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Spotlight: A Conversation with Glass Collectors Tom and Kendra Kasten

[Susan Longini]

Tom and Kendra are active in the glass community, and I recently had the opportunity to ask them about their collecting philosophy and evolution as glass patrons.

SJL: Tell us a little of your background.

Tom: I grew up in San Francisco and attended UC Berkeley where I earned a Bachelor’s degree and an MBA. I went to work for Levi Strauss & Co. and held a variety of senior management positions during my 34 years there. I served on our local town council, twice being Mayor, and have served on a for-profit board and non-profit boards. 

Kendra: I was born and raised in San Jose, graduated from San Jose State University and earned a teaching credential. I taught for almost 30 years, both as a classroom teacher and a reading specialist. 

Tom & Kendra: We have two fabulous kids and two wonderful granddaughters.

 

Michael Pavlik

 

SJL: How and when did you become interested in collecting glass art?

Tom & Kendra: The genesis took place probably 25-30 years ago. When visiting Tom’s mother in Southern California, we went to the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach – a fine arts and crafts fair. There was a booth totally enclosed in chicken wire, in which artist Bruce Freund was blowing glass. He had a small furnace and glory hole set up in the enclosure and was making vessels. Tom was entranced by the process and suddenly realized that he had spent 3 hours just watching him work and create. Tom’s mother bought him one of Bruce’s pieces as a birthday gift.

It wasn’t until 2008, when we took the kids to Europe and spent a day in Murano, that we bought our first piece of glass together. Even the kids bought a few, small glass pieces.

 

Our first piece of glass bought together in Murano

 

However, it was two of our best friends who had a big impact on us. They are avid glass collectors, and every time we were at one of their houses, we found ourselves fascinated by their glass pieces. The art was absolutely beautiful. Depending on what time of day it was, the pieces were ever changing depending on the light. We love the way reflection and refraction work and how light plays through and changes the piece. Most wall art doesn’t change, whereas studio glass morphs by light playing on the surface and within the piece.

We were invited by our friends to attend a BAGI fund raising dinner and were fortunate to sit at a table with not only our four friends, but also very well known Bay Area glass collectors. We had no idea what we were doing, but we knew that we were attracted to a few pieces on display, and under our friends’ guidance, we bid and bought a piece. We loved it but could not believe how much we had just paid. We went back to the BAGI auctions over the next few years and always went home with a piece or two. You know, once you’ve spent more than you ever thought you would, you start to do it with more ease – unfortunately!  

Since then, Dorothy Saxe has been an incredible mentor to us, and we couldn’t have a better coach. She has supported and guided us, not with an overpowering hand, but rather with her gentle questions that steer us to have the right dialogue and begin to develop our collecting aesthetic and philosophy.

SJL: Did you collect other art before collecting glass? Or still do?

Tom & Kendra: Yes, we began collecting paintings and prints by Israeli artists. Since starting to collect glass, however, we have pretty much focused exclusively on building our collection, though we have purchased wood, ceramic, and bronze pieces.

SJL: Is there a particular genre/technique/etc. that particularly attracts you?

Yes, but it is probably different for us. 

Tom: I like very contemporary, sculptural and geometric executions of glass. I like the play between shape and light. I also like executions that are organic, that have both complexity and nuance. I am particularly attracted to themes inspired by the natural world and the elements – the sea, leaves, wind, rivers, etc. I love complex, optical structures that suggest dynamism. The combinations of color, opaqueness and translucency are fascinating to see. Oh heck, the problem I have is that I rarely meet a glass piece that I don’t love. When people ask me if I’m a glass collector, I reply, “No, I’m a glass addict.”

In some strange way, I feel connected to contemporary studio glass. It inspires my imagination and stretches my view of the world. It is hard to put into words, but I often find myself staring at one of our glass pieces, and a narrative begins to form in my head and I get a sense of relaxation and admiration for the creativity and skill that lies behind the piece. It is difficult to describe, but at museums and galleries, I immediately know when I’m connected to a piece and, through the art, to the artist.  

Kendra: I love the medium because there are so many different ways to form glass and create intriguing works. So, I find both smooth and textured pieces, simple and complex works attractive. Though I like sculptural and geometric pieces (and we have several), I am drawn to pieces that tell a story and those are often figurative works.

Over the years, we have learned that it is okay to love the work, but you don’t necessarily have to own it. We’re learning to be more selective. 

 

One of the pieces we purchased at a BAGI auction dinner by Kathleen Elliot

 

SJL: Do you have particular criteria in selecting art?

Tom & Kendra: Yes, though we are still in the formative stage of developing our collecting philosophy. We pretty much agreed that our overall objective is not to build a museum collection (we entered the glass world way too late for that). At the same time, we want to build a strong, cohesive collection with many of the best artists represented, recognizing that we may not ever own some of the most important pioneers - and that's okay with us. We don't feel compelled to own a Billy Morris, Harvey Littleton or a Dominic Labino. We are collecting for our own inspiration, appreciation and enjoyment. We buy to stimulate our imagination and state of wonder.

With that being said, our first criterion is that we have to love the piece. To date, we both have followed that dictum, but we can foresee a time when a certain piece might strongly appeal to one of us, but not necessarily to the other. We will have to resolve that before we come to that fork in our collecting road.

Our second rule is that we have to be able to afford it. Yes, we have a practical streak.

Kendra’s 3rd rule is that we have to have a place for it in our house. Tom is less encumbered by that requirement. He’s a firm believer in “love will find a way.” Kendra’s probably right, but Tom doesn’t want space to be a hindrance. There may come a time when we have to rotate pieces, but our garage is already full.  We’ll have to rotate to the garden.

Tom & Kendra: We need to define and refine the focus of our collection further and develop additional criteria to guide us, even if we decide later on to wander a bit for a piece or two. As you can tell, we have more to discuss.

SJL: How important is education in your collecting process?

Tom & Kendra: Incredibly important. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be educated about anything one decides to collect or to buy. We have immersed ourselves as much as time allows. We love going on glass trips (GLANC, AACG, gallery and museum sponsored trips), studio visits, meeting artists and talking to them about their creative process and the technical aspects of their work, visiting private collections and talking to other collectors about their collecting philosophies, approaches, and barriers they have encountered, and going to as many demos as possible. Collectors always have interesting stories to tell about their collections.

 

David Patchen (bought on a GLANC day trip)

 

No matter how often we have seen glass being blown, we always come away with some new insight. We go to galleries and talk to the gallery personnel to hear about what they are showing, their take on the artists and where the artists are in their creative development, as well as their views of the current state of the studio glass movement. We have learned a great deal from these knowledgeable professionals.

In every city we visit, whether in the US or abroad, we always make it a point to visit museums and galleries. We also try to attend SOFA every year, and we have attended several GAS conferences. Both of these venues offer wonderful educational opportunities with lectures, slide shows, and demos. Both attract numerous artists who we love meeting.

SJL: You have joined the boards of GLANC and Pilchuck, both educational organizations. How do you see your involvement with these organizations fitting in with collecting?

Tom: It goes back to education. I have held senior executive positions and have served on many boards. I believe non-profit organizations are always looking for support and help to achieve their vision and mission. With the skills and knowledge that I have accumulated over time, I feel I might be able to add a little value to such organizations. In return, I get so much more back – new friends, additional knowledge, opportunities to serve and give back, and the satisfaction of contributing in some small way to our glass community.

I firmly believe that the more you know, the better collector you will be. Educational organizations are critical to the contemporary studio glass movement. All of us – artists, collectors, educators, gallerists, museum directors, manufacturers – are engaged in one way or another in education – some by educating and others by being educated. In fact, I would broaden the term beyond education to include inspiration, imagination, and articulation.

 

Four pieces in our family room – Giles Bettison, Charlie Minor, Stromberg and Michael Nurot

 

SJL: What does it mean to build a collection?

Tom & Kendra: We are still determining what kind of collection we want to build. We know more about what we aren’t doing than what we should be doing. With that being said, it is important to have an aesthetic for the collection and to look for the integrating themes that will guide our collection. Tom approached Howard Tullman at a SOFA lecture and asked a similar question.  How did he learn to build a collection? His response was very telling. He said you learn best by making mistakes. While we have only been collecting for about nine years, we have already made mistakes. As long as we learn from them, we will be okay. There is a saying that you learn more from your failures than from your successes. Our guess is that we are learning a lot!

SJL: Advice for artists?

Tom & Kendra: Wow, we think we’re the last to offer advice to artists. We feel much better getting advice from them. What we would say is engage with the collectors. We need each other for the whole community to be successful.

Tom: Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries, try new things, stretch yourself. There is an old saying that goes something like: “To reach new lands, you have to be willing to let go of the shore.” It can be unnerving, but it can also lead to wondrous discoveries.

Tom: One of the things I have learned is to recognize that glass art goes well beyond just the technical skills required to form a piece. I view glass artists as artists, sculptors and to some degree scientists, not just glass artists. Their ability to conceive, create and execute a wonderful piece of art is to recognize and marvel at the creative process in consort with the technical processes, the years of education and experience it takes to execute a creative vision, and to celebrate success.

Kendra: I like the concept of “open studios” to introduce the uninitiated to the wonders of the glass world. It is a great opportunity to view cotemporary studio glass “up close and personal” and to meet the artists. The issue is that publicity announcing open studio tours is sorely lacking. It is difficult to find out about them. Stronger marketing of these wonderful opportunities would definitely help to bring in new potential collectors.

Kendra: It would be great if students could visit glass collections in museums. For example, visiting the Saxe Collection at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco is a great way to open the eyes of inquiring minds and expose them to the wonders of studio glass. If students can’t go to the museums, can glass artists visit their local schools to expose them to the art form?

SJL: Anything else you’d like to tell us?

Tom: One of the things I worry about is the future of the glass community. I still feel that it isn’t yet totally integrated. Through my travels, demos, conferences, and my Pilchuck experience, I see many young artists honing their skills and refining their creative process. I see the new artists emerging and am heartened that places like Pilchuck, Bullseye Glass and some galleries celebrate and feature new artists. I worry, however, about the rest of the network. I’ve seen many glass galleries closing, and I am constantly looking for the new, younger collectors to emerge.

 

Lino Tagliapietra and Katerina Verguelis

 

We have a beautiful early Lino Tagliapetra executed with wonderful white cane work. Juxtapositioned next to this important piece in our collection is a small glass piece done by Katerina Verguelis, an artist we met at the Bezalel School of Art in Israel. She had just graduated from the program and was teaching there. I love the juxtaposition of the “old master” (Lino: Forgive me, I’m not calling you old, but rather one of the true originals.”) with the emerging artist.

Mary White house

 

Kendra: One concern I have is how to engage the young collector - the art has to be affordable. As the technology has improved, artists can create larger scale pieces, but as the scale increases, usually so does the price. I worry that young collectors will not find studio glass that they can afford to purchase. My suggestion is that artists consider making some smaller pieces in addition to the larger scale works to entice the younger, less affluent to begin collecting.

Tom: Every node in the network has to grow for the entire community to thrive. I would like to see us bring the nodes together for a serious discussion about the future of studio glass. We have much to learn from each other. We have many organizations all dedicated to contemporary studio glass, but there is no forum (yet) where we purposefully come together as a community to identify and discuss the issues facing this art movement, develop solutions and move forward.

Tom & Kendra: One of the elements we absolutely love about studio glass is that it is an incredibly open and friendly community. People are so willing to share their art and their stories. We have marveled at the camaraderie of glass artists and collectors when they are together. We have made many wonderful friends just by being part of this community and feel privileged to have found contemporary studio glass.

SJL: Thank you Tom and Kendra!

 

Latchezar Boyadjiev