When the first British Glass Biennale was held at The Ruskin Glass Centre in Stourbridge two years ago, no-one quite knew what to expect.
But 7,000 visitors found their way to the exhibition in the former Royal Doulton works, 40 per cent of the exhibits were sold and ten exhibitors received commissions as a result. And the exhibition had an international impact, directly inspiring a show of contemporary British glass in Switzerland.
The Biennale, which returns next month, is the centrepiece of the four-day International Festival of Glass, which will bring some of the world's leading practitioners to the West Midlands. Events at various venues around Stourbridge's Glass Quarter range from Danish archae-ologist Torben Solde leading a workshop in Viking bead-making to demonstrations by Walter Hellbach, the world's foremost glass eyemaker from the former East Germany.
Josef Marek from the Czech Republic will talk about his cold process sculpture techniques, Rik Allen and Shelley Muzylowski from the US and Canada will describe recent developments in glass sculpture in the American North West, and Maureen Cahill, director of Sydney's Glass Artists Gallery, will give an overview of the current Australian glassmaking scene - regarded by many as one of the world's most exciting.
There will also be the launch of a touring exhibition celebrating 30 years of Peter Layton's London Glassblowing, now Europe's longest-established glass studio.
And following his previous successful visit glass jewellery maker Andrew Logan will be returning with his friend Zandra Rhodes for a glitzy fashion show finale on the evening of August 28.
"We've got people from around the world to take part," says festival director Janine Christley. "One of the workshops we're running on beadmaking has people from Australia, Germany and Switzerland, and there are quite a few Americans coming over. Last time we had people from 30 different countries."
Supported by the Arts Council, Advantage West Midlands, and Black Country and Heart of England tourism agencies, the festival aims to put Stourbridge back on the global glass map.
The Ruskin Glass Centre, run by the educational charity the Ruskin Mill Trust, shows how a smaller but distinctive glass industry is being redefined for the 21st century. An umbrella facility for small glass businesses, it shares the Glasshouse complex with an arts centre and a college for young people with learning difficulties.
"What's great is when people come on to the site and say where's the college?" says Janine Christley. "It's a cultural centre with businesses on site, an arts centre and an organic shop, and then we weave the students through it, giving them experience of the real world rather than keeping them apart from it. That's the ethos of it all.
"The festival came out of the need to raise the profile of the site. There's been a heritage of glassmaking here since 1691.
"The British Glass Biennale will have 101 people showing this year, compared to 80 last time, and we have 175 pieces of work being exhibited. It's really the biggest showcase for artists in this country."
The overall submission was smaller this year, but Janine suggests that this is because the first exhibition defined the kind of work the organisers were looking for. The exhibition concentrates on the fine art rather than craft end of the spectrum, exemplified by the sculptural piece by Hannah Kippax, last year's prizewinner. But another defining characteristic of the show is that everything is for sale.
"That was really important for us, because we're conscious that artists have opportunities to showcase but not always to sell. We wanted to encourage people to buy for the first time, to help create a collectors' market for glass.
"Compared to ceramics, for example, there hasn't really been a market. In a sense glass has come of age and we see this as being part of that. Hannah Kippax who won last time had a flurry of commissions from this country and abroad, so there was quite an impact."
Compared to studio pottery, which has roots in the early 20th century, the studio glass movement really only started in the 1970s.
"Before that it was all industrial. Some people think it's not as exciting now, but when it started everything was new. But the quality and tech-niques used have improved enormously and it's moved into much more sculptural items as well.
"What we've found with this show is that there's also a move away from blown glass in favour of cast glass. It's much easier to buy a kiln and get started. Increasing fuel costs are in danger of putting a number of firms out of business now, whereas cast glass is much more controllable.
"It's been an interesting shift. It also reflects on glass courses as well. It's one of the most expensive courses for any college to run, and a lot of glass courses have closed. Fewer students are coming through, and they're less likely to be making blown glass."
Plans for future development at The Glasshouse include a proposal for a "hotshop" ringed by incubator units, enabling small firms to share fuel costs.
"It should make it easier for graduates to come out of college and get started. What I'd like to see is a series of workshops around the Glass Quarter. It could be quite vibrant round here."
Those of us from a few miles away who are used to thinking of the borough of Dudley as an enigma wrapped in a mystery are likely to be pleasantly surprised at how quickly the International Glass Festival has established itself on the wider stage.
" We've done a lot more advertising this time, and we have quite a big mailing list from people who came last time," says Janine Christley. "We've had a number of foreign journalists who came over and a number will be coming to the festival.
"Because people weren't expecting much last time it's going to be harder to impress them this year. But we're working on it." n The International Festival of Glass runs at several venues in Stourbridge's Glass Quarter from August 25-28. The British Glass Biennale is at the Ruskin Glass Centre, Ruskin Glass Centre, Woollaton Road, Amblecote, Stour-bridge from Aug 25 to Sep 17 (daily 10am-5pm, admission free).
* For further information call 01384 399444, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ifg.org.uk