically deprived post-industrial wharf that once was a shipbuilding center that also exported coal, salt, and rope—as well as glass and pottery. Among many lofty aspirations at its inauguration, which was presided over by the then-Prince Charles, were to provide a home for glass artists and artisans, and to advance the knowledge and skills in this historically center of glassmaking. Despite all ceremony, the NGC had a rocky start. In 2004, the BBC reported that it had been through five chief executives in six years.  

In 2010, following financial difficulties, the NGC’s business and assets were transferred to Sunderland University, which moved its glass department into the building. The NGC also housed Sunderland’s Institute for International Research in Glass, founded for its opening in 1998; its first director was the eminent glass historian Sylva Petrová. In 2013, the NGC reopened after a $2.8 million refurbishment funded by Sunderland University with help from charitable trusts, ACE, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 2018, a photography gallery also moved in.  

Despite the formidable challenges it faced during its 26 years of activity, the NGC, and the department with it, were slowly built into a renowned center for glass education and research. It has attracted international glassmakers, such as Zac Weinberg (U.S.), Ayako Tani (Japan), and Anthony Amoako-Attah (Ghana). Conversely, “there are people all over the world who are Sunderland graduates, leading programs in glass,” says Jeffrey Sarmiento, who arrived from California on a research fellowship in 2006 and eventually became associate professor. He highlights its practice-led doctorate: because this course was established as early as the 1990s there, “the U.K. was a global leader in that approach to academia in glass.” Under Julia Stephenson, the Head of Arts, the NGC has assembled a collection of contemporary glass, inaugurated a European Glass Prize, and invited internationally known contemporary artists such as Ryan Gander and Katie Paterson to stimulate cross-disciplinary exchange. The NGC has also been applying for museum accreditation.   

For Matthew Nisbet-Forster, a current second-year student, one of the best things about studying at the NGC/department has been the knowledge and experience of the staff. “The lecturers are amazing,” he says. “They go above and beyond for the students.” He also praises the “accessibility” of opportunities, for example to meet NGC artists in residence, and the atmosphere: “It’s a very close, helpful, and welcoming community.” 

The hotshop at the National Glass Centre in 2013. photo: colin davidson

 “To me as a glass artist,” said an NGC employee and glass artist who asked not to be identified by name, “it’s a center of excellence which brings together artists from around the world. The level of work that you can create is much more innovative and interesting,” this source explained, because of the rare concentration of high-quality equipment in one place.   

Despite endorsements such as these, university’s board of governors, Farooq Hakim, recently described the National Glass Centre in a letter to the Save the NGC campaign (see below) as “in essence, a visitor attraction.” The letter even downplays the label of “National,” dismissing it as “a self-declared title [with] no official status.”  

When this magazine reported on the possible closure last March (Glass #170, Spring 2023), the university’s board of governors had made no firm commitments as to what they planned either for the building, or for anything in it. “There was definitely a lot of tension and anxiety around the agenda that the university had not being transparent,” said another source closely associated with the NGC, who also asked for anonymity. “They had something in mind about what they were wanting to do, but they weren’t letting their staff know. But when you put the pieces of the jigsaw together, it makes a very clear story about what their intentions were.”  

Developments since then have brought two things to light. First, the university’s apparent determination to wash its hands of all glassmaking (and ceramics) activities, without letting go of the NGC site. Second, the strength of the feeling, among those at the NGC and local residents, that it is a uniquely valuable institution, and that its loss will be devastating both to glassmaking in the North East and to the cultural life of Sunderland.   

“I think it’s going to be really difficult for people to continue,” said the NGC employee and artist mentioned above. “The people will disperse, the facilities won’t be there any more, and the ability to be innovative and create things that no one else is doing will just go. Sunderland will no longer be a center of glassmaking.”  

In February 2023, the “Save the National Glass Centre” campaign was founded by Jo Howell and Carolyn Basing, both professional glass artists who rent studio space there. Composed of artists and local residents, with the tacit support of many NGC/university employees and students, the campaign has done much over the last year to unearth evidence of the university’s approach, and to raise awareness among the public. Their online petition to “Save the NGC” has garnered nearly 34,000 signatures. Members have spoken to the BBC and the regional press, written letters to politicians and even to King Charles.  

In March this year, staff had to interview prospective students. “We were told it was ‘business as usual,’” said the second source quoted above. Candidates were soon made firm offers, and 15 had already accepted by the time the board of governors announced its decision to shutter the program on March 22. One of these, Jessica Lunniss, a mature student based in Spain, had already given up her housing contract. “It came as a complete bolt from the blue,” she says.  

Ironically, by the university’s own admission, the academic program itself has been profit-making for at least the last five years. Moreover, while student numbers dropped during the pandemic (and after last year’s announcement of the NGC’s closure), they were improving again this year. 

There is also skepticism about the figures quoted for the repair of the NGC building. According to Hakim’s letter, the losses have come from the NGC’s cultural program and the maintenance costs of the building, not from the academic courses. Yet the $55 million figure alleged by the university as the prohibitive cost of repairing the roof has been hotly disputed by the Save the NGC campaign. Conveniently, the university estimates the cost of demolition of the building at a mere $4 million; the campaign argues that this fails to take into account, among other things, the environmental costs of releasing an unknown amount of carbon into the atmosphere from the former industrial site.  

 As reported by the BBC in April, the campaign has come up with a tentative proposal to form a “nonprofit charitable community benefit society” that could take the NGC off the university’s hands. So far, however, the administration’s response to this proposal has been unenthusiastic. Andrea Walsh, the chief operating officer, reportedly said that she would “meet with campaigners,” but, ominously, that “any decision to sell remains the university’s.” The university also rejects the claim that it owes any obligations to the NGC under charity law, arguing that “the NGC charity was effectively dissolved following the merger with the University” in 2010.  

On the positive side, the university said in response to a list of questions submitted by Glass  the NGC, finds a “workable solution”—whatever that means—for glassmaking somewhere else, it is “likely” to “gift” it the NGC’s equipment. As for the contemporary glass collection, “the intention is that [it] will continue to be developed and safeguarded for future generations to enjoy.” Unfortunately, who will own it after summer 2026 is “still undecided.”  

In May last year, a letter written by the university vice-chancellor and chief executive, Sir David Bell, to the local member of Parliament, Julie Elliott, noted that "the NGC sits adjacent to St. Peter's campus of the University, where we are planning to undertake significant capital works over the next five years.” Allyn Walton, a local solicitor and member of Save the NGC, argues that, if the university wants to develop its campus on that side of the river, “there is very little else which it can do if it wants to expand, other than into that space.”  

The most plausible inference from the available evidence is that the Powers That Be are determined to redevelop the NGS site for other purposes. Whether, as an educational charity and public body, the university owes any responsibility to conserve the NGC for the public benefit, and whether such responsibility would extend to the site as well as the institutions involved, remain open questions.    

The closure of the glass courses at Wolverhampton will also have severe repercussions for glassmaking in the region. Not far from Wolverhampton is Stourbridge, a historic centre of industrial glass and the current home of the International Festival of Glass, as well as the Ruskin Glass Centre and the Stourbridge Glass Museum. Glassmakers based nearby include Chris Day, Allister Malcolm, Madeleine Hughes, and Blown Away winner Elliot Walker—all Wolverhampton alumni. The glass course celebrates its 171st anniversary this year. “It is both the first and oldest in the U.K.,” says senior lecturer Dr. Max Stewart, “coming out of deliberations, as it did, from the Great Exhibition of 1851.” Yet neither heritage nor contemporary success were able to save it.   

The cuts at the NGC and Wolverhampton by unsympathetic administrators are part of a wider pattern of cuts to the arts across the country. The reasons for this are complicated. Among them, many educators point to the reduction in arts provision at high school. “A whole generation of students are coming through who do not know how to use their hands,” says one. 

The story of North Lands Creative Glass would merit an article in itself. Founded in 1995, it was, like the and personal financing of its supporters. “A month after 9/11,” recalls Lani McGregor of Bullseye Glass, “I said rhetorically, Where do you go in a world gone mad? And Dan Klein [one of the founders] said, ‘Come to North Lands.’ And so we did the next year, and instantly fell in love. The quality of the programming that they were putting together just knocked our socks off.” Its artistic directors, responsible for the programming, included leading figures such as Tessa Clegg, Emma Woffenden, Elizabeth Swinburne, and Jane Bruce.  

In August 2023, North Lands was put into liquidation by its directors. In a public statement, the appointed liquidators attributed its failure to “significant increases in costs through the … high inflationary environment, along with operational problems including difficulties with recruiting staff in the region” and a “declining” income. Except for 2021, when its staff’s salaries were offset by Covid support mechanisms, the institution had “operated at a loss for a number of years,” although it had been kept going by “non-trade funding sources” such as charitable grants.   

Many questions about the details of North Lands’ collapse remain unanswered, including the extent of the damage inflicted by Brexit—in particular, the withdrawal of E.U. funding—as well as by pandemic closures, and whether or not the institution could have been saved had it been managed differently by those involved. Those we contacted expressed shock and sadness that it should have ended the way it did.   

Amidst the gloom, there are some causes for restrained optimism. If Sunderland Culture finds a new home for the NGC’s equipment (it is applying for a grant), this may enable some professional glassmakers in the region to continue. Max Stewart and others are thinking of establishing an independent British Glass Institute as an educational hub in the West Midlands. In Stourbridge, the Biennale and Festival of Glass, previously on the brink of closing, will be organised by the Glass Art Society from 2026. In Caithness, Lani McGregor and Daniel Schwoerer are starting up the Mission, a “small studio space” where they hope in due course to offer residencies as well as some educational provision for the local community.  

A few degree courses that offer glassmaking as part of a wider program are still running, notably in Plymouth, Farnham, and Swansea. In 2022, the RCA reduced its master’s degrees in ceramics and glass, along with all of its other master’s degrees, from two years to a more “intensive” one-year course, in order to make the courses financially affordable to more students. While it has been criticized by some in the glass world for doing this, it has also recently announced an increased scholarship fund for three glass and three ceramics master’s students annually. Its continuing prosperity and high student intake underline the contrast between the state of the arts in London and the rest of the country.  

Even outside London, though, glass artists already well established in their own studios are in a comparatively fortunate position. The real challenge will be, first of all, for artists who rely on institutions that are closing for their facilities, or a regular income stream, to find ways to carry on making glass; and, second, for the younger generation of students, and schoolchildren with a budding interest in glass, to find the staff and the educational structures to enable them to flourish according to their natural bent. “There’s a certain sense of dread with each year that comes,” says Nisbet-Forster, “because it’s all essentially dying.” He and his peers ask themselves whether people respect what they are making. “Do they really want it around?”   

“The National Glass Centre is huge, and it had equipment I had never seen before,” says Sarmiento. “It was a gateway to so many other places and opportunities. I was there for some of its best years.” Whatever its future, 2024 will surely be looked back on as a critical year for British glass—for better or worse.   

For more information about the campaign to save the National Glass Centre, and to sign the petition, visit or email  

London-based arts writer EMMA PARK is a contributing editor to Glass.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 edition of Glass: The UrbanGlass Art Quarterly. You can buy this issue or subscribeand stay on top of the latest in glass.







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 more than 40 years.