The closing of Sunderland’s National Glass Centre

An opinion piece article

The National Glass Centre by Jo Howell

by Sunderland photographic artist Jo Howell

If you want to add your feelings about this news then please use the link below to fill in my survey.

Survey about NGC

It’s hard to know exactly how to put into words the way that I feel about the National Glass Centre’s recent announcement of closure and possible relocation. I was a kid when the National Glass Centre was created, and even back then, we all knew that it was an absolute asset to Sunderland.

A shiny new hope that celebrated our long heritage of industry and artisans who work with this amazing material. It was a much more creative heritage than the never ending stories of mining, ship building, and military. It bolsters our confidence to work creatively. Gives hope for something more than working in call centres or retail.

So, I guess I’m devastated. I have had a wonderful long working relationship with the National Glass Centre as a professional photographer, and as a workshop facilitator.

My partner is a glass blower. The reason he decided to stay in Sunderland was that the NGC had glass facilities that artists could hire. The closure and uncertainty of what will happen to the NGC is already damaging the freelance satellite businesses that the NGC supports. My partner will have spent his life becoming proficient in a skill that is being wiped out.

There are no other facilities anywhere closer than 300 miles that do glass furnace hire. I feel that an outright closure would be cutting the throat of the British glass art scene. And, would most definitely be the death of blown glass in the north east.

NGCA Island exhibition and CoLab Sunderland, 2022

Glass blowing in particular is a very specific and highly trained skill. In order to do it you have to use immense amounts of energy. Furnaces need to be kept to temperature, and even though the NGC changed to electric furnaces not that long ago, the current energy crisis obviously presents enormous problems.

> This following statement is gleaned from personal conversations with local engineers and artists. There has been no official clarification of the root cause of the ‘structural issues’. (Amended 23/02/2023 to aid transparency).

As far as we are aware, the building itself was designed without taking into consideration the tidal movement of the land it was built on. Today a building like that would most likely be built upon a platform that worked with the tides rather than against. I’m pretty sure that we knew about this when the building was constructed. But, it’s no good dwelling on shoulda woulda coulda’s. What is done is done.

What we can do, in moving forward, is to consider the closure as an opportunity to create a flagship purpose built building with a focus on making glass greener.

Can we combine new green technologies with a building in an attempt to reduce the energy demand from the grid?

Can we create a tidal energy or solar energy facility that is specifically designed to reduce the energy costs of glass blowing?

Can we work with new battery technology so that any excess power can be stored?

My niece at a past exhibition. By Jo Howell

This shouldn’t be the end of Sunderland’s long relationship with glass making. Surely with so much investment, and development in the City right now, that we should be able to secure a future for something so vital?!

Thinking long term rather than short term. We want a fit for purpose building, that is as close to zero carbon as possible, and that is future proofed for the next 50 years minimum.

The lack of conversation and of information about the current plans for the NGC and NGCA is very worrying.

Community consultation and involvement at the ground level is imperative.

Yes, it’s a university building… but, it’s a building that came with far more responsibility than the others brought into the university fold.

This building, this facility, is very important to my identity as a Mackem. It is imperative that we come up with a realistic plan of action to save the NGC and the NGCA. Sunderland deserves culture. Sunderland deserves skills. Sunderland deserves creative ambition.

To close the NGC without a plan to conserve the art galleries, the museum, the kilns, the furnaces, lehrs, the community workshops, the bright space; the learning facilitators, the artists, the freelancers, the staff…. It would be an absolutely folly to let that all disappear.

It would be SHAMEFUL to let all of that disappear.

Glass hand by Jo Howell, 2022

I found too many words! But, I am seriously very distressed at the current situation. And, I’m livid that we find ourselves in this position.

There’s still time to add your testimony to my survey. And, I’ll be looking to arrange meetings soon, and to provide more information via email if you want to sign up use the link below or at the top of the blog.

I’ll be meeting a couple of similarly minded locals this Monday. Following that, I will email those that have signed up via the survey to invite collaboration in this mammoth task.

National glass centre survey

Bio: Jo Howell is a photographic artist based in Sunderland, and a Sunderland University Alumni.


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