In her 16-year-tenure at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, Susan Warner has served as executive director, artistic director, and director of public programs. Last week, she announced she'll be leaving her current position as the institution's artistic director and major gifts officer next month to once again assume the title of "executive director" but at a very different arts organization. The Vashon Center for the Arts is located on the largest island in the Puget Sound, which sits almost midway between Tacoma and Seattle. Unlike the glass museum, the Vashon is primarily focused on performing arts, and grew out of an arts league established in 1949. It currently has a staff of eight full-time employees, offers 120 classes a year, and puts on over 40 events per year, both exhibitions in its galleries and performances in its newly built theater. The GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet recently spoke with Susan by phone about her impressive tenure at the Museum of Glass, her reflections on how the institution has changed over the years, and the accomplishments she's most proud of.
GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet: First of all, congratulations on the new position. What drew you to the executive director role at the Vashon Center for the Arts?
Susan Warner: Well, the Vashon is a place for making, but we don't currently do glass. You never know, that might change in the future. But it was actually the chance to get involved in the performing arts again, something that I feel very excited by. They have wonderful arts programs, an excellent arts education programs in the schools, and the performing arts are very strong. The Vashon has a very well-established dance program, and, as you may know, 10 months ago The Katherine White Hall opened. So the theater building has gone from a venue that was basically community theater into a venue booking world-class acts – drama, opera, blues, country. And the next thing we’re going to do is we have this wonderful visual arts dance building in a historic structure, and we’re going to renovate that. The Vashon is becoming a first-class facility, and we own some wetlands where we're going to put a sculpture garden. This is going to be a wonderful adventure.
GLASS: You'll be leaving an institution where you've worn many hats over the years you've been there. What are your thoughts about the Museum of Glass you'll be leaving behind?
Susan: I first would say, it was such an honor and privilege to come onto the Museum of Glass staff when I did, When I arrived, I think there were maybe three or four of us and the building was still going up. This was under Josi Callan’s directorship, and there was an opportunity to have a museum with a blank slate, and to build from that. It’s very interesting when we reflect on this time, because as you may remember, we were the "Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art." The idea was that if we showed glass in the context of contemporary art, it wouldn't’t get pigeonholed so much as a craft material.
I do have to say that in hindsight, it was an idea ahead of its time. But I just sat on the Young Glass Ebeltoft juror’s panel where I saw so much work that is going way beyond the vessel. ... There is a lot more conceptual work, and mixed materials with glass – so today, that sounds like a vindication of the original concept.
And then we had Tim Close as executive director, and we changed the mission to all glass, all the time, I think that’s been vindicated, too, when you see the plethora of glass wings being built and added to museums,or the new Imagine Museum in Florida. So that vindicates that step as well.
But I think the things I’m most proud of are some of the core programs and exhibitions and publications we’ve done over the years. We've organized 63 exhibitions over the course of my tenure, and those were the 63 that we deigned, conceived of, and implemented ourselves. There are 18 publications that go with those 63 exhibitions, so we added original scholarship to the field. In 16 years, that’s a pretty good run.
GLASS: I understand the Vashon is in a period of expansion. Was that something that drew you there?
Susan: Well, I think the Museum of Glass has some ambitious plans for growth in their future, as well. So in that regard, the two institutions are similar. But yes, the Vashon is in its growth mode, expanding its staff and its programming, and generally getting used to being a bigger organization that it was. I’m used to that, because that’s what happened at the Museum of Glass, where we put a lot of infrastructure in place while I was there, That is very true at the Vashon as well, where we’re growing people, finding out what we need, what new policies we need, and basically taking it to the next level.
GLASS: What do you see, then, as the biggest contrast between the Museum of Glass and the Vashon?
Susan: The major difference the Vashon is a center for the arts and is not a collecting institution like the museum. I feel very excited, and that was one of allures of this job. ... I've always been interested in the performing arts. My daughter Emily went to Juilliard where she studied Dance. Also, I've used theater as an interpretive vehicle in my museum career. The idea behind the museum theater program was that are so many stories about glass, and how glass can be a metaphor within this, we realized could take these stories and bring them to life through theater. We got the rights to stage this short story Cold by A.S. Byatt about a princely glassblower who falls in love with an ice princess and all the difficulties. We staged it in the theater, and the audience ended up in the hotshop.
So there’s a continuity between the new and old positions – I have a lot to learn, come up to speed, very exciting
GLASS: Will you continue to have a role at the Museum of Glass after you move to the Vashon? I understand you will be starting sometime next month, in May 2017?
Susan: Yes, they’re starting a search for the new artistic director, so I might be helping with that. And I've agreed to consult on a couple of the more complicated and bigger exhibitions including Preston’s upcoming show "Raven and the Box of Daylight." I'll also continue to work with the museum on developing their permanent collection.