Dale Chihuly sculptures in the Phoenix Botanical Gardens, above, and the New York Botanical Garden
“If we measure an artist's importance by the number of museum exhibitions, books, articles and television appearances he has, Seattle glass guru Dale Chihuly is right up there with the greats.
“His work is in the collection of most every
art museum you can think of, as well as many abroad. Museum exhibitions of his work circulate continually and stacks of hefty coffee-table books praise his talents. And who hasn't seen one of those often-aired documentaries about him on PBS? U.S.
“But what many don't know is that Chihuly — a Northwest icon who has built a multimillion-dollar business — generates the bulk of that exposure himself.
“All that publicity has inflated the public notion of Chihuly's status in the art world.”
Thus opens the Inside The Glass Empire, the 3000-plus-word article on Chihuly, by Sheila Farr and Susan Kelleher for The Seattle Times, published April 29, 2010.
In essence Dale Chihuly is Marketing Mondays on steroids. Indeed, his steroids are on steroids, which in turn are pumped up by, well, steroids. He’s doing what thousands of artists do, but doing it like all of them at once. Imagine having 150 people working for you, so that the more they make, the bigger you get. He’s doing everything we learned to be afraid of in art school. He’s been called a “glasshole,” with a business model likened to Thomas Kincade’s (though in museum shops rather than malls). And yet, he’s the one with the brand and the bucks. And he’s employing artists, craftspeople, factory workers, photographers, photo archivers, a studio manager, accountants and independent contractors, a boon to creative-economy folks who might otherwise be unemployed in these difficult economic times.
"No one's ever signed my name for anything that I've made, including the editions, including the prints, the glass, the drawings," says glassblower Dale Chihuly. But that doesn’t mean he actually, made the pieces. “"The last time I blew glass was a couple years ago," he said. "I just don't do it."
I love the idea of artists taking control of their careers. In fact, I'm kind of in awe at what Chihuly has been able to do. Not that I would want that for myself—I like making art far more than doing the business of art—but it is pretty amazing, even if undertones of distasteful and overtones of skeevy are part of the Chihuly scent that reaches my nostrils. His approach, like that of Murakami, Koons and Kostabi, is more suited for mass production—which, in fact, it is—than for the magical thing that happens when the electrical impulses of firing neurons work their way out of your body and into whatever unique object they will themselves to be.
Unlike Kincade's work, Chihuly's can be quite beautiful. Do we applaud this artist, a one-time leader of the studio glass movement, for his artistic vision? Or for his career chutzpah? Do we secretly wish we had a tiny fraction of his business savvy or do we disdain him for "selling out"? Is his story a cautionary tale of becoming "Art, Inc." or a model of how to make it in the art world?
Today’s MM assignment: Read the above-noted article on him in the Seattle Times and then meet me back here so that we can discuss.