When Contemporary Craft moved to the Strip District in 1986 the neighborhood wasn’t exactly a magnet for arts groups. True, Downtown was within walking distance, and the adjacent Penn Avenue corridor hosted retail produce stores and a few restaurants. But the historic Produce Terminal – at one end of which Contemporary Craft made its new home – marked a stretch of Smallman Street still dominated by wholesalers.
“We worked very hard just to try to convince people to come the extra block from Penn Avenue over to Smallman Street to visit us,” says Janet McCall, the group’s long-time executive director.
The group, then known as the Society for Contemporary Craft, specializes in promoting inventive uses of traditional crafting materials including fiber, clay, metal, wood and glass. Eventually it grew its space on Smallman, and established itself as one of Pittsburgh’s premier arts groups, with a gallery, store and artists’ studios.
But now it’s time to move. Redevelopment plans are emptying the Produce Terminal, and Contemporary Craft is preparing to close its final exhibit in the space before relocating to a renovated building in Upper Lawrenceville.
“It’s been a great run,” said McCall. “We’re very grateful that we’ve had these 33 years in that space.”
The last show, Contemporary Craft’s share of Fiberart International 2019, wraps with artists’ talks on Sat., Aug. 24. (The other half of the exhibit is at the Brew House Association, on the South Side.)
While most people associate Contemporary Craft with the Strip, the group actually began life in Verona, in 1971, as The Store for Arts and Crafts and People-Made Things. Its founder was legendary Pittsburgh-based artist and arts entrepreneur Elizabeth Rockwell Raphael, who decades earlier had created Pittsburgh’s first modern-art gallery.
McCall says the group was mission-driven from the start. “They thought that by selling crafts they could pay for things like child care, services for the elderly, employment training for artists,” she said.
Artistically, the idea was to take handicraft materials and techniques and make them cutting-edge. Raphael, she said, “wanted to get people over the barrier of thinking that crafts were something like your grandmother’s doilies. They could be, but they also could be really high-quality, exciting contemporary art.”
The sprawling Produce Terminal gave the group room to expand. McCall said that when she became executive director, in 1995, Contemporary Craft had just four full-time employees and a budget of about $300,000. It now has 12 employees and a budget of more than $1 million. And two expansions, the most recent in 2000, doubled the size of the gallery and allowed it to add studio workshops – the first time the facility had hosted hands-on art-making.
Contemporary Craft has staged more than 200 shows in its current space. Admission for all events remains free. The group is known for tackling social issues, with exhibits organized around themes like mental health and gun violence. Fiberart International, a juried show featuring work by 55 artists from eight countries, is in that vein. “The conversations that are happening in the gallery with that show are very popular,” she said, “very current concerns ... Politics, the environment, race, relationships – it’s all there.”
The Strip, of course, has changed a lot in 33 years. Contemporary Craft arrived just in advance of the clubs that turned Smallman into a nightlife magnet in the 1990s. More recently, Pittsburgh’s development boom has made parts of the Strip unrecognizable. The Produce Terminal remains, but is undergoing its own transformation, one that required all tenants to vacate.
In February, Contemporary Craft announced it had found a new building about three miles away in Lawrenceville. The former manufacturing facility is currently under renovation.
(The group’s capital campaign was recently boosted by a $500,000 state redevelopment grant; McCall says Contemporary Craft is 58 percent of the way to its $5.5 million goal.)
The new space is set to open in April.
Meanwhile, there’s still time to say so long to the current space. Fiberart International closes Sat., Aug. 24, when it will host talks by contributing artists Jozef Bajus and Erika Diamond. And on Sept. 28, there’ll be a farewell event at which visitors can record their memories on video, write on the walls, or even – appropriately enough -- make something in the studio.