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Transparent bid to draw visitors

Pittsburgh is polishing up its image as an art center with a celebration of its glassmaking history.

March 23, 2007|Ron Todt | Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — It was called the Iron City and then the Steel City, but for a century, Pittsburgh and the rest of western Pennsylvania was famed for another material known more for beauty than strength: glass.

The city makes a bid to reclaim its former glory this year with "Pittsburgh Celebrates Glass!" -- featuring several large glass art exhibits opening in May, the five-day annual conference of the Glass Art Society in June and a host of other events during the rest of the year.

"When people see glass art, especially at the scale they're going to see it this year, it's life-changing," said Marguerite Jarrett Marks, director of the initiative, in which more than 70 organizations are taking part. "It's just so beautiful and exquisite."

A centerpiece will be an exhibition by West Coast artist Dale Chihuly at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. At least 40 of his intricate blown-glass sculptures will be placed among plants in the conservatory greenhouses.

Richard Piacentini, executive director of the Phipps, said that unlike other outdoor art exhibitions, in which the pieces must be placed among existing vegetation, the artist is helping to choose the plants to set off his works, which are characterized by flowing, organic forms.

Organizers hope to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the city for "Chihuly at Phipps: Gardens & Glass." They will have a wealth of other activities to choose from, including:

* "Viva Vetro! Glass Alive! Venice America," opening in May at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which will show that Pittsburgh and Venice have more in common than bridges since both have been centers of the glass industry. More than 125 works will show the links between Venetian and U.S. artists over the last half-century.

* "Allure of Japanese Glass," also opening in May at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, will feature 17 contemporary Japanese glass artists, many of whom have never had work shown in the United States.

* "Metamorphosis: A Celebration of the Bead," opening in June at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, will exhibit work by noted glass bead-makers.

The glass center also will provide pieces for the set design for "Sound of a Voice," a two-act opera based on Japanese stories adapted by playwright David Henry Hwang for music by Philip Glass.

In addition, the 37th annual Glass Art Society Conference is expected to draw 1,500 artists and industry representatives. The conference will include lectures and demonstrations on blown- and flame-worked glass as well as cast-glass and flat-glass techniques. Participants will be able to tour glass factories and collectors' homes.

The conference harks back to the national glass tableware trade shows held in Pittsburgh for more than 70 years. By the 1920s, more than a quarter of the nation's annual glass sales took place during the two-week show, according to the permanent "Glass: Shattering Notions" exhibit at the Heinz center, which gives an overview of the industry's history in western Pennsylvania and adjacent areas.

"It's the center of the industry from about 1840 at least until the 1930s," said Anne Madarasz, museum division director at the center.

The area produced reflective tiles that line New York City's Lincoln and Holland tunnels, 250,000 light bulbs for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and glass tableware for presidents. As recently as 1976, a company based in the area made 25 high-strength windows for the refurbished crown of the Statue of Liberty.

The exhibit displays glass artifacts such as early 19th century whale oil lamps, a glass rolling pin (which allowed quick cooling to keep dough from sticking) and glass target balls used for skeet shooting before clay pigeons were produced for that purpose.

Marks said she sees the conference theme of "Transformational Matter" as symbolic of the region's shift from its industrial base to technology and other areas, including arts and culture. She hopes that some of the people who visit decide to stay. "We really want to

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