Shaping a vase at Baltimore Clayworks on Jan. 24, longtime student John Gazurian reflected on what it was like for the ceramic arts studio to have an interim executive director for 18 months.
"We sort of lacked focus," said Gazurian, 69, of Wyman Park, a retired project manager for Ryan Homes.
The last permanent director, Benjamin Schulman, resigned under pressure in June 2012 after laying off two popular resident artists. He now owns an art gallery in Hampden.
In November, after a national search, Clayworks in Mount Washington hired a new executive director, Sarah McCann, 32, who was right under the nonprofit's nose.
The former pottery teacher and development director, who decided she had the right "skill set" for the job, slipped quietly into her new role, succeeding interim director Paul Derstine, retired executive director of a nonprofit global health company and former interim head of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland.
"We're thrilled to death," Gazurian said. "Sarah couldn't be a better person to be our director."
McCann credits Derstine, an old hand at budgeting, with fiscally turning around a nationally known organization, one of the top five pottery centers of its size in the country, that was in rocky financial shape in 2012.
And she said Derstine even got into the spirit of Clayworks artistically.
"He actually took a class. He had this bowl he made that he was really proud of," she said.
Derstine left Clayworks, which has an annual budget of about $1.1 million, safely in the black last year, well ahead of 2012, which ended "a little bit in the black," McCann said. That was partly thanks to a $20,000 matching grant from the Baltimore-based Baker Foundation.
"We're working on increasing that black number," McCann said.
Schulman's former five-year, plan to raise $2.5 million to expand the gallery building, one of two that make up the Clayworks campus on Smith Avenue, has been put on hold, McCann said.
But both buildings now boast wireless Internet access and upgraded electrical outlets. There are plans to upgrade plumbing and renovate the gallery space in the next year, and McCann has turned one room into another gallery room.
Beyond financial solvency and capital improvements, McCann is restoring an artistic vision that has been lacking at Clayworks, which teaches community arts workshops and pottery classes, and draws respected resident artists and fellows from around the country, as well as curating highly-regarded juried exhibits such as the biannual 100 Teapots.
"My job is to make sure we stay sustainable and continue to grow," she said, naming as one of her priorities the expansion of programming to bring classes into more Baltimore City neighborhoods and into Baltimore County, where Clayworks began doing community arts workshops at Police Athletic League centers in December 2013.
"We're dedicated in our community model to maintaining a sustainable presence," she said, noting that her long-range goals include opening a satellite office in an underserved area of the city.
She also is focused on "making sure we bring all the best (ceramic) artists to Baltimore."
One, she said, is Kevin Rohde, of Binghamton, N.Y., who is this year's Lormina Salter Fellowship artist. He gets free studio space and a stipend to cover the cost of his materials.
More immediately, she is focusing on "making sure we're connecting to the rest of the Baltimore art scene," and hopes to have Clayworks exhibitions at other arts organizations in the area, like Creative Alliance in Patterson Park — "more things that get Clayworks out of Mount Washington," she said.
"Clayworks has the potential to reach many more people," said McCann, of Windsor Mill, herself an artist, whose office on Smith Avenue features her own pottery — including a block of porcelain with the words "History matters" etched into it.
"Ninety nine percent of the people we put clay into the hands of really connect to it," McCann said. "It's so tangible."
Although Derstine is gone, McCann still has an old hand working at Clayworks — Deborah Bedwell, founding director for 32 years before Schulman. Bedwell teaches at Clayworks, and is president-elect of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.
"She knows a lot of people," McCann said. "It's good to see her stepping into that next role."
It was Bedwell who took charge and led a board of trustees meeting to discuss Schulman's resignation and early plans to search for his successor.
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"I was here through most of it," McCann said, attributing fiscal troubled to the recession in 2008. Since then, "the struggle has continued," she said. "I think it's a challenge all nonprofits face."
As former development director, development associate, summer camp director and teacher, McCann, who has worked at Clayworks since 2008, is a good fit, said Mary Cloonan, exhibitions director.
"We've known her for years," said Cloonan, of Mid-Govans. "She taught here. She's been ingrained here, has friends, networks (with other arts groups) and knows the city. She loves it. She's excited and interested. There's a sincere passion. It's infectious."
And Cloonan said McCann's promotions has been good for morale on the staff of 12, as well as 25 interns last year.