Friday November 10, 2023 | by Jahlil Rush

Stephen Rolfe Powell’s legacy lives on in new glass museum seeking national prominence

With a name as grand as its ambitions, a Kentucky art center seeks a national profile for its glass collections, built upon a major gift of Stephen Rolfe Powell’s work. The Art Center of the Bluegrass in Danville, Kentucky, opened a new museum building just next door on November 3, 2023. Its name? “GLASS National Art Museum.”  

The 12,600-square-foot renovated former bank building is now home to the personal collection of Stephen Rolfe Powell (1951 – 2019), an internationally known artist widely hailed for his large-scale blown forms festooned with bright murrini. Though Powell’s work takes center stage, as a longtime resident of the area, where he ran the glass program at nearby Centre College, the permanent collection also includes work by Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra among many others.

Art Center of the Bluegrass executive director Niki Kinkade acknowledged the new museum’s ambition to become “a national leader in the glass-art field. In an interview with Glass, Kinkade said she hoped people would leave the exhibition having had a strong personal response to the work.

“Whether they have any knowledge of glass, whether they knew Stephen, or whether they know anything about the arts, everyone visiting the museum will take away something different,” she said.

Asked about using the term “national” in the museum’s title, Kinkade said she hoped it would help draw attention. “We purposely use the word,” she said, “… bringing a little bit more recognition to how much of an impact Stephen has had on the art world for maybe somebody who doesn’t know.”

GLASS museum’s opening is a small piece in a much larger artistic puzzle as the museum is a part of the Art Center of the Bluegrass’s $3.7-million expansion project in honor of its 20th anniversary.

Kinkade said Powell maintained a strong presence at the art center as a board member since its founding. “The Art Center has been around for 20 years,” Kinkade said. Stephen Powell was on our original board and has been connected to the Art Center over these past 20 years.”

According to Kinkade, shortly after Powell passed away in 2019, her team at Bluegrass put together a retrospective in Fall 2022 to commemorate his legacy highlighting his 30-year tenure in Danville, Kentucky, working at Centre College as an arts professor.  

The response was so well received by the public that Kinkade and her team began toying with the idea of a permanent Powell memorial in the form of a museum where his legacy would be preserved and his art collection intact.

The team spoke to Powell’s widow, Shelly Powell, to successfully purchase 84 of his best art pieces and formed a partnership with her. Kinkade made it clear that while the museum is affiliated with Bluegrass, the museum is its own identity as the new artistic space.  

“It’s under the umbrella of the Art Center of the Bluegrass, but it is an entity in  itself,” Kinkade said. “How we are looking at it is we’re reimagining what an art center can be and it’s just as we are changing in this world, and how people spend time, and how art centers and museums function. This is an iteration of that.”

The museum held two private openings prior to their official November opening date, giving Kinkade a  boost in confidence about how the public will perceive the new museum.

“We’re pretty confident,” Kindade said. “We’ve already had two private openings with an overwhelming response from people. The response has been incredible and it’s so lovely. People who don't know Steve, or don't really know a lot about hot glass but think it's interesting to be here, they walk in and just are blown away. When asked about having a favorite space in the museum, Kinkade said she has fallen for the beauty of the museum but takes a shine to an unnamed gallery, which she showed during the interview. The gallery space contained two seats and the space was a particular favorite of Powell and his friends and family.

“I'm just a sucker for beauty and aesthetics,” Kindade said. “Just being around it to me every day is kind of my experience but the dark room, we haven’t named that gallery yet. We’re that kind of new but the space is really spectacular and that's the one people walk  into and literally say ‘wow’.” Kindade said that sometimes she would go and just sit in that space. A glassblowing studio is slated to open sometime in 2024, along with educational programming to share the history of glass and its “contemporary artistic applications.”

More info:

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.