The Corning Museum of Glass has been part of a globally popular Netflix series, Blown Away for two seasons. For former Senior Creative Director Rob Cassetti, the show’s popularity is not a surprise. Cassetti originally pitched a live glass blowing demonstration as part of the museum’s public programming thirty years ago and it quickly grew to be one of the museum's most popular experiences. Now the Corning Museum of Glass is part of a prominent glass blowing competition series that features expert glassmakers from the museum. The grand prize package includes a residency in the museum’s Amphitheater Hot Shop. For Cassetti, the show is a culmination of innovative public programming in his career and his efforts to connect people to the world of glass blowing at Corning.
On the set of Blown Away. Photo courtesy of David Leyes for marblemedia
Glass blowing as part of the museum experience
“I never imagined that I would join the museum staff,” said Cassetti. In the mid 1990s, he was working for Corning Incorporated and was recruited as Project Manager to develop exhibitions for a massive museum expansion project. “It was a major multi-million dollar project and in my mind I was going to work on this project and then go on to something else.” The project included new gallery space, a science center, and the development of a live narrated glass blowing demonstration– the Hot Glass Show. “Part of the product of the demonstration was the demonstration itself... the experience of seeing live glass blowing and understanding what’s happening,” said Cassetti. One of the assistant team members provides a live narration throughout the show. “There was an authenticity about it and just the natural drama of watching live glass blowing. It’s something you don’t normally get to see everyday.”
After the museum added its expansion in 1999, the Hot Glass Show captured everyone’s attention. Early on, the museum ran out of space for the audience and ended up expanding the theater and created an outdoor demonstration. “We didn’t know it at the time but that launched a whole sub operation of mobile glass blowing demonstrations that we would end up taking around the world.” Cassetti reflects that during museums’ reopening there was a remarkable freedom to do new, experimental things. “It was a huge burst of creative activity at the museum and I was completely hooked.” Cassetti left the for profit sector and joined the museum community.
“We learned that the museum’s audience is really engaged in learning. The first outline of talking points made for the demonstrations included all this esoteric stuff that we found interesting but then laughed because who did we think we were talking to?” said Cassetti. “This isn’t going to be an audience of melting engineers. But we were wrong.” People were fascinated by the details and wanted to learn intrinsic details about glass blowing. What kind of fuel was being used? Why don’t the pipes heat up? “All of this stuff that we had taken out of this demonstration narrative and then we were bombarded with twenty minutes of questions at the end of the demonstration that were all the things that we had taken out of the narration. It was a real lesson. The audience is hungry to learn.”
Glass blowing in progress on the set of Blown Away Season Two. Photo courtesy of David Leyes for marblemedia
Fast forward to Blown Away and in many ways the core proposition of the show is imparting levels of knowledge to the audience at a fairly high level. “You’re seeing the artist and the technical challenge of the makers working all under a time pressure, and they don’t hold back. All while telling you the technical details behind everything. So that wasn’t a surprise to me that it would be a winning formula.”
When Canadian Production Company Marblemedia were upfront about the concept of the series when they approached Corning Museum of Glass about being involved, sharing details like insights to who the director was going to be, previous programs produced, and shared what kind of camera equipment was going to be used.
“One of the things that i learned in my museum career is that the world is organized to say no, but that should never stop a good idea,” said Cassetti. “Anytime someone comes to you with a new project and proposition, the staff is already working flat out. We had to ask is it worth our while, worth the investment and we went through an analysis. Once we had all of those data points from the production company we asked ourselves, is this going to be good?” The fact that the show was going to be distributed by Netflix was a huge validation of the project for the museum, but there was still risk.
Corning Museum of Glass Involvement
Once the museum felt comfortable moving forward, the questions moved to how does the museum participate? “There was this incredible time pressure, which could have been its own TV show. We were talking with them in the summer, they were in the middle of building the studio space where the series was going to be filmed in, and filming was going to begin in the fall. It turned out that this idea of the prize package including a residency and the opportunity for our team of glass blowers to participate in the last episode sealed our participation in the show.
“They [Marblemedia] said the gold standard [of reality competition shows] is the Great British Baking Show and many of the things that work in Blown Away are in the Great British Baking Show including camaraderie and the respect that the contestants have for one another,” said Cassetti. The glass blowing world is a tight-knit community. Artists assist one another, take classes together, and know of each other by reputation. “There’s very much a family feel to it that we at the museum have understood for over twenty years by not only doing live glass blowing but by helping guest artists. Our objective is to help artists realize their work at a level that not only meets what they can do but hopefully exceeds that because of the skills of our team and the equipment we support them with.” It’s that sense of goodwill that viewers get in the last episode of each season when the museum’s Hot Glass Demo Team assists the finalists. “There is a huge amount of energy and sort of a cooperative let us help each other to succeed kind of feeling.”
Behind the Scenes
Rob Cassetti served as the Season Two finale guest judge, which was recorded just before the pandemic. As the guest judge, Cassetti had no idea who the finalists were, or knew their past performance on the show. “Which is a good way to judge something.” In the finale, the finalists were tasked to make an installation which involved making multiple pieces to fill a gallery space. Cassetti was on set to watch the Season One finale, but watching how the show came together behind the scenes was fascinating to see. “The thing that is so impressive is the director and his crew are so good at filming glass blowing...I think it’s the most impressive part of the show.”
Rob Cassetti joins judge Katherine Gray and host Nick Uhas in the Season Two finale. Photo courtesy of David Leyes for marblemedia
The Netflix Effect
After Season One, the museum saw an immediate interest and uptick in glass blowing classes. “So much so that the beginner classes sold out and we had to add additional classes. Amy [Schwartz, Director of The Studio] was checking in with her colleagues who run glass blowing programs around the world and they were all seeing the same thing happen,” said Cassetti. “Talk about a museum fulfilling its mission. We’re glass-evangelists and we want people to learn about it, including how to make it. So it was a very powerful partnership to be able to have that visibility with Netflix.
The museum saw more visitors including Season One winner Deb Czeresko fans who visited the museum during her residency to watch her work. Part of the decision making for getting involved with the series was to increase awareness of the museum and to motivate visitors. Following each season, the museum hosts a small exhibit that features work from each participant. “It’s so interesting to see visitors interact with these objects...they are immediately connecting to the person who made them,” said Cassetti. “They talk about the objects in a different way and talking themselves back to seeing that person make it. As a museum professional that just resonates on so many levels...their knowledge of the progress.”
Rob Cassetti on set of Blown Away. Photo courtesy of David Leyes for marblemedia
For Cassetti, the entire experience was immensely satisfying. “I proposed the idea of a live glass blowing demonstration to the museum in the mid 1990s, knowing the inherent drama that was built into the equation,’ said Cassetti. “To have that energy captured in this easy with Blown Away, distilling so many things I know and love about the process that you see when you visit Corning Museum of Glass but for a global audience to be able to see it just speaks to me so deeply.” Cassetti is passionate about this process, seeing both the artist potential and the challenge associated with it. For him, it never gets old. “Thinking about it as a museum professional where our core reason we exist to get people to see glass differently, it’s just a beautiful culmination.”
Learn more about the Corning Museum of Glass and Netflix’s Blown Away: https://www.cmog.org/press-release/corning-museum-glass-lends-its-expertise-glassblowing-competition-series-blown-away