Habatat Galleries celebrates 50th anniversary with new exhibit

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

As Ferdinand Hampson prepared to graduate from Wayne State University, he had no idea what to do with his life. Though he loved art, he was graduating with a marketing degree and was not sure about his next steps. His sister and her husband approached him about opening an art gallery, and despite his lack of direction, he was still unsure.

But a small glass paperweight changed all that. 

He noticed it on their desk - a creation by Gilbert Johnson, who founded the glass program of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies – and told them he would give them an answer over the weekend if he could take the paperweight home with him. 

“All weekend I was taking it out and looking at it, the interior of it was very chaotic,” he said. “My mind was pantomimed by what was going on inside this piece. It was like a little part of who I am right now, and that’s what convinced me.” 

50 years later, his studio glass art-focused Habatat Galleries in Royal Oak is still going strong and marking its half-century milestone Saturday with a new exhibit. 

Habatat Galleries is celebrating its 50th anniversary Saturday.

The event is part celebration, part glass invitational, an annual gathering of international glass artists networking and displaying their work. Hampson said in previous years around 100 artists would display two or three pieces each. Since COVID-19 has limited international travel, work from 65 artists is expected at this year’s event, but Hampson said each will have more in-depth displays of their work with more than 400 pieces on view. Though only a few of these artists are expected to attend Saturday’s event, Hampson said it is gearing up to be one of the best exhibits in their history.

“This is some of the most spectacular work that I’ve seen any of these artists make,” he said.

Though Hampson retired in 2013, the business has remained in the family with his stepson Aaron Schey and son Corey Hampson at the helm. 

Schey said his love for studio glass art comes from an appreciation of the versatility of the medium as well as the idea of taking an everyday material and making it into something beautiful. He also understands and admires the hard work and sacrifices these artists have made their art.

“The ones that we show are the best of the best and have really worked their way into being recognized around the world,” he said. “Knowing the great people these artists are, you have a respect for them and the hardships they had to go through to get where they are today.”

Hampson said in the 1970s when he was beginning his gallery, glass studio art was new and underappreciated. At that time, the gallery was in Dearborn and featured a variety of different work, including more traditional art like paintings and sculptures, in addition to glass.

He said Johnson and his glass program at the College for Creative Studies inspired him, as well as the underdog appeal of a group of talented artists struggling to get their work seen. 

“They needed a gallery or something special that elevated the way people looked at the work, and that is where we came in,” he said. “I’ve always looked at Habatat as plugging in where it’s needed.”

In 1979, the gallery made the decision to focus solely on glass, despite the fact that it made up only 15 percent of their business. 

“It was a very hard decision, but we ended deciding because of the trajectory of where we thought the glass was going as an art material,” he said. 

With that, the gallery moved to Lathrup Village to a location they felt was more suitable to displaying glass, opening with an exhibit by Harvey Littleton, who Hampson said is considered the father of American studio glass. Eventually, the gallery would grow to feature international artists, moving to locations in Farmington Hills and Pontiac as it evolved, eventually landing in Royal Oak in 2001.

Today, Hampson said Habatat is the largest art gallery featuring glass in the world, with 21,000 square feet between two buildings.

He said Saturday’s exhibit will display the most work they have ever had in one location, and Schey said the entire space has been re-designed for it.

“You’re going to have more if an intimate experience with each artist’s work,” he said. “The presentation is one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Moving forward, the gallery is increasing its digital footprint under Schey. He created the online “Glass Art Fair,” where people can view and purchase art from more than 100 artists. He also established “Not Grandma’s Glass,” a digital exhibit featuring 12 artists that each get to create their own virtual experience every month. It is also a competition where the public can select their favorites. The top four then move on to display again the following year, joined by eight new artists.

Schey said these artists explore topics happening today, including themes like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and consumerism. 

“These artists are really pushing the medium into the future and beyond,” he said. “It’s topical and relevant.”

For Saturday’s exhibition – which runs through the end of October – Schey said it is a powerful experience not to be missed.

“It’s basically a once-in-a-lifetime show,” he said. “We probably won’t be able to do something like this again.”

Habatat’s 50th Anniversary Gala Celebration and Exhibition

5:30-9 p.m. Saturday

4400 Fernlee, Royal Oak

The exhibition will also be on view from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday for those who prefer less traffic and will run through the end of October. Entrance is free. For more information, visit www.habatat.com.