Glass House curator calls buildings an extraordinary canvas
Most curators work with artworks or objects. Hilary Lewis, chief curator and creative director of The Glass House in New Canaan, gets to engage with a canvas that stretches nearly 50 acres and across 14 buildings. The property, which opened for public tours in 2007 under the aegis of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, comprises The Glass House and 13 other buildings, including an art collection. It was once home of the late famed modernist architect Philip Johnson. In this position, she combines her background in architecture, teaching and urban planning to preserve Johnson’s legacy.
Andrea Valluzzo: For preparing an exhibition, how do you choose artwork or artists?
Hilary Lewis: Our selection process stems from a careful consideration of our property and its buildings since all installations are integrated into our extraordinary campus of buildings. From Robert Indiana to Jennie C. Jones, we have both reached back into the history of those artists who worked directly with Philip Johnson and David Whitney, as well as looked forward, by bringing artists to The Glass House who represent the next generation of talent.
Valluzzo: What inspired you to become a curator?
Lewis: My training in architectural history and urban planning gave me the opportunity to work directly with Philip Johnson who combined the practice of architecture with his earlier work as a curator, so I had quite a role model to observe early in my career. As an author and journalist, I gained a lot of experience in presenting work in written form, which relates directly to curatorial activities; it’s an additional bonus to be able to operate three-dimensionally rather than be limited to a flat page (or screen)! My interests combine architecture, art and design, which are precisely the areas we work in at The Glass House.
Valluzzo: What is it like to curate for a historic landmark instead of a museum focused on art or objects?
Lewis: It’s an extraordinary canvas! I have been connected to this property since the 1990s when I first began working directly with Philip Johnson, so I had the opportunity to see how he and his partner David Whitney installed art, built architecture and enhanced the landscape over many years. While you can certainly produce wonderful exhibitions within a white-walled gallery, to be able to work in conjunction with an extraordinary landscape and world-class buildings is a fabulous opportunity for our curatorial team as well as for our visitors to show how architecture can be elevated through a dialogue with art. Philip Johnson had a strong history in doing precisely this.
Valluzzo: How has the pandemic impacted your ability to plan upcoming exhibits?
Lewis: Like so many institutions, we have been severely impacted by the pandemic. We had planned a robust season of exhibitions and installations that we then had to rethink as part of global concerns around the spread of the coronavirus. We have moved several projects to later dates, especially those that would have required contemporary artists and designers to work with us directly on site. We are moving ahead with an installation of textiles designed by Bauhaus designer Anni Albers, who had been friendly with Philip Johnson and collaborated on fabrics for his projects. We are especially pleased to celebrate such an important female figure during 2020, the International Year of the Woman.
Valluzzo: Pros and cons of offering virtual programs/tours while the house was closed?
Lewis: We have embraced the opportunity to present information and experiences to our audience via digital platforms. Our team has been adding to our website, with new articles and films as well as going through our considerable archive of materials that can be shared with our viewers.
Also, we have launched new virtual tours and are actively producing live programming that we can share with the public. We have also partnered with local institutions, such as the New Canaan Library, to provide programming for an even larger audience, just as we have for years for in-person events. In many ways, we are more active than ever. So the expanded audience is a pro, but we certainly would prefer to bring guests to our property, which is always best experienced in person.
Valluzzo: As a curator, what do you feel your greatest responsibility is in preserving Johnson’s legacy and the house?
Lewis: That is such an important question. As part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we always have as our major focus the preservation of this wonderful architectural complex. That means that we not only have to be concerned with the buildings, but also the landscape and the significant art collection that was left to us by Philip Johnson and David Whitney.
Our next big projects include the restoration of the Brick House (1949), which is in essence the second wing of The Glass House. Over the years that structure had suffered from water damage due to its placement along the slope of a hill. Finally, our small, arched Lake Pavilion (1962) was produced using experimental methods in concrete and now is in need of full restoration. Our preservation work is ongoing and is an essential aspect of making sure this wonderful and artistic environment is available in its full beauty for generations to come, which is the finest way of preserving Johnson’s legacy.
For more information about The Glass House, visit theglasshouse.org.