As Janet Sarbaugh walked through the vacant Upper Lawrenceville building last year, she, too, was struck by its potential. Before it was vacated, the white, plain, low-slung building housed a manufacturer of trophies and plaques.

Yet it wasn’t hard to imagine 5645 Butler St. reborn as the artsy headquarters of Contemporary Craft, as it is today.

“I trusted their instincts and when I walked in, I understood why they were excited about it,” says Sarbaugh, vice president of creativity for The Heinz Endowments, which contributed $500,000 toward the building’s purchase and renovation work. “It has all the open space they need.”

On September 3 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Contemporary Craft will open to the public in its striking new Lawrenceville home. It’s an impressive transformation, starting with the colorful exterior with its mix of aluminum and painted brick.

“Everything about the exterior was designed to draw attention to the building as a visually exciting, dynamic and welcoming space that signals creativity to passersby,” says Executive Director Janet McCall. “The dark blue paint was chosen to make the structure stand out and the pop of tangerine color at the center of the building makes it clear where to enter the building and echoes the tangerine of our new logo. That same color was painted on the narrow two-story part of the building that juts out and is visible to people approaching from the east end of Butler. We call it the ‘orange slice’ and that’s where Swoon’s permanent installation piece ‘Braddock Steel’ is located.”

They are kicking off in style, with an ambitious exhibition called The Heart Lives through The Hands, by the acclaimed street artist Swoon.

The exterior of Contemporary Craft’s new building features “the orange slice” with “Braddock Steel,” a permanent work by Swoon. Block print on mylar with hand painting and coffee stain. 55″ x 93.” Photo courtesy of Swoon.
The exterior of Contemporary Craft’s new building features “the orange slice” with “Braddock Steel,” a permanent work by Swoon. Block print on mylar with hand painting and coffee stain. 55″ x 93.” Photo courtesy of Swoon.

The 13,000 square-foot facility was designed for LEED Silver equivalency by GBBN Architects, built by JENDOCO Construction and led by owner representative Craig Dunham of Dunham reGroup. It features 2,500 square feet of gallery space and nearly 2,000 square feet for studios — one for metal, one for fiber and one wood-focused — where artists will work and lead classes, workshops and lectures. Large studio windows provide an abundance of natural light.

In addition to staff and administrative offices, 1,100 square feet is dedicated to retail space featuring works by both established and emerging artists.

Contemporary Craft reopens after a $5.5 million capital campaign which received early support from the Eden Hall Foundation and Heinz Endowments. The organization was priced out of the Strip District Produce Terminal, where it was located for decades.

Beginning this new chapter with an exhibition by Swoon — whose carefully wrought street art has at times focused on nearby Braddock — fits the group’s mission.

“It’s about regeneration,” says Kate Lydon, Contemporary Craft’s director of exhibitions. “It’s always been a dream for us to have an exhibit of her work. When it came time to announce an inaugural show, we thought this would be a wonderful draw.”

McCall adds, “During these uncertain times, the arts can play an even more important role as a resource for well-being, hope and resilience. We believe that visitors will find inspiration and solace in Swoon’s inaugural exhibition.”

Inside, hand-blown glass pendant lights, designed by local glassmaker Jason Forck, hang in the reception area. Furniture in a nearby seating area is by Bones and All, a Pittsburgh studio that specializes in custom design and fabrication. Custom woodworker Joe Kelly, based in Lawrenceville, designed the reception desk with its wood from locally sourced spalted maple. The same wood is also used in two lighted jewelry display cases.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Lauren Byrne Connelly has lived in Lawrenceville for 15 years and, after heading the group Lawrenceville United, took over as executive director at Lawrenceville Corporation last October. She says having Contemporary Craft in the neighborhood just makes sense.

“We consider Upper Lawrenceville a community of makers — so we’re really excited having them in that space,” Connelly says.

Connelly also stresses that many of the galleries that pepper Lawrenceville streets have connections to and roots with Contemporary Craft.

“The neighborhood has been so welcoming and we are excited about the potential for fresh new program initiatives that we believe will result from our relocation to this new location,” says McCall. They have already reached out to nearby arts organizations such as Small Mall, Radiant Hall, 57th St. Studios and the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, along with schools and nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and Persad.

“We’re excited to have a whole new generation of people grow up with them,” Connelly says.

COVID-19 delayed the opening of the new space, which originally was pegged for April. The pandemic continues to cast its shadow in terms of social distancing measures and safety protocols. This month, Contemporary Craft launched timed ticketing via its website. It also is limiting visitors to 22 percent of the building’s capacity at any one time and shortening operations hours by 40 percent, among other measures.

Contemporary Craft remains free to the public although donations are welcomed.

Though social distancing will take place at the public opening on September 3, the pandemic has not dampened the team’s spirits.

“We feel like we’ve always been a little bit of a hidden gem in Pittsburgh,” McCall says. “Now we are so highly visible, right on the street-front on Butler. I think we’re really going to significantly grow our audience.”

“Art is healing and offers hope and really allows people to find balance,” she adds. “More than ever, this is needed.”

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.