Every city has its own unique culture, and Pittsburgh is no exception. Apart from the obvious things, like its steel history, sports teams and popular Primanti’s sandwiches, Pittsburgh’s rich arts and cultural scene differs from other towns in unexpected ways. Jennifer Baron, NEXTpittsburgh’s Events & Jobs Editor, connects with the city’s many events, art and music communities and innovative voices every day, both professionally and in her personal life.
During our interview, we discussed her psychedelic pop band, The Garment District, her background in museum work and the many ways in which she’s able to combine her love of art, music and writing. Read our full interview below.
Where are you from?
I was born in Neptune, N.J., and we lived in several beach towns when I was very young. My family made our way across Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, where I grew up in Mount Lebanon.
Where did you go to school?
I attended Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, where I studied art history and English literature, worked at the college museum, contributed to the literary arts magazine, and hosted a radio show at WMHC. I then lived in New York City, in the East Village and Brooklyn, for over 10 years. Moving to NYC right after college definitely shaped me on so many levels. I moved there for a 12-month, postgraduate museum education internship at the Brooklyn Museum and then joined the museum’s staff.
At the same time, I was performing, recording and touring regularly with my band, The Ladybug Transistor. We toured nationally and internationally and released several albums on Merge Records. After performing at the Bowlie Weekender (curated by Belle & Sebastian) in England, we met a lot of new fans and promoters from other countries, which led us to be able to tour Norway, Sweden and Europe. Right before the pandemic, we all came together to perform again in Norway and Brooklyn, in conjunction with the 20th-anniversary reissue of our album, “The Albemarle Sound,” and it looks like we will have the opportunity to do so again in the summer of 2023.
Tell me about some of your early experiences in journalism. How did you first become interested in editing and reporting?
I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and language through a combination of imagery — I do a lot of photography — music and writing. I have worked in the education departments of several art museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and Dahesh Museum in NYC, and then when I came to Pittsburgh, I worked as education director at the Mattress Factory museum. These positions allowed me to combine my interests in art history, contemporary art, public programming and writing. I worked on a variety of written and interactive materials, including gallery guides and brochures, website content and newsletters. I also interviewed artists and translated their creative practice, insights and installation projects into interpretive materials for the public.
My writing also extends to my involvement as one of the co-founders of The Pittsburgh Signs Project. During a fellowship with the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, we produced a full-color, 206-page crowd-sourced book (supported by The Spout Fund and published via Carnegie University Press), to which I contributed photography and an essay and also served as co-editor. For several years I authored a column on historic signs for Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, a publication of the Heinz History Center. I also contributed photography and music to ESOPUS magazine based in Brooklyn and participated in several group art exhibitions at SPACE Gallery in the Pittsburgh Cultural District. So, my writing background absolutely connects to my creative and cultural arts background.
How long have you been at NEXTpittsburgh, and how has your role evolved over the years?
It was incredibly exciting and rewarding to be part of the team that helped launch NEXTpittsburgh led by Tracy Certo, NEXT’s founder and founding publisher, in 2014. In addition to creating event guides, I also co-create several weekly newsletters. So, that involves a focus on headlines, design, subject lines, selecting images and more. I love the variety — it’s a different dynamic and content focus every day. We work to amplify a wide variety of voices, content, stories and components in the newsletters. In addition to writing the publication’s weekly and monthly event guides, I am also editor of the NEXTpittsburgh Job Board, which is published every Monday and Thursday. I love working collaboratively as part of a team with my colleagues and to be part of a publication with a broad range of content as it is evolving, including new features, such as Tony Norman’s wonderful column, the NEXT Outdoor Guide Series, food and drink news and more.
My experience with NEXT has also involved editing the NEXT Up column. When we first launched the feature, it was like a glimpse into a week in the life of a Pittsburgher, including transformative local leaders from all fields, whether it was an artist, a technologist, change-maker, inventor, scholar, nonprofit leader or a startup founder. The column would follow a person throughout the week to ask what their days were like, and we wanted to get into personal dimensions, such as “What are you doing after work, in the evenings, over the weekend?”; “What are your favorite things to explore in Pittsburgh?”; “What inspires you?”; “What do you do when you’re not at the office?” Having the opportunity to profile leaders such as Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, or Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett and actor Cotter Smith — and connecting with that range of people across the city and region — has been an incredible honor and one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job. During the pandemic, the column shifted into an interview format.
What are some of your favorite events you’ve written about for NEXT? Is there a particular time of year or season that’s most exciting for you in your role?
From the perspective of creating event guides, I really see things gearing up in June, September and October, especially with some of the larger free festivals and a terrific mix of outdoor food and drink festivals, nonprofit fundraisers, neighborhood walking tours, outdoor recreation and more. For example, some of the most exciting large-scale public events occurred this year just in October alone, such as the new Good Fest presented by Goodlander Cocktail Brewery, The Scary Furnace event hosted by Beers of the Burgh and Brew Gentlemen, the first Donut Festival, along with Doors Open, Reel Q, The Steel City Big Pour, the Silver Eye Benefit Auction, and the Festival of Combustion! I also love the wide variety of types of experiences. … We are so fortunate to live in a city that hosts globally significant cultural events like the Carnegie International and Three Rivers Film Festival alongside cultural treasures such as the Maxo Vanka murals, quirky destinations like the Bayernhof Museum and natural amenities both inside the city limits and just a few hours in all directions. Other local events I love attending include the Pittsburgh Vintage Mixer, Pittsburgh Zine Fair, Pittsburgh Indy Comix Expo, Churchview Farm Dinners, Pittsburgh Mixed Culture, clothing swaps and more.
From my personal vantage point of helping to create and run Pittsburgh events, I was a part of the Handmade Arcade organizing team for many years and loved connecting with and supporting the region’s outstanding maker community, shaping one of the region’s largest independent craft markets, and forming lasting bonds personally and professionally. I started out as a vendor selling my handmade products and then joined as a volunteer and later became Marketing Director. As a musician, performing at events such as the VIA New Music & Media Festival, one of the most dynamic and diverse cultural festivals to have taken place in Pittsburgh, has been a tremendous honor. I also have loved performing for the Andy Warhol Museum’s Sound Series and Silver Studio Sessions, SYNC’D, Spirit Summer Recess, Ladyfest, the Deutschtown Music Festival, and musicSPACE series at SPACE Gallery and participating in Doug Aitken’s national Station to Station project.
What inspires you about Pittsburgh, compared to other places you’ve been to or lived?
I’m someone who has always instinctively considered multiple places to be home, but I’ve always been inspired by Pittsburgh’s topography, architecture, neighborhoods and vantage points (literally and figuratively) and the way they play off of each other. That has inspired me in my writing, music and photography. There is a history and legacy here of making and solving problems, and of using the resources around you to create new environments and experiences and question our surroundings and systems. I love exploring contemporary art and public art and discovering site-specific projects that create conversations. One of the most powerful art installations that has resonated with me recently is the Darkhouse Lighthouse project by Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis as part of the Troy Hill Art Houses series. I highly recommend that everyone set up a free tour to see all of them. Even just the way you observe your city can be a creative experience.
I love this time of year because I’m a huge horror film fan, and I love our city’s legacy with George Romero. There’s a rich and fascinating experimental film history in Pittsburgh, too, and sometimes you have to do some digging to uncover things here, which is a process I enjoy. For a mid-sized city, we have a remarkable range of arts and cultural opportunities, experiences and resources.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Playing music, traveling (we just returned from a fantastic trip to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.), thrift shopping, photographing what I see around me, taking walks with our black Lab Casper, eating at Pittsburgh’s vegan restaurants, seeing films, crafting, swimming, gardening, researching my family’s roots in Western Pa., and spending time with family and friends. In the isolation of the pandemic, I was able to focus my creative energies on finishing a new album with my band, The Garment District. I recorded the new songs here in Pittsburgh at Dave Klug’s studio. I’ll be announcing my new full-length album in January, which will be released on vinyl and digitally in spring 2023.
I share my lifelong passion for music and record collecting with my husband Greg, so we love going to Pittsburgh’s outstanding record shops (The Attic, Jerry’s, Government Center, Get Hip, Vinyl Remains, to name a few!), fairs and conventions. We also love taking day trips and spending time in nature. Pittsburgh is surrounded by expansive natural beauty and we regularly take our dog to the Panhandle Trail, Montour Trail, Washington’s Landing, state parks and Allegheny Land Trust sites. I also do a lot of crafting with friends; during the pandemic, we started a front porch craft group and worked on a collective zine together.
– Maggie Medoff, WordWrite