Outgoing Executive Director Reflects On A Quarter-Century At Pittsburgh's Contemporary Craft
The Strip District has changed so quickly that a visitor to Pittsburgh today, abruptly transported back to 1995, would scarcely recognize much of it. But Janet McCall remembers 1995 well. That was the year she took over as executive director at Contemporary Craft, a venerable arts center then headquartered in the Strip’s historic, five-block-long Produce Terminal. Rather than today’s microbrewery, golf simulator, and garden store, the Terminal still housed actual wholesale produce vendors.
“I remember the word ‘gritty’ came up a lot,” said McCall. “We loved being in the neighborhood where everyone took their brother or their friend who was visiting from out of town. But we were off the beaten path in that we were always trying to pull people over to Smallman Street.”
But the group survived and even prospered – to the point that when it lost its lease in the redeveloping Produce Terminal, it was able to complete a $5.5-million purchase-and-renovation on the old industrial building in Upper Lawrenceville it now calls home.
McCall will retire in June after spending most of the past 26 years at Contemporary Craft. She’ll be succeeded as executive director by Rachel Saul Rearick, a former Contemporary Craft assistant education director who most recently managed public art projects for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
McCall retires as one of Pittsburgh’s longest-serving arts administrators. Contemporary Craft, founded in 1971 as the Society for Contemporary Craft, moved to the Strip in 1986. For the next 33 years, it would anchor the 21st Street end of the Terminal, catty-corner from the landmark St. Stanislaus Catholic church, with a mix of gallery, studio and retail space. But McCall says that even in the mid-1990s, the group’s mission – promoting the fine-art side of traditional handcrafts like ceramics, textiles and woodworking – was often a challenge.
“There were a lot of there was a lot of negative kind of misconceptions out there that we had to push back against,” she said. “I remember one funder saying, ‘Well, you know, you're working hard and it's a worthy cause, but craft is weird. Face it, you're never going to find more than a handful of people who will support craft.’” Even a mentor of hers said he assumed the gig would be worth only a couple years of her time.
McCall has headed the group since 1995 save for three years in the ’00s, when, she said, she stepped away because of fundraising pressures before being recruited back. She said her priorities at Contemporary Craft have included increasing diversity among exhibiting artists and, in recent years, shows addressing social issues. She cites a 1998 exhibit featuring work by 25 Black artists titled “Stop Asking, We Exist,” and curated by artist Joyce J. Scott. “The goal was to make people aware that there were amazing artists of color who were creating work in the craft field,” said McCall, who added that the show toured nationally.
In 2013, Contemporary Craft staged “Enough Violence: Artists Speak Out,” addressing gun violence, whose theme was suggested by a board member. “At first, Kate Lydon, the director of exhibitions, and I were quite skeptical about how we could present that show,” said McCall. “We didn't want something that was sensational. But what we found when we put the show together was there was so much gratitude and interest in this that we made a commitment to starting a series.”
Other biannual shows in the series have addressed mental illness, displacement, and homelessness. An exhibit this fall focuses on food justice. The current show, “Humaira Abid: Searching for Home,” is Pakistani-born artist and woodcarver Abid’s look at the worldwide refugee crisis, especially as it affects women and girls.
Since the ’90s, Contemporary Craft has also co-hosted Fiberart International, a prestigious triennial staged by the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh. (The next one is in 2022.)
McCall has grown Contemporary Craft greatly. The group’s budget, which was about $300,000 when she took over, grew to a pre-pandemic peak of $1.1 million. It’s since dropped to about $800,000, with a $200,000 deficit made up out of the group’s reserves, but she said she believes it will recover.
McCall said the move to Lawrenceville has gone well, considering that Contemporary Craft’s reopening in the new space was delayed four months by the pandemic; the gallery and retail shop are still open only for limited hours just four days a week; and most classes and workshops in metals/jewelry-making, wood, fiber, mixed media, book-binding, and paper arts have migrated online for now.
“We did not want to leave the produce terminal in the Strip District,” she said. “But this is fantastic new location for us. What we're finding is the building itself is so dynamic and colorful and inviting that people are literally stopping their cars and parking to come in and find out who we are, what's happening inside. And the architects did a great job of opening up the building so you can walk by or bike by and look in and see people making things in the studio. You can get a glimpse into the exhibition gallery, see things that are available for sale.”
McCall grew up near Toledo, Ohio, and came to Pittsburgh in the early 1970s for graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh. After leaving Contemporary Craft, McCall said, she plans to teach a class at Pitt this fall, and continue a longstanding book-length writing project about a family mystery: the story of her father and grandmother, who put him up for adoption at birth.
Meanwhile, thanks to the exigencies of grant-writing schedules and artist bookings, McCall’s legacy at Contemporary Craft will continue for quite a while. She’s actually working on a social-justice-themed exhibit about incarceration that won’t open until 2023.
“We are in the thick of doing research for that now, reaching out to partners and artists,” she said. “It'll be great to have a chance to come back and see that show realized in a few years.”