Masters: Tina Oldknow

Masters: Tina Oldknow

Honorary Fellow
Tina Oldknow, Portrait

Oldknow relishes the opportunity to make objects meaningful for museum visitors. Photo: Matt Wittmeyer

From the age of 9 or 10, when she wanted to be an art historian (without knowing what that meant), Tina Oldknow loved museums. “I’m one of those lucky people,” she says; “I grew up knowing what I wanted to do.” And now, as senior curator of modern and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum of Glass, she wants her work to be as vital and relevant as possible.

One of the compliments Oldknow likes most is “I can understand your writing.” Why? Because “so much of writing about art is inaccessible and hard to read,” she says. It’s dense and obscure – and wastes an opportunity to make art matter to people. Oldknow has written a great deal, from a 1996 book on Pilchuck Glass School to a book she is working on now, which surveys 100 objects and artists in the Corning collection, to mark the March opening of the museum’s 100,000-square-foot addition.

Oldknow views her subject matter as crucial, if not endangered. “It always amazes me when the art programs are taken out of schools,” she says. “Sometimes people think – I don’t know, do we really need museums?” For that question, she has a flat answer: “I don’t think it’s a luxury. I think it’s an imperative. I couldn’t live without art.”

Artists, she says, “are the thinkers in our society, the philosophers. And I’m always interested in hearing what they have to say.” Her heroes are people such as Émile Gallé, Dale Chihuly, Josiah Mc-Elheny, and Judith Schaechter – “people who kind of introduced glass in a new way to us.” 

She relishes the opportunity to make the objects she displays comprehensible and rewarding for people who visit the museum; she’s had the pleasure of acquiring many of them in her 14 years at Corning. “The fun part has been ‘How can we develop a way of presenting this work that shows it to its best advantage?’ ” she says. “There’s always a way we read displays; if we’re presented something in a certain way, we will understand it in a certain way.”

Success for Oldknow is knowing she’s connected with people. She loves hearing that an object she has carefully and thoughtfully presented has had an impact on a visitor. She loves hearing “I looked at this thing in the gallery, and it’s so amazing,” she says. “That is really why I do what I do.”