Mission and History

UrbanGlass, the NYC-based nonprofit established in 1977, fosters experimentation and advances the use and critical understanding of glass as a creative medium.  

UrbanGlass was founded as the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in 1977 by a group of recent art school graduates—Erik Erikson, Richard Yelle, and Joe Upham—who wanted to continue their experiments in glass. In addition to providing studio space for artists already versed in the material, the Workshop featured an education program, which provided classes for working artists and the general public to expand their understanding of glass.

By the early 1980s, the Workshop was home to some of the most exciting new voices in the emerging glass movement, including Dale Chihuly and Toots Zynsky. During the same time, many fine artists working in other mediums, like Kiki Smith and Lynda Benglis, sought out the Workshop to incorporate glass into their work. In 1981, the Workshop moved from its original location at 4 Great Jones Street to a larger space on Mulberry Street, adding a gallery space, which presented experimental work by artists from around the world. In 1979, the Workshop began publishing the glass-focused critical review, New Work (now GLASS: The UrbanGlass Art Quarterly).

In 1991, the New York City Economic Development Corporation offered incentives for arts organizations to take over abandoned theatre spaces, and the Workshop’s Executive Director Tina Yelle moved the Workshop to Brooklyn. Renovating the third floor of the former Strand Theatre, the Workshop was now home to a 12,000-square-foot studio, small store, and gallery space. It also acquired its current name, UrbanGlass.

The early years in Brooklyn, under the leadership of John Perreault, Executive Director from 1995-2002, were an exciting time for the organization. Artists like Beth Lipman and Karen LaMonte began new glass-focused careers in the studio, the collective The B Team won an Bessie Award for their studio performances that blended glassblowing and theatre, and fine artists Matthew Barney and Robert Rauschenberg made significant works in glass. 

During the first decade of the 2000s, the studio program was home to artists including Jeff Zimmerman, Esque, and Thaddeus Wolfe, along with Maya Lin and Rob Wynne. During these years, Dawn Bennett, who became the organization’s Executive Director in 2002, also oversaw over a decade of planning to renovate UrbanGlass’ facility.

Ground broke on that two-year, $62 million renovation in 2011, in partnership with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and BRIC. From 2011 to 2013, the organization moved to a temporary location while the Fulton Street location underwent a full-scale renovation. In order to fill the significant gap left by the facility’s closure for construction, UrbanGlass supported area artists in the creation Brooklyn Glass, using the organization’s old equipment. 

Following a 2-year, $62 million overhaul, Mayor Michael Bloomberg officiated the reopening of UrbanGlass on October 2, 2013. The renovation dramatically updated the organization’s studio, which grew to 17,000 square feet, and expanded UrbanGlass’ footprint to include the new Agnes Varis Art Center, a gallery and store on the ground floor.

Today UrbanGlass’ studio program serves approximately 350 working artists each year through equipment rentals and a variety of residency opportunities. The Visiting Artists Fellowship Program, begun in the 1980s, significantly expanded to serve a diverse range of artists, from Tauba Auerbach to Suzanne McClelland, working in a variety of media, to create new bodies of work in glass, often for the first time. In addition, artists including Win McCarthy, Titus Kaphar, and Jennie Jeun Lee and designers like Lindsey Adelman and Misha Kahn have relied on the studio program to realize new projects in glass.

The expanded education program now serves over 1,000 students, 60% of whom are working artists. In 2013, UrbanGlass launched a scholarship program providing awards for artistic merit and financial need and in 2016 provided close to $90,000 in support. UrbanGlass’ work with area universities has also grown with for-credit classes now offered for students at NYU and Pratt, along with classes for students from SVA, Parsons and Brooklyn College. 

In keeping with UrbanGlass’ longstanding commitment to examining new directions in glass, the exhibition programming in the Agnes Varis Art Center presents varied viewpoints through ten exhibitions a year, each organized by independent curators. Recent shows include Illuminate: Design in Light, featuring work by designers including Lindsey Adelman, Thaddeus Wolfe, and Jeff Zimmerman; Graham Caldwell: EmergenceDoreen Garner: Breathe and Stop, and Nancy Cohen: Hackensack Dreaming. The organization’s store, UrbanGlass|ware, features handmade objects by artists and designers, approximately 60% of whom make work in UrbanGlass’ studios. GLASS: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, together with its blog, The Hot Sheet, has grown into the periodical of record for those interested in glass.

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