Arts festival continues to evolve and improve

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The 53rd Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the fourth under the umbrella of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, is over, and I feel a lot less apprehensive about the state of the visual arts than I did when the staff curator position was eliminated in 2007.

This isn't because conditions have achieved past high points. There's room for improvement. But I believe the trust is making a good-will attempt to be respectful of the needs and product of visual artists, and it is becoming more apparent that the trust considers the festival a part of its grand futuristic vision for Pittsburgh, bolstered by the arts.

The commitment of Dollar Bank as presenting sponsor has given a welcome fiscal stability to the festival, allowing it to plan programming on a longer schedule, which is essential to attracting top artists of all disciplines.

The juried visual art exhibition continues to improve, both in substance and presentation, and is the most contemporary component outside of the year-round trust galleries, which are becoming more integrated to the festival (they are listed in the festival guide). This kind of art is often less accessible to the average festival visitor, generally because he or she hasn't been regularly exposed to current art practice. Explanatory labels and the presence of staff to answer questions are ways the festival is broaching that knowledge gap.

Recruiting discerning jurors is important to the reputation of the exhibition, but I think one should be sufficient (there were three this year). Performance art is a prevalent contemporary form and difficult for any venue because it requires the artist be present. I wandered into the exhibition on a weekday and, to my delight, into an unannounced performance; it would have been better if times could have been publicized.

The juried exhibition spilled into about one-third of a second floor in the Trust Arts Education Center, leaving room to grow and experiment. The other side of the challenge is on the artists, to submit work worthy of selection.

Public art is another area that's morphing, and long-term contemporary pieces in the Cultural District are also now included in the festival guide. A perfect project, in terms of audience fit and support for local artists, was recycling stations turned into artworks by eight talented artists. They were each paid a stipend to cover materials and time, and received additional compensation by having contact information included on their works.

The festival didn't bring in a major work this year, but I hope it will when staff and funding are available. A large sculpture by Pittsburgh artist Dee Briggs was brought to the festival at almost the last minute, and the Seward Johnson bronze figural works, sponsored by the Laurel Foundation and here for most of the summer, were very popular.

The most frequent complaint I heard was the lack of tented tables by the food booths. The festival-long presence of Artists Market booths in Point State Park is a plus (as is the festival's continuing presence in the park), but the drowning out of conversation in booths near the main stage during performances remains problematic.

Big-name acts of previous years haven't returned to festival stages -- a music critic colleague described (without malice) this year's offerings as "small theater-sized triple A acts" -- but they remain free, which is becoming a rarity nationwide. They also support the trust's goal of expanding community involvement, similarly reflected in the children's area funded by Giant Eagle, another committed sponsor. The exception to this rule is, of course, the return for the second year of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a draw with or without a festival around them. Its presence is one of the distinctions the trust has imparted, an imprint of quality and taste played out through Pittsburgh institutions and organizations.

It shows up in subtle ways, too, as in the smart limited-edition tote bags, handmade by local District Designs of re-purposed vinyl banners from previous arts festivals. One has the sense that this is just the beginning of such innovation.

The trust's strength is the performative arts, and I'm particularly attracted to those that supersede passive entertainment and play the same stimulating role that the best visual arts do. The Carolina Chocolate Drops exemplified diversity, multiculturalism, craft and history in ways traditional and contemporary; Cello Fury inspired a lot of smiles and confounded passersby who would never have contemplated a match-up of three cellos and a drum set; and Squonk Opera delivered a surreal dream to an appreciative crowd on the back of a flatbed truck.

The trust's task is to remain true to traditional audiences while attracting new visitors with experiences that will wow both. It looks like they're well-suited to the task.

Warhol artist talk

British artist Mark Neville, who is participating in The Andy Warhol Museum exhibition "Factory Direct: Pittsburgh," will give an artist talk at 6 p.m. Friday at the museum. Mr. Neville will discuss his Pittsburgh project and past work. It is free with museum admission: $15; seniors, $9; children/students, $8; half-price 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays (412-237-8300).

Flag as symbol and art

Andy Warhol's "Moonwalk," commemorating the 1969 event, and one of Jasper Johns' flag works, are arty reasons to see "Stars & Stripes: An American Story" at the Heinz History Center. But the historic manifestations of this most iconic of American symbols are also worth a visit. Sunday, the last day, features a 12:30 p.m. flag-folding ceremony, testimonials from two U.S. veterans, and a collector-led tour.

U.S. active military and veterans will be admitted free and are encouraged to wear their uniforms. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $10; seniors $9; students and children age 6-17, $5; children 5 and under and members, free (412-454-6000).

Mosley DVD

Ken Love's film "Thaddeus Mosley: Sculptor," which documents the life and work of the noted Pittsburgh artist, is now available on DVD ($19.95 at The film premiered in February at the University of Pittsburgh 2012 K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program. In April, it was screened at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle.

DATA Award

Congratulations to Andres Tapia-Urzua and Jon Amakawa, whose interactive 3-D modeling film experience, "The Painted Lady," received the 2012 DATA Award in the Media Arts: The Intersection of Art and Technology category from the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Mr. Imagination RIP

"The arts community has lost a gentle giant, and SCC has lost a dear friend," began the email from Janet McCall, executive director of the Society for Contemporary Craft, noting the May 30 death in Atlanta of Gregory Warmack, a self-taught artist and Chicago native known as Mr. Imagination.

His magical work has been shown nationally and was exhibited in a solo exhibition at the society in 2002. He was 64.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


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