Dale Chihuly is perhaps the world’s best-known contemporary glass artist. His glass works, which range from single tabletop pieces to large multiple-piece sculptures, are in art museums, corporate offices, and private homes around the globe. His largest single exhibit and one of his biggest, most complex creations, Fireworks of Glass, is prominently displayed inside The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
Specially commissioned by the museum, Fireworks of Glass consists of 3,200 pieces of blown glass in red, yellow, cobalt blue, lime, and orange, intertwined to create a tower that extends vertically for 43 feet through the museum’s core. The piece required five years to plan, develop, and create.
It’s complemented by a Pergola Ceiling comprising 1,700 Chihuly creations, visible through a floating ceiling made of large clear glass sections on the museum’s Lower Level. The pieces—which were inspired by undersea plants and creatures, chandeliers, flowers, and other forms—can be viewed from a revolving platform underneath the ceiling, as well as from the ramp that leads visitors up to the museum’s other four levels of galleries.
In addition to viewing Fireworks of Glass, children and families can build their own sculptures using plastic shapes similar to ones Chihuly uses in his glass original. They also can experiment with glassblowing in a “hot shop” environment using a computer station, which is much cooler and safer than the real thing!
Space to Fill
The project started when the museum converted its former lending library, Rex’s Lending Center, into infoZone, a full-service public branch of the Indianapolis Public Library, and moved it from its former home on the Lower Level. That left an empty space at the bottom of the museum’s central core, which is defined by the ramps that wind around it and connect the museum’s five levels.
The core was the perfect place for a work of art, said the museum’s president and CEO Jeffrey Patchen in a newspaper article. “It’s the one space in the museum that more people see than any other,” said Patchen. “We discussed how we could use it in a dynamic way.” Having met Chihuly in the past, Patchen invited him to visit the museum. “He got excited about the idea of doing something that was child-centered,” said Patchen.
While Chihuly had done plenty of large-scale pieces, he had never done one like what he envisioned for the museum’s core. Supporting a 9-ton glass sculpture and the thick glass base of the floating ceiling required the installation of a specially designed suspended framework.
The entire project cost $5 million, which included a $1 million endowment to maintain the piece. A regular maintenance task is to clean the tower, which requires individuals to strap on harnesses fastened to cables so they can raise and lower themselves as they clean each glass piece. It’s like dusting a chandelier—only it requires a lot more time, effort, and courage!
On March 18, 2006, the museum officially unveiled Fireworks of Glass. In addition to seeing the glass tower and ceiling, visitors got a chance to take part in hands-on activities and glass-blowing demonstrations, as well as programs that showed how Fireworks of Glass was created and installed. SpaceQuest® Planetarium featured a film about Chihuly’s studio and his creative process. And the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York sent a crew to Indianapolis called the Hot Glass Roadshow; for nearly three months glassmakers created blown glass pieces in Festival Park.
In addition to the permanent tower and glass ceiling, Chihuly provided the museum with a temporary exhibit titled Fiori del Bambini: A Chihuly Garden of Glass for Children. Running from May 29, 2006 to Sept. 20, 2007, it showcased the artist’s many flower-like creations, using light to create a fantasy of a garden and reflecting pool. Also on display were glass pieces created by at-risk youth who work in Chihuly’s Hilltop Artists-in-Residence program.
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Dale Chihuly studied interior design at the University of Washington, which is where he discovered the fine art of handmade glass. After graduating in 1965, Chihuly enrolled in a glass program at the University of Wisconsin, the first of its kind in the country. He went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design; he later established that institution’s glass program, where he taught for more than a decade.
After receiving a Fulbright Fellowship in 1968, Chihuly went to Venice, Italy, where he worked at the Venini glass factory. There he learned about the team approach to blowing glass, which he later adapted for use in his own production studio. In 1971, Chihuly helped found Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, which has since become one of the world’s finest centers of fine art glass.
Together Fireworks of Glass and the Pergola Ceiling display contain more glass pieces than anything Chihuly had done up to that point. But for him it was worth the challenge. “I like working with children,” Chihuly told a reporter. “This was a chance to do something exciting for them in a museum setting. It was something I really wanted to do.”
The Fireworks of Glass exhibit was made possible by many generous donors. Learn more about the museum’s transformational donors.