January 2022: Portrait

Art in Many Places: Alumna Keeps Social Impact at the Forefront

janera solomonjanera solomon (A&S ’98) is a writer, curator and cultural strategist who has tailor-made a career from an array of diverse interests, supported by a strong foundation of confidence and ingenuity she built as an undergraduate at Pitt.

“I was the first in my immediate family to go to college,” says solomon. “I also started Pitt as a pretty quiet person. I could speak my mind, but often didn't have the confidence to do so. And, even though I lived in Pittsburgh, Pitt’s campus still felt like an overwhelming place. I learned to form new relationships, many of which I still have today. At Pitt, I learned to find my way. And most importantly, that there always is a way.”

As an undergraduate in the Dietrich School, solomon was interested in cultural anthropology, Africana studies, economics, history, philosophy and contemporary art. Pitt’s Self Design program allowed her to construct a major that spanned those interests.

“I had so many interests and I wanted to find the intersection. I’m grateful for career opportunities that let all of these interests converge,” she says.

solomon has led a vibrant and busy career and seemingly never slows down. After serving for more than a decade as the executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, a nonprofit performing arts center in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood that celebrates diversity and inclusivity, solomon switched gears in 2019 to work as a freelancer on the projects she is most passionate about.

“I love institutions. Cultural institutions allow you to make longer term, more sustainable change,” solomon says. "However, it can be slow and certainly confining. I love that I can structure my day around a diverse set of interests. Half the day I can work on strategy with clients, and engage with the complex issues they are facing; the other half I can spend with writers and thinkers dissecting language and narrative. At this stage in time, I love the flexibility and freedom being a freelancer allows.”

As a freelancer, solomon has the power to choose how she spends her time and what projects to devote her energy to. solomon explained that she looks for ambitious ideas, and people with ambitious ideas when choosing which freelance projects to work on.

“By ambitious, I mean ideas that push them beyond their comfort zone or current areas of expertise. I want to learn and I like to work with clients who are always asking more questions and seeking to do their work in new ways,” she explains.

solomon also recently launched a consultancy practice working with cultural organizations aiming to expand their community development programs.

Says solomon, “It's been very exciting to support arts and culture organizations plan, and test, and enact structural ideas that will allow them to find longer term sustainability.”

In parallel with her freelance and consultancy work, solomon is pursuing a Master of Art in Writing at Johns Hopkins University and is working on her first collection of essays and poetry.

“I’m looking forward to that first publication!” solomon says. “I am doing so much, always!”

In addition to her work as a freelancer, consultant and graduate student, solomon is also collaborating on a writing project with choreographer Olivier Tarpaga and is a mother to an energetic 11-year-old. She also serves as a member of the Dietrich School’s Board of Visitors and in November 2021 was named recipient of the school’s 2021 Distinguished Professional Achievement Award.

No matter the project she is focused on, solomon prioritizes social impact in her work.

“There is so much injustice and unfairness in this world. I am not blind to it. And, somewhere along the way, I learned that we don’t have to live with the world as it is, we all have the power to influence our community,” offers solomon. “It is not always the loudest most visible. If you are the neighbor who picks up the bits of trash on your block, that is just as important as organizing for any significant political campaign.

“I suppose I always want my work to be felt,” solomon adds. “It does not have to be understood in the moment, but if I am working on a project, I want the impact of that work to be felt. And, for that to happen, the work has to mean something to people in their lives. It has to be memorable and meaningful.”

Asked what insight she would offer to alumni, solomon had both practical and inspirational advice.

“Find and keep good mentors. Introspection is important. Take the time to consider what makes you feel fulfilled. But don’t be afraid to grow and expand your range of interests. Stay curious. Know and understand your strengths, and still keep growing and learning. No matter what you have accomplished, you can always find and tap into your potential.”

Return to the January 2022 issue »