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Glass Half Full

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 6, 2013
"Mega World 5.4" by Josh Simpson will be on display from Nov. 18 through June 29, at The Ringling.
"Mega World 5.4" by Josh Simpson will be on display from Nov. 18 through June 29, at The Ringling.
  • Arts + Culture
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Philip Kotler flew home to Chicago from Japan last week for one event: The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA). The event is one he and his wife, Nancy Kotler, look forward to every year.

“He’s going with me even if he’s really jet lagged,” Nancy Kotler says with a chuckle. “He made sure he got in just in time for opening night because it’s too fun to miss.”

The Kotlers, contemporary glass art collectors, recently made a large donation of their collection to The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Twenty-four works, a portion of the initial donation, will be featured in a studio glass exhibit opening Nov. 18. The Kotlers have promised almost all of the other pieces they own and continue to actively collect. SOFA is where they do most of their shopping.

All the biggest and best glass artists and galleries exhibit at the Navy Pier festival, which opened Oct. 31. All of the friends the Kotlers have made through The Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass will be in attendance, including some Sarasotans who make up the Southwest chapter. The Kotlers spend six months of the year on Longboat Key, and they’ll arrive just before The Ringling exhibit opens this month.
They spend the summers at the Chautaqua Institution, in New York, and falls in Chicago.

The Kotler collection includes artists’ names you recognize (or will soon recognize) if you’re in the know on contemporary studio glass: Karen LaMonte, Harvey Littleton, Nicolas Africano, Peter Hora, etc. The couple’s glass collection is so extensive they completed an addition to their Evanston, Ill., home to utilize as a gallery space. When they outgrew that, they had a new home designed around the collection. They once needed a structural engineer to evaluate how to accommodate a 450-pound Karen LaMonte sculpture.
The couple started collecting glass pieces in 1986 — nearly 30 years ago.

Leading up to the first glass purchase, Philip Kotler had been collecting art when he traveled for business. As an authoritative voice on marketing, he has penned more than 40 books and is currently the S.C. Johnson Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He frequently travels the world for speaking and consulting work.

While in Japan, a country in which he continues to visit frequently, he bought his daughter a miniature carved ivory figure that caught her attention. He learned it was a Japanese Netsuke, and it sparked an interest in learning about Japanese mythology and culture. He began collecting the precious sculptures. He became fascinated with Japanese culture, specifically the Samurai tradition.

“Nancy did not want me to buy and bring home Japanese swords,” he says in an email. So he settled on the ornate metal work of the Tsubas, or sword guards. This comprises one of his other collections.

So, when the beauty of glass paperweights struck him, it was only natural he start collecting them, too, ultimately leading him to the collection of studio glass.

In conjunction with her husband’s love of art collecting, Nancy Kotler was attracted to studio glass on her own in the ’80s, when she practiced law in Chicago. A partner in her law firm, Paul Lurie, had an office full of art she admired, including works by Dale Chihuly, Dick Huss and Michael Pavlik.

“I had never seen work like that before,” Nancy Kotler says.

Lurie also influenced Nancy Kotler’s involvement in the Illinois art scene. She joined the board of The Northflight Theater, became chairwoman of the public art committee, as well as the chairwoman of the Arts Council in Evanston.

The first piece the Kotlers bought Nancy Kotler refers to as “bags within bags” by Littleton Vogel Glass (artists John Littleton and Kate Vogel). The technical work to create the piece intrigued the Kotlers. It wasn’t long before they bought the second piece.

“At the beginning we might have been a little obsessive about the collecting,” Nancy Kotler says. “… We bought a lot of work because we were interested in a great many artists and didn’t own anything.”

Nancy Kotler explains they made a conscious decision early in their collecting to pick pieces that spoke to both of them. At first, their focus was on form and color, and then it evolved to emphasize narratives.

Philip Kotler explains: “One sculpture shows a man and woman seated in separate chairs facing each other,” he says. “Is this a psychiatrist and a patient? Or is this a husband and wife? One is talking to the other? About what?”

Nancy Kotler finds narrative pieces more emotionally satisfying than strictly abstract work.

The Kotlers knew from the beginning that, aside from a couple of pieces gifted to their three daughters, they would eventually donate the whole collection to a museum. They wanted to share their love of the work with others, something they started with the previous donation of a few pieces to places such as the Racine Art Museum, in Wisconsin, when it opened; and to the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York City, when it was moving locations.

“We were looking to make a decision, and we had looked at other places,” Nancy Kotler says. “But, there was no question in our mind that The Ringling was ideal.”

The Kotlers were struck with The Ringling’s initiative to grow its contemporary collections. The glass art will be on display in the new contemporary wing, near Bird Key residents Warren and Margot Coville’s photography donation and other contemporary works. And with the construction of a new Asian Wing with tentative completion in 2015 — it’s an exciting time to be part of the museum’s growth. The Kotlers’ donation is the first contemporary glass in The Ringling’s collection, and as they see it, the glass is half full.

How They Met

Long before they were the grandparents of nine grandchildren, Philip and Nancy Kotler were not Mr. and Mrs.

Nancy Kotler was an 18-year-old freshman at Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study. Her dorm hosted a jolly-up and 23-year-old Philip was there. They met and the rest is history. They will be married 59 years this January.


The Philip and Nancy Kotler Glass Collection
When: Opens 10 a.m. Nov. 18 and runs through June 29
Where: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (Searing Wing); 5401 Bay Shore Road
Admission price: Members free; $25 adults; $20 seniors 65+; $5 students and children age 6 to 17
Info: Call 359-5700 or visit


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