When a Shipping Container Becomes a Mecca for Glass Blowing

BAGI Board Chair Steven Aldrich (l) and Executive Director Damon Gustafson (r) say they're thrilled to have found a permanent home at History San José. Another $90,000, and they'll be able to move out of shipping containers and into a warehouse next door.

BAGI Board Chair Steven Aldrich (l) and Executive Director Damon Gustafson (r) say they're thrilled to have found a permanent home at History San José. Another $90,000, and they'll be able to move out of shipping containers and into a warehouse next door. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Imagine the distress you would feel hearing that a friend of yours had been priced out of the rental market and taken to living in a temporary shelter in some park nearby.

The Bay Area Glass Institute (or BAGI to locals) wants you to know things are not quite as dire as that might sound, although the nonprofit arts organization is making do right now in a clutch of shipping containers.

One container holds the office; another, the gift shop. A third houses the studio, where senior instructor Treg Silkwood demonstrates his craft. He makes glass-blowing look effortless.

“We melt glass here,” Silkwood says. “It comes out of the furnace in excess of 2,000 degrees. At that temperature, it’s like honey or molasses. It’s a thick, gooey liquid.”

An unorthodox arrangement

This kind of art is usually practiced in permanent buildings with fireproofing and air conditioning — not in a shipping container with three walls, open to the elements.

This is an unorthodox arrangement, to say the least. But Damon Gustafson, BAGI’s executive director, says the organization is thrilled to be here. “We looked at just about every space inside the city limits — where we needed to stay, because we’re partially funded by the city,” Gustafson says. “It quickly became very challenging to find a space that was going to suit our needs.”

Seriously: if you didn’t know BAGI was in Kelley Park, on land owned by the city run History San José, you wouldn’t stumble onto this scene.
Seriously: if you didn’t know BAGI was in Kelley Park, on land owned by the city-run History San José, you wouldn’t stumble onto this scene. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

All this is happening on land owned by the city-run History San José, a museum hub in Kelley Park. The city is not going to turn BAGI out, the way its former landlord in Japantown did after 15 years. (The glass institute had 18 months to find a new home after the space they used to rent was sold to a condo developer.)

BAGI Board chair Steven Aldrich says a nonprofit simply isn’t a competitive applicant in today’s real estate market. “The options for developers to take a space and turn it into housing or into office space is much more appealing than what we could afford to pay as a nonprofit arts organization,” Aldrich says.

BAGI’s annual budget is about $750,000. It has always been lean and self-sufficient, subsisting largely on student fees for glass classes. That, plus the fact that the organization’s glass pumpkins are very popular at art fairs. Unless you’re a student studying glass art at San Jose State, there’s little else like the Bay Area Glass Institute in the South Bay.

Even in its modest new digs, the institute remains a hot spot for lovers of glass blowers. For Dianne Weiss, a tech executive at Intuit, BAGI is not so much a hobby as it is a family where she feels kinship with kindred spirits. “Once a week, I meet my friends here and we blow glass,” Weiss says. “It takes us outside of emails and business planning, and lets us do something physical and creative. And you work in a team, so it’s a deep community. I think of it as my church or temple.”

BAGI makes most of its money running glass working classes for kids and local companies looking for a fun team-building exercise.
BAGI makes most of its money running glass working classes for kids and local companies looking for a fun team-building exercise. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

An existential issue

When BAGI was founded 20 years ago, real estate was expensive, but nobody imagined it would become an existential issue. Renters are vulnerable to eviction and price hikes. Buying is close to impossible without outside help. In San Jose, that help is more likely than not to come from the city, even after its redevelopment agency — like every other one in the state — was disbanded a few years ago.

“If we had not been able to buy our building three years ago, we would be at the mercy of the market,” says Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, CEO of the Latino cultural organization Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), one of several San Jose nonprofits that moved from renting to owning with a strong assist from the city. “The great thing about owning is we control our destiny.”

So could San Jose help BAGI into home ownership? Not for a while. But BAGI’s board doesn’t intend to remain in those shipping containers forever. Right next door, there’s a giant warehouse that used to be filled with a motley collection of historical artifacts from San Jose’s past, stored on dusty shelves. The forgotten space is reminiscent of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The warehouse may need a lot of work to turn into a glass studio, but the improvements will count against the rent.
The warehouse may need a lot of work to turn into a glass studio, but the improvements will count against the rent. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Damon Gustafson and his buddies on the glass institute board need to raise another $90,000 or so for the retrofit. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, is reportedly a big fan of glass art. Maybe BAGI should send her a glass pumpkin to kickstart a conversation.

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED's South Bay arts reporter, covering arts and culture in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She also guest hosts for  The California Report and Forum, files stories for NPR and hosts a podcast called Love in the Digital Age.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the past 20 years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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