Glass act: Amidst continuing growth, Pittsburgh Glass Center begins $15 million expansion
The Pittsburgh Glass Center is a story of growth like few other arts groups in town.
In 2001, the year it was founded by glass artists Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, the Center hosted about 800 students for classes in glassblowing and other fabrication techniques. “In 2022, we served just over 9,000 students,” says longtime executive director Heather McElwee.
In fact, the building has been bursting at the seams with students, working artists and other visitors for several years now. So this week, it’s breaking ground — but hopefully not any glass — on a $15 million expansion that will increase the square footage of its headquarters, in Friendship, by nearly 70%.
“It’s gonna be incredible to see,” said Zach Layhew, an artist and instructor at the Center.
The appeal of glass art, with its glowing boluses of molten sand, lime and soda, seems obvious to many.
“I think there’s definitely an element of sort of excitement and danger. It’s fire, you know,” said Jason Forck, the Center’s creative projects director. Forck, who developed the group’s youth programming, said kids also like assembling in groups to work around the furnaces, rather than solo. “It’s a little bit more of a vibrant setting than what you would typically have for an art setting, I think,” he said.
Karina Shethia, a Carnegie Mellon University mechanical-engineering major, took her second class in the hot shop semester. “I feel like I’ve always been really fascinated by the material, just the way it goes from molten to like this beautiful transparent or translucent piece,” she said.
The Center’s growth was steady for years, said McElwee. And it wasn’t just students. Apprentices came from out of state to further their skills; some of them were among the more than 50 artists the Center said have relocated to Pittsburgh because of the Center. Working artists rent the Center’s glassblowing studio — or “hot shop” — its kiln shop, flame room, and other facilities to create their wares. And visiting artists do residencies, like Mercedes Lachmann, a Brazilian artist who came to the Center in March for a two-week session for help fabricating custom glass components for a new sculpture.
Other visitors have included the Pittsburgh Public Schools sixth-graders the Center invites for tours. “At the end of 2022, we had had about 400 students, and we're expecting another 900 students between now and June,” McElwee said on March 16. “So, you might see 40 or 50 sixth-graders up there watching a glassblowing demonstration.”
All that put a strain on the facilities.
“We were struggling to find places to put workshops into our schedule,” said McElwee. “We were already open seven days a week at that point, and ten, 12, 14 hours a day. You know, we just kept extending the hours trying to find more time to be able to offer classes and workshops to try to find time for artists to be able to rent our studios.”
In 2018, the group bought a satellite property a few blocks away on Penn, to renovate for use as housing for apprentices and resident artists. And in January 2020, the board of directors approved a $15 million capital campaign to expand its two-story, 11,000-square-foot headquarters.
The pandemic that struck two months later was in some ways tougher on the Glass Center than on many nonprofit arts groups. Thanks to its class fees and rentals, the Center earned a higher percentage of its revenue than most groups — about 50 percent, compared to 35 percent for the average Pittsburgh arts nonprofit. So even simply shutting down, as most groups did, was more disruptive financially.
The Center’s furnaces — usually kept at somewhere over 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit — had to go cold, and it couldn’t hold classes for a year. But the Center survived with a combination of relief funds from the federal government and local foundations, and cost-saving measures including temporary furloughs of employees (though McElwee notes that none of them lost health insurance). It even raised $65,000 by selling a new product: “glass to go” kits that let buyers create glass mosaics at home.
But another factor was in play in the Center’s recovery. In 2019, Netflix debuted “Blown Away,” a glassblowing contest series reminiscent of “The Great British Bake Off,” with marvers, jacks and blow pipes instead of whisks and measuring cups.
Glassblowing is a photogenic business, and shaping molten glass with wooden and metal implements –even wads of wet newspaper – has a promethean appeal. The show is shot in Ontario, but McElwee was a guest judge on season 2, which premiered in January 2021.
“The first weekend that it dropped, we saw 1,000 percent increase in our website traffic,” she said. “It was insane!”
It didn’t hurt that season three’s 10 contestants included PGC staffer John Sharvin (who ultimately finished third).
Enrollments leapt. “We had 30 percent more students in 2022 than we did in 2019, and we thought we were at capacity in 2019,” said McElwee.
More growth ahead
The expansion will add a third floor to the Center’s headquarters, and extend the second and third floor over the adjacent parking lot. The existing studio space, gallery and offices will be augmented by a second hot shop, a dedicated space for retail, a fabrication lab for higher-tech gear like 3-D printers, and increased room for other studio spaces.
The architect is Indovina & Associates, and Vitro Architectural Glass is donating all the glass for the project. The Center said it had raised nearly $11 million of the $15 million price tag.
The Center will remain open during construction, which is expected to be completed in summer 2024. That’s also when renovations will conclude on the auxiliary building further down Penn Avenue.
In all, said McElwee, the Center will be able to accommodate twice as many visitors, and to grow its student base from 9,500 to 12,000.
If that seems like a lot of growth on top of what the Center has already experienced, McElwee said it’s feasible.
“I mean, we haven't seen any signs of it stopping, so I can't imagine that we would now,” she said.