Reflecting on Contemporary Craft’s Past 50 Years

In celebration of our 50th anniversary year, we are honored to share the following blog post written by Cathy Raphael, daughter of our founder Elizabeth (Betty) Rockwell Raphael, where she reflects on CC’s history and what Betty would think of the organization today.

…this is a place dedicated to fulfilling art’s potential to shift thinking, broaden minds and expand boundaries.

Food Justice: Growing a Healthier Community through Art, the current exhibition at Contemporary Craft, is a powerful and compelling vision of issues around food insecurity, sustainability, and hope for the future. This exploration through crafts, diverse voices, and actual living plants was an invitation to examine my own perceived notions and assumptions about the politics of food. What is equitable? Is justice possible? How would we have to change our current systems to accommodate a growing world population and balance climate issues? Food for thought (pun intended).

Amos Paul Kennedy, A Message from the People, 2021

I also found myself wondering what my mother, Betty Raphael, would make of this latest social justice show presented by this organization she founded fifty years ago.

In 1941 my mother opened Outlines, the first modern art gallery in Pittsburgh. Over the next seven years, Outlines offered a wide range of creative work — paintings, crafts, film, music, dance, and lectures. It was a space conceived for connecting with others and deep conversation. My mother believed, as I do, that art has the power to shift thinking, broaden minds. and expand boundaries. Her vision was large; her audience, unfortunately, was not. Outlines closed its doors in 1947.

Contemporary Craft was born twenty-five years later. It came together through my mother’s work with Riverview Community Action Corporation (RCAC), a war on poverty program, and a small, failing, local craft shop, The Store for Arts and Crafts and People Made Things. Rather than let the shop go under, Betty saw an opportunity. Originally conceived as an outlet for local crafters, under her direction it evolved to showcase national craft artists, cresting the wave of the new crafts movement. In keeping with its roots in RCAC to create job opportunities, The Sociable Workshop was created. Local artisans were hired and trained to replicate craft items in limited editions or in multiples, designed by professional craft artists. Again, her vision was large. This time, the audience was bigger. There was a growing appreciation for handmade crafts.

In 1984 my mother was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer lead the organization.

Fortunately, Contemporary Craft was more than a founders pipe dream. Others believed in the vision for Contemporary Craft, and had the commitment to carry it forth.

Contemporary Craft left the small town of Verona, PA and relocated in the Strip District in Pittsburgh. The new space allowed for an expansion of the exhibition space and sales area. Rather than hiring artisans to recreate artwork, a broad range of classes taught people to create their own unique work. There were efforts to reach into the community in new ways, with art and educational opportunities on site, in homeless shelters, in senior centers and in schools. It was in the Strip District that the first social justice show, Enough Violence: Artists Speak Out, was conceived.

Contemporary Craft has moved into its new home in Upper Lawrenceville. The heart of this organization remains the same — sharing craft, expanding vision, and growing community connections.  Walking through the Food Justice exhibit, reading the artist statements, learning about the social justice organizations and growers who have taken on the challenge of food insecurity, I feel hope for our future. 

I know my mother would be pleased by how this organization has grown in its new, permanent home. She would see, as I do, that this is a place dedicated to fulfilling art’s potential to shift thinking, broaden minds and expand boundaries.

-Cathy Raphael