The National Glass Centre reopens this weekend to show off the benefits of a £2.3m redevelopment and boost Sunderland’s cultural aspirations.
An institution with a chequered history now aims to justify the national status implied by its title, director James Bustard said at yesterday’s media preview.
Meanwhile Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson said: “The reopening of National Glass Centre after such an ambitious refurbishment programme represents investment in our arts, investment in our heritage and continued investment in our city as an international cultural venue for world class exhibitions and events.”
This final development phase sees vast improvements to the exhibition spaces overlooking the restaurant, the shop and – through its huge glass facade – the River Wear.
For those bemused as to why the National Glass Centre should be on Wearside, there’s a new permanent exhibition called Stories of Glass in Sunderland.
A timeline informs visitors that in 674AD Benedict Biscop, patron saint of Sunderland, brought Gallic craftsmen to make stained glass windows for a new monastery at Monkwearmouth.
The twin monasteries of St Peter’s and St Paul’s became a centre of Anglo Saxon learning and home to the scholar Bede.
A glass industry developed. The Company of Glass Owners of Sunderland was formed in 1696 and the Hartley Wood Co – until it closed in 1998 – supplied “antique” stained glass for buildings including Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the House of Commons.
Mr Bustard said the public had expressed huge interest in Sunderland’s glass-making history in the build-up to the ultimately vain bid to gain Unesco World Heritage status for the twin monasteries.
He said there were three main objectives behind the refurbishment.
“Within a couple of years we want to be treated as a prime visitor attraction and cultural destination on a par with the Bowes Museum, Baltic and Sage Gateshead. We fell out of that league but I want to be back in the premier division.
“Secondly we want to make sure we put our student programme at the heart of this project. The whole business plan is built around students and in a competitive landscape we need to make sure we increase our share of students who want to study glass.”
Sunderland University became owner of the National Glass Centre in 2010 and the building accommodates its glass and ceramics course as well as its arts foundation course.
“Thirdly,” said Mr Bustard, “I think we want to achieve peer recognition. There are 10 criteria which make up anything called ‘National’ and they include scholarship, excellence in business practice, high attendance and being a partner organisation.
“We want to move towards that and be an organisation that partners want to seek out.”
Mr Bustard said there was also a determination to make the National Glass Centre a respected and important art gallery.
“We expect to produce three or four museum quality exhibitions per year.
“Making an impact locally and regionally is important but we want to make sure the Glass Centre gains a reputation much further afield.
“That’s why we chose to have our inaugural exhibition devoted to the European father of studio glass.”
This is the German Erwin Eisch whose brightly-coloured – even startling – glass creations stand out against the white of the new temporary exhibition gallery.
Julie Stephenson, head of arts at the National Glass Centre, said: “Eisch had a tremendous impact on American studio glass.
“He was born in a commercial glass-making community and he was the artist in the family so his medium was glass.”
The exhibition includes a series of prints called Kristallnacht, in which he conveyed his horror at Nazi persecution of the Jews.
The 86-year-old artist will travel from his home in Bavaria this weekend to see this major exhibition of his work.
Another new series of exhibitions will focus on notable glass collections, with the first dedicated to that of the late Dan Klein – a former professor at Sunderland University – and his partner Alan J Poole.
Mr Bustard said the collection had been given to the National Museums of Scotland on Klein’s death, rather than the National Glass Centre.
“That may have been significant,” he said. “One of the first things I did when I became director was to go up to Scotland and talk to people there.”
The result is an exhibition showing how the two men raised the status of British studio glass by championing homegrown talent.
A special Opening Weekend on Saturday and Sunday, as part of the Festival of the North East, will include tours, family activities and glass blowing demonstrations.
National Glass Centre facts
In 1994 the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation held an open competition to design the building which was won by Gollifer Associates.
The project attracted the first major arts lottery award in the North East.
The building with its glass roof cost £16m and was officially opened in 1998 by Prince Charles.
The National Glass Centre has had six directors. James Bustard, who previously worked for Arts Council England, was appointed by Sunderland University which took over the building in 2010.
The first phase of development took place last year, partly to accommodate the university’s art and design foundation programme.
Phase two began in January, doubling and upgrading the gallery spaces and improving education facilities.
Funders of the refurbishment include Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, Sunderland University, Sir James Knott Trust and Foyle Foundation.
The current annual visitor figure of 165,000 is expected to rise this year to 220,000 and settle at 200,000.