Combine talent and innovation in one region and remarkable things can happen. Witness the cluster of glass makers in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
The world’s biggest clusters of related economic activity are easy to spot. Most bragging rights to clusters are dominated by megatropolises, where companies and capital cluster in large numbers, or by regions defined broadly enough to show similar scale. Consider the auto alley from the Nashville area south.
But some of the most interesting clusters are hidden away in rural communities. They lack the scale of enterprises or the industrial identities to make them visible to outsiders. And the generic cluster databases available from government-support sources are not designed—and can’t begin—to find the real strengths of these businesses in rural communities.
Scratch just a little below the surface, however, and you’ll find business clusters across rural America.
One of the most prominent of the nation’s micro-clusters is art glass in western North Carolina. Highly concentrated along the Toe River Valley of Mitchell and Yancey Counties, this cluster may be well known among the nation’s makers and aficionados of art glass, but it gets little if any attention from economic development experts as a wealth-generating industry cluster.
It developed, as have so many clusters, from the confluence of three factors: an innovation, an early “technology” center, and a contingent of talented early adopters attracted by the center.
The “technology” center — and glass blowing was a technology as well as an art — was the Penland School of Crafts in the Toe River Valley, one of America’s first and best-known teaching and learning centers for the crafts.
The innovation was taking glassmaking out of the factory, where it had taken place, and into the studio. The first to do this — 50 years ago at the University of Wisconsin in Madison — was ceramic artist Harvey Littleton, now widely acknowledged to be the father of studio glass and designated a “Living Treasure” by the state of North Carolina.
In 1965 the director of Penland School of Craft in Mitchell County, North Carolina, invited Bill Boysen, one of Harvey’s students at the University of Wisconsin, to build a furnace and start a summer glass program. Two years later, Mark Peiser was invited to become Penland’s first glass artist-in-residence.
As the program became known it grew, and others were invited by Penland to become artists-in-residence. Finding a community of like-minded and talented artists that had shared interests but quite different styles, many chose to remain and live in the valley. Among the first glass artists who were attracted to and remained in the area were Gil Johnson, Richard Ritter, Billy Bernstein, and Rob Levin.
In 1976 Harvey Littleton, attracted by Penland’s growing glass program and the burgeoning community of glass artists that his early work inspired, moved to the North Carolina’s Toe River and opened a studio. Gradually the numbers of recognized glass artists and crafters in this rural Appalachian region reached the scale and reputation to be classified as a world-class rural glass art cluster. It includes almost 60 glass artists, suppliers, educational programs, art galleries, studio tours, and an incubator for art glass enterprises.
For example, the region has:
• Spruce Pine Batch Company, which provides glass-making tools, colored glass, and specially formulated pelletized glass using a low-melting formula developed by a colleague of Harvey Littleton, Dominick Labino;
• A formal and informal social infrastructure dating back to when the Glass Art Society was founded at Penland in 1971, the Toe River Crafts Cooperative started by local craft artists in Celo in 1974, and the very active Toe River Arts Council established in 1976;
• Penland’s residency and glass program has continued to grow and attract outstanding glass artists, some of whom remain in the area;
• A joint marketing and branding network of eight artists at five studios in the Celo area as the “Glass Studios of the South Toe Valley.”
• The EnergyXchange, glassblowing and pottery studios powered by methane from a landfill have operated since 1994 as new business incubator for developing artists, is now managed by Mayland Community College.
• Several local galleries specializing in art glass.
These two relatively poor, rural Appalachian counties with a combined population of about 30,000 have unparalleled proportions of internationally recognized American glass artists.
The impact of their work is not its volume of decorative and functional glass, which characterized art glass prior to the 1960s and defined types of clusters, but the range and depth of artistic talent among the glass artists.
Toe River artists’ glass can be found in art museums around the world. Nearly a dozen are represented in Denmark’s famed Glasmuseet Elbeltoft. At a special showing of North Carolina Glass at Ebeltoft in 1995, 19 of 22 artists were from within a 40-mile radius of the heart of the Toe River Valley.
The region’s glass artists read like a Who’s Who of American art glass: John Littleton and Kate Vogel (son and daughter-in-law of Harvey Littleton and renowned glass artists themselves), Kenny Pieper, Judson Guerard, Shane Fero, John Geci, Yaffa and Jeff Todd, Rick and Val Beck, and Greg Fidler are just a few who followed early area art glass pioneers Gil Johnson, Mark Peiser, Richard Ritter, Billy and Katie Bernstein, and Rob Levin.
The collection of glass artists and related businesses in the Toe River Valley is a business cluster in every sense of the term. It has developed a local value chain and support infrastructure of suppliers and galleries. And it has created social connections through collaborative marketing, sharing of tacit knowledge, willingness to mentor prospective glass artists, and the artists’ common connections to Penland.
Celebrating Art Glass in the Mountains
In 2012, community leaders in Yancey and Mitchell County decided it was time that the world knew about its unique arts-based cluster.
They organized tours and exhibits in an event they called Glass in the Mountains. Toe River Valley celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Studio Glass Movement to make the larger world aware of this little-known cluster, a highlight of the more than 160 events held across the country in 2012 to celebrate the anniversary.
Local glass artists John Littleton, Kate Vogel, Katie Bernstein and Dick Kennedy led the planning effort. They designed a weekend-long series of events that included gallery exhibits, glass blowing demonstrations, studio tours, lectures, a tour of the EnergyXchange, special events, and an exhibit at the Toe River Arts Council that included a timeline tracing the historical development of the cluster.
The celebration included a special tour of Mark Peiser’s studio and, of course, Harvey Littleton’s studio, which is destined to become a historic landmark.
Can a micro-cluster be a catalyst for a rural region’s economy?
Art glass in the Toe River Valley has all of the attributes of a cluster: a concentration of enterprises; a social infrastructure; suppliers; education; and innovation. (The innovation is both in the form and design of the products and in the technologies of the furnaces and tools.)
But the real power of this particular cluster is that it’s embedded in a much larger art cluster that includes artists in many other media, which leads to many new applications and art forms that mix glass with other arts and crafts.
For example, local home builders and interior decorators are using glass art and other crafts as architectural elements in their work.
More importantly, the art glass cluster contributes to a creative milieu that attracts and keeps talented people in a rural region, and it gives the region distinctiveness among the growing array of creative places.
Stuart Rosenfeld is the founder of Regional Technology Strategies in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.