Glass and the spirit of the West shine in Corning museums

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / April 19, 2006

CORNING, N.Y. -- It's no surprise that this pint-size city at the south end of the Finger Lakes region boasts a world-class museum of glass. Corning and glassmaking have been practically synonymous since 1868, when Brooklyn Flint Glass Works relocated here and assumed the name Corning Glass Works.

But a museum celebrating the wide open landscapes of the West and the cultures of cowboys and Indians seems more of a stretch. The Rockwell Museum of Western Art occupies the former City Hall, and you can't miss it: Look for the Romanesque Revival heap of bricks with a bison bursting through the front facade.

Transplanted from Colorado to Corning to help manage the family department store, Robert Rockwell indulged twin passions for collecting and for the West he had left behind. Despite a false start (the first Frederic Remington oil painting he bought turned out to be a copy), Rockwell and his wife, Hertha, assembled an impressive collection of 19th- and early-20th-century painting and sculpture. They displayed selections in the now-closed department store, but the collection outgrew the collectors. With help from Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.), they established the museum. The city helped, too. It sold the 1893 City Hall for $1 to the glass company, which converted it to a museum space and turned it over to the Rockwells in 1982.

A further renovation completed in 2001 created a modern gallery environment for the collection, which has been enhanced with contemporary work, including many pieces from Native American artists. The spirit of an idealized West shines brightest in paintings and sculptures by the giants of Western art, Remington and Charles M. Russell. Their important pieces fill a second-floor gallery set up as a rustic lodge, complete with large stone fireplace and comfortable Mission-style furniture. Color-coded galleries on the third floor explore the motifs, myths, and preoccupations of Western art: the life of the cowboy, the buffalo as symbol and sustenance, and the dream and promise of wilderness.

The Rockwell Museum sits on the southeast corner of Corning's historic downtown, known as the Gaffer District after the term for a master glassblower. Century-old brick buildings constructed as glass factories and warehouses hold shops, cafes, and restaurants with names such as Crystal City Bakers, Gaffer Grille & Tap Room, and Glory Hole Pub & Eatery. Even the antiques shops are full of local glassware, with merchants suggesting that the other important local product, Finger Lakes wine, tastes best in Finger Lakes crystal.

Bargain hunters can repair to the Corning factory store (114 Pine St., 607-962-1545), which sells reduced-price Corningware, Pyrex, Corelle, and other kitchen- and tableware. But the boutique glass industry is also alive and well in the district. Contemporary glassblowing studios Vitrix (77 West Market St., 607-936-8707) and Lost Angel Glass (79 West Market St., 607-937-3578) occupy the former Hawkes Cut Glass building. Both hot shops sell their production and art glass lines, and their glassblowers are often at work, spinning molten crystal at the end of long steel rods.

Glassblowing demonstrations are also a staple at the Corning Museum of Glass across the Chemung River. For a fee, visitors can even try their hands (with lots of assistance) at making a glass flower, bead, or Christmas ornament. Budding glassblowers are often surprised to find that it takes only a few gentle puffs to coax a glob of hot glass into a round, hollow ornament. It's a satisfying exercise, even if the finished piece is not likely to join the museum's collection of more than 40,000 objects spanning 3,500 years.

The museum presents glass as the intersection of art and technology. The historic collections span the world and the ages, from a glass bust of an Egyptian pharaoh to 20th-century tableware produced in Corning. Another sequence of galleries highlights modern studio glass, from the Dale Chihuly hydralike sculpture in the lobby through new work commissioned and acquired every year. The Innovation Center galleries are often the most captivating for families, thanks to interactive exhibits that elucidate some applications of glass. An unfinished lens for a 200-inch reflecting telescope shows how to concentrate light to look deep into space. A submarine's periscope, in turn, surveys the city from the museum rooftop.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to make it clear that glass and Corning were made for each other.

If you go...

Rockwell Museum of Western Art
111 Cedar St., Corning
Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., until 8 p.m. Memorial Day weekend-Labor Day. $6.50 adults, $5.50 seniors, age 17 and under free.

Corning Museum of Glass
1 Museum Way, Corning
800-732-6845; 607-937-5371
Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., until 8 p.m. Memorial Day weekend-Labor Day. $12.50 adults, age 17 and under free; glassmaking workshops $8-$24.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, can be reached at

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