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Pittsburgh's First Night celebration goes free — and mostly outdoors

If 2020 was the year without a First Night Pittsburgh — at least the familiar, in-person kind — 2021 will go down as another milestone. This New Year’s Eve festival will be the first that patrons won’t be asked to purchase a general admission button to attend.

Byron Nash and his Byron Nash Trio are the music headliners.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Byron Nash and his Byron Nash Trio are the music headliners.

The family-friendly Pittsburgh Cultural Trust event will be completely free this year. That’s due in part to another big change, said Sarah Aziz, the Trust’s director of festivals: Unlike in years past, when most First Night Pittsburgh attractions were indoors, most performances and other draws this Dec. 31 will be outdoors.

“It seemed like a good opportunity welcoming people back to the Cultural District to just have everything outside,” said Aziz. “It’s so much more accessible.”

Aziz said the change is primarily a COVID-19 safety measure. All First Night music performances are outdoors Downtown, including River City Brass, a show by the winner of the annual Williams Sing-Off Competition, and the headlining set by The Byron Nash Trio, led by local guitar hero Byron Nash.

First Night slots usually go to touring acts, but Aziz says Nash deserves the honor. “He’s been a great performer in Pittsburgh for years, but 2021 his career really took off,” she said. Pandemic notwithstanding, Nash played some 100 live shows in 2021, and he was a fixture at such warm-weather outdoor venues as the Three Rivers Arts Festival and Allegheny Overlook Stage.

Other First Night attractions include the debut of a signature temporary public artwork: “Intrude,” by Australia’s Parer Studio, is a quartet of giant inflatable rabbits, including a 50-foot-tall “adult” and three smaller “babies.” The work is meant to be cute, said Aziz, but also to highlight the environmental damage that rabbits, an invasive species, have done over the centuries in Australia. The inflatables will occupy the Trust Oasis, on Seventh Street, and the parking lot at Eighth Street and Penn Avenue.

Work by Sejma Fere is part of the exhibit "Among Women: Contemporary Art From Serbia," at 937 Liberty Gallery.
Renee Rosensteel
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Work by Sejma Fere is part of the exhibit "Among Women: Contemporary Art From Serbia," at 937 Liberty Gallery.

Outdoor First Night performers include: ZUZU African Acrobats; the family-friendly DJ set Baby Rave; Pittsburgh-based rapper Nay Hundo; Jay Michaels; and Trinity Wiseman. Steel Town Fire will also do a fire performance, which as usual sets up practically shoulder-to-shoulder with the live ice-carving of Ice Creations.

Indoor attractions include visual art at Trust galleries including Wood Street Galleries, SPACE, 820 Liberty Gallery, 937 Liberty Gallery, and 707 Penn Gallery.

There are a handful of indoor performances and screenings, at Arcade Comedy Theater, Bricolage theater space, Liberty Magic and the Harris Theater. But seating is limited, and even weeks before First Night, tickets were going rapidly, with some shows already sold out. The events do have waitlists, however. Proof of vaccination, a valid ID and a mask are required for admission at indoor venues.

There is an exception to the free-admission rule. The Trust is offering a First Night Friends VIP experience. Benefits include access to a First Night Friends Lounge, enhanced access to selected outdoor events, and guaranteed access to selected indoor performances, subject to availability. First Night Friends tickets range from $50-$100.

Aziz said the move outdoors reduces the costs of staging the festival enough to help offset the loss of revenue from the discontinuation of the buttons.

About 25,000 patrons on average attend First Night. But Aziz said the event is always heavily subsidized by backers including title sponsor Highmark, Allegheny Health Network, Giant Eagle and the Trust itself. She said if next year’s First Night has more indoor venues, the Trust will consider reinstituting some kind of paid admission, though possibly only for select events.

More information on this year’s event, including a complete schedule, is here.

Updated: December 31, 2021 at 1:26 PM EST
Revised to add that proof of vaccination, a valid ID and a mask are required for admission at indoor venues.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: