by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer
Janera Solomon came here with her family from Guyana when she was 9. By 25, she and her sister were selling steel drums they’d made—they learned from their father—at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival. By age 35, she had already been the executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty for two years. Now after 11 years at the helm, she is stepping down at year’s end.
The KST board announced the transition in an Aug. 2 press announcement.
“I am very proud of the tremendous growth, accomplishments, and prominence that the Kelly Strayhorn Theater has achieved during the past 11 years. We have a great team and wonderful supporters,” Solomon said in the release. “While I have a mix of emotions as I move into this next chapter of my life, I will continue in the work that has become so important to me: supporting community anchor institutions and bringing diverse communities together through the arts.”
During her tenure, Solomon forged a number of alliances and partnerships within the region’s arts and foundation community, and as a consultant to entities such as the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the August Wilson Center, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and several others with Toronto-based, cultural planning firm Lord Culture, she extended the KST’s footprint nationally and internationally as an arts destination in Pittsburgh.
As such, she helped to quadruple the theater’s annual operating budget from $300,000 to more than $1.35 million. That, in turn, enabled her to launch the KST’s innovative inclusive “Pay What Makes You Happy” ticketing model. She also managed the successful merger of the KST with the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, expanding the theater’s programming and impact.
“Janera has been an outstanding visionary leader,” said Board Chair Yvonne Campos. “She has put KST on the map. We are very thankful for her dedication these past 11 years. It is our priority to find the best person who will lead us. It’s our job to carry her legacy forward.”
In a 2018 article posted to her LinkedIn page, Solomon said the KST can, and must, be a vehicle for cresting neighborhood equity through the arts.
“We are inextricably linked to our community—a mosaic of diverse neighborhoods, artists and fans,” she wrote. “By our mission, we are here be a catalyst for creative expression that bridges our diverse neighborhood.”
In an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Solomon said that her tenure as executive director was filled with “so many great moments, it would be hard to choose. But, I would say, every time I see our theater filled with people, is a great moment. Even, when the theater is not filled, when the work or the conversation is meaningful, we are fulfilling our purpose. Those are great moments.”
And what about those steel drums she was selling at the Three Rivers Arts Festival? “I grew up with art. It is a part of my life,” she said. “And, those experiences with community festivals (like Three Rivers Arts Festival and Harambee) taught me early lessons about the value of artists and art to communities. Those moments set the stage for my work since; it is my love and appreciation for artists and creative expression that fuel my work at KST, and all that I do.”
Solomon told the Courier that the hardest part of running the Kelly Strayhorn Theater was the balancing act of fundraising, earning revenue and meeting a mission for arts organizations. But she’s “grateful for our supporters and proud of all we have accomplished the past 11 years.”
What’s next for Solomon, after she departs the Kelly Strayhorn Theater on Dec. 31?
“I’m looking forward to a bit of family time and creative time,” Solomon told the Courier, “to explore some percolating creative ideas!”
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