Ceramic pieces from Reiko Yamamoto and painting and sculpture from Tate Leone, soon to be available at Small Mall. Photo by Johanna Lasner.

Casey Droege was raised by artists.

“My mom was a painter, and my dad was a photographer, and my stepdad is a mime,” she says. So she saw the joys and the frustrations of being a working artist while growing up in Spring Hill on the North Side.

“I’m very well-versed in the obstacles that artists face in a place like Pittsburgh,” she says, “That’s why I’m sort of trying to solve these problems.”

Her latest solution is this: Droege and her team of artist/entrepreneurs is bringing a new store to 5300 Butler Street in Lawrenceville. The Small Mall, opening July 21, will feature art and designs from creators across the region. The mission is similar to that of another new Lawrenceville addition, Make+Matter.

Small Mall’s focus on local and regional works will fill a crucial gap in the city’s cultural markets, she says.

“Pittsburgh is a place that has wonderful large institutions. They have lots of great big art museums and foundations that do lots of grant-making,” she says. “But we don’t have an arts market like you would find in a larger city.”

That can mean that once local artists “hit a certain point in their careers in Pittsburgh,” she says, “they often decide to leave because they can’t sell their work here.”

Small Mall will offer a retail space for these artists, and it will also serve as a space to connect artists with local companies looking to commission work.

“We’re experimenting in a lot of ways,” Droege says, “but it’s all about getting money to artists.”

The project is an outgrowth of work her company, Casey Droege Cultural Productions (CDCP), has been doing around the city for the last several years, including a roving artist lecture series, SIX x ATE, and the annual PGH Photo Fair at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Last year, CDCP was able to open a gallery and meeting space Downtown with the support of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

That Downtown space, she says, paid out more than $120,000 to 75 artists in the region over the course of 2017. As the project moves to Lawrenceville, she hopes to emphasize Small Mall as a community store rather than a gallery.

“We’re encouraging people to start collecting art and we’re trying to do it in accessible and affordable ways,” she says. “It can be an affordable part of your daily life.”

While starting a small business is a consuming task that often takes her away from her own creative work, Ms. Droege said that being an entrepreneur is a key part of her artistic life.

“The focus in my artwork has always been on relationships,” she says. “I am building what I think is missing in the city.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.