For 43 years, the Glass Art Society has staged an annual conference for members and supporters. This year, Boston has broken that streak — and a few hearts along the way.
On Jan. 3, the Seattle-based organization of 2,400 artists, students, collectors, and gallery owners in 54 countries canceled its 2013 conference, scheduled for Boston in June. Wait till next year, members were told.
What happened, organizers say, was a combination of permit problems, logistical issues, escalating costs, and one gigantic puzzle piece: where to park a 28-foot-long, 17-ton, glass-melting furnace strapped to the back of a tractor-trailer.
Capable of reaching temperatures of 2,100 degrees, this “hot shop” unit requires a 60-hour fire-up period plus a 60-hour cool-down, copious amounts of electricity and natural gas (piped in from city gas lines or propane tanks), and plenty of adjacent space. It’s used to demonstrate glass-sculpting techniques for large audiences, often hundreds of onlookers at a time.
It is, in short, a piece of convention equipment conspicuously more cumbersome, and potentially more dangerous, than your basic helium-balloon station or banquet ice sculpture.
Finding a convenient space to park the unit was a major factor in last week’s decision by the society to call off its 2013 conference. Conference planners also cited problems with securing exhibit and party venues, moving large numbers of attendees around Boston and Cambridge, and dealing with administrative changes at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, one of the conference’s main host sites. When those matters remained unresolved after the first of the year, there was additional concern about not having sufficient time to market the conference.
In 1996, when GAS did hold its conference in Boston, it drew about 600 people. And there was no mobile furnace. This year’s three-day affair, initially budgeted at $425,000, was expected to draw 1,200, supplying the organization, per usual, with much of its yearly operating funds.
Those attendees traveling here from around the country and overseas would have found a jampacked program of workshops, student exhibits, gallery shows, glass art-making demonstrations, and social events, most taking place at either MassArt or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, across the Charles River.
No longer, though. Some events will still be held on the two campuses, organizers say. But there will be no full-scale conference.
See you in 2014.
As for that portable glass-blowing unit, operated by New York’s Corning Museum of Glass? It may be firing elsewhere come June, but it won’t be heating up the Hub.
According to Peter Houk, a conference planning committee member and director of MIT’s Glass Lab, the decision to pull the plug last week was the result of “a cascading effect.”
“You take one part out, and the rest starts to fall apart,” he said.
Like Houk, society executive director Pamela Koss is disappointed about the abrupt cancellation, a decision reached by her board.
“People need time to plan to travel, and we ran out of time,” Koss explained. “It was a domino effect. We did not want to put on a half-baked, substandard product.”
Boston, she added, “is a very, very expensive city that hosts a myriad of conferences with big budgets. At a certain price point, we couldn’t pay” for everything her organization wanted to do.
If there was not one insurmountable roadblock, one city official or campus administrator turning the whole conference into a logistical nightmare, planners say, then enough smaller obstacles piled up to frustrate all concerned.
Last fall, for example, organization officials contacted Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department about a permit to use Evans Way Park, near the MassArt campus, for parking the hot shop. As a bonus, they said, the public would be invited to view demonstrations free of charge.
At last year’s conference in Toledo, Ohio, the unit was parked indoors, they point out. And it has traveled to large cities before, including New York and Chicago.
“It’s actually been around the world, but if you’ve never seen it in action it can be scary — it’s a big gas tank,” said Beth Ann Gerstein, another local planning committee member, who serves as executive director of Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts.
But city officials here worried that Evans Park’s access roads and tree canopy could not accommodate the unit’s size and weight. According to parks spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard, her office suggested several alternative sites. Following a conversation with the department, society officials decided not to apply for an Evans Park permit and turned instead to other potential sites.
One was MIT, where, according to Houk, Cambridge Fire Department officials voiced other concerns, such as about public safety. Posting 24-hour fire details would be required, they said. Negotiations were still alive when the conference was canceled. According to Koss, the cost of monitoring the unit approached $9,000, a steep fee to pay on top of other mounting expenses.
“They were open to it, and I thought it would happen,” says Houk. Still, parking the unit at MIT would have been less than ideal, he noted, since it would have been far from MassArt, where two days’ worth of events were planned.
In most cities where society conferences have been held, planners explain, attendees can walk from one venue to another. Also, in cities like Seattle, where the Seattle Art Museum donated its facilities for a conference closing party, a gathering of leading glass artists from around the world was viewed as a bigger deal, culturally and economically, than it appeared to be in Boston.
Local museums were contacted about using their facilities, according to Gerstein, but in each case the rental fee was prohibitively high.
James McLeod, a MassArt professor and planning committee member, says his college worked hard to provide what the society requested. However, he concedes that as conference plans expanded, affecting more campus locations and personnel at MassArt, concerns rose along with projected costs.
Situating the furnace in a faculty parking lot, for instance, would have meant displacing scores of other vehicles. MassArt, already donating considerable space and energy, expected the society to pay the tab, reportedly about $10,000. Meanwhile, senior officials who’d joined the college administration only recently needed to be brought up to speed on plans, says McLeod.
Simmons College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and a North Cambridge site were all considered as a mobile-furnace parking place. But issues of transportation, access, and permitting were never resolved.
By last week, they no longer mattered.
“We didn’t cancel it lightly, and I’m not happy it happened,” said Koss. Sometimes an entire community lends its support to an artists’ conference like this, she added. In Boston, though, “We’re a small fish in a big pond.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.