Janet McCall. Photo courtesy of Contemporary Craft.

It’s been a tumultuous year for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh’s home for contemporary art in craft media (ceramics, fiber, metal, glass, wood, mixed media) since 1971. But after 25 years at the helm, Executive Director Janet McCall feels it’s in a good place, enough for her to step down in June.

“I never wanted to retire until I felt I could leave the organization in a very solid place — really well-positioned for the future,” says McCall. “And we’ve been through a challenging few years. We lost our lease in our home of 34 years, and I hadn’t expected that.”

Contemporary Craft was priced out of its former home in the Strip District’s Produce Terminal, its home for decades, with the building undergoing a massive redevelopment project.

The new location is in Upper Lawrenceville, the completely transformed former home of a manufacturing company. The space opened on September 1, after being delayed several months by the pandemic, and was made possible after a $5.5 million capital campaign spearheaded by McCall.

The new location, in a changing part of hip Lawrenceville, is a big boost for visibility for the organization. “With this new building, we’re just getting so much more foot traffic, so much more awareness,” says McCall.

One mission of Contemporary Craft is making great craft more accessible. “That’s why we do not charge admission,” says McCall. “We’re really committed to the idea that creativity is innate to the human experience, and our art can be relevant to everyone. And you know so many people think, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’ They’re either not welcome, or it just doesn’t make sense to their life. But the series of shows that we’ve developed — particularly the focus on social justice — has brought people in who don’t go to art museums or galleries. They came to see our shows because they were interested in the topic that we were addressing.”

Over the years, Contemporary Craft has presented exhibitions addressing issues like violence and mental health, food justice, and homelessness and displacement. They’ve also hosted internationally renowned artists, such as fabric artist Nick Cave who creates wearable sculptures called Soundsuits.

McCall launched the international Raphael Prize, an exhibition series and prize recognizing excellence in contemporary craft and Contemporary Craft was the only local organization to receive the national American Craft Council’s Award of Distinction in 2018.

The organization is renowned throughout the country for its cutting-edge programming.

“We did a show called ‘Stop Asking; We Exist: 25 African American Craft Artists,’” says McCall. “And that was in 1998. It opened in Pittsburgh and went on to New York City and then traveled around the country. It was a very bold show at the time. The guest curator was an artist by the name of Joyce Scott, who has subsequently won one of the MacArthur Genius Awards.”

Janet McCall in front of an artwork by Swoon. Photo courtesy of Contemporary Craft.

The current, inaugural exhibition, “The Heart Lives Through the Hands,” features the popular, Brooklyn-based street artist Swoon (Caledonia Curry), who has work scattered throughout the streets of Pittsburgh and Braddock.

McCall’s tenure as executive director spanned from 1995 to 2006 and from 2009-2021.  She’s leaving the organization in a sound financial position, despite the ravages of the pandemic and its related shutdowns.

As for her next move, she plans on finishing a book.

“It’s about a family mystery,” she explains. “My father was separated from his family at birth. But it’s not just a genealogical story; it’s kind of creative nonfiction, because there were a lot of twists and turns to uncover the mystery of why this happened. So I’m excited about that. And I also hope to do more teaching. For awhile I was also teaching some classes at Pitt and at CMU and love working with young people. I love their energy, and I love to encourage them.”

Expect to see her at as many art openings as she can find in the future.

“I will certainly continue to be a fan of all the different art forms in Pittsburgh,” says McCall. “I think it’s so important to continue to get out — go to the openings, support financially however you can, encourage the artists.”

One Pittsburgh artist to gain international fame continues to be an inspiration to her. “I think about (famed wood sculptor) Thad Mosley, who was a former board member for us and is such a remarkable artist. He faithfully came to every opening that we did, and often he was out, going to multiple art events in one night. He knew how important it was to encourage and support the artists, and the organizations.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.