Arts Festival plays up Pittsburgh attributes

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When the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust assumed management of the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2009, it was difficult to predict what its future would look like. Would components be cut? Added? The first couple of years were a little shaky as the trust evaluated festival traditions and possibilities. But this year a pattern began to coalesce that shows the trust’s vision for the festival entwined with the vision of a future Pittsburgh.

First to note is the footprint. Over its history, the festival and its visitors have clustered in Point State Park, Gateway Center and nearby corporate buildings such as PPG Wintergarden. Gradually the footprint expanded as a combination of heightened security in corporate offices post-9/11 and the deterioration of the yellow pavilions that once housed it prompted organizers to move the juried art exhibition to festival headquarters several blocks down Liberty Avenue. Now that exhibition and other arts presentations are held in the slightly closer Trust Arts Education Center on Liberty. Drawing festival attendees beyond the Point has been difficult but of late has been bolstered by exhibitions at other trust spaces along the way, photo op-worthy public art in pleasant parklets, and a rich offering of theater and dining possibilities.

Secondly there’s expanding community participation, as institutions present creative activities and attendees respond to the increasingly diverse offerings. These vary from the many arts venues and artist groups that participate in the family-friendly Giant Eagle Creativity Zone to the terrific arts films presented by Pittsburgh Filmmakers at the Harris Theater. 

Edge-pushing theatrical/performative works were debuted this year by locally based, nationally known creative cauldrons Squonk and Bricolage, which had a waiting list for the timed intimate experience it offered. And the globally acclaimed Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returned -- the trust having enticed it back after a 30-plus year absence in 2011. For a second year, the PSO was joined by Pittsburgh Opera.

The Juried Visual Art Exhibition, selected by jurors from Carnegie Mellon University, The Andy Warhol Museum and Carnegie Museum of Art, showcased artists working in contemporary modes who live within a 150-mile radius of Pittsburgh. Installer Carin Mincemoyer ensured that the exhibited works received a respectable hang. The exhibition’s People’s Choice Award (of $500) was captured by Florian Baron’s “Kaleidoclock.”

A timely and thought-provoking documentary exhibition on coal extraction by New Mexico photographer Carlan Tapp was a solid complement to the juried show,

New this year were public receptions at the education center and at a second trust gallery, and a formal talk by Mr. Tapp. Such social and/or educational opportunities are examples of other ways to make visitors feel a part of the festival, and, if continued, attendance at those should grow through word of mouth and social media.

Under the capable guidance of festival director Veronica Corpuz, public art remained a presence with an emphasis on readily relatable projects that frequently engaged a youthful audience through crowd-sourcing while not shying away from potent issues. Visitors shared personal goals on the “Before I Die” board of artist Candy Chang, and carried away the hundreds of T-shirts of Edith Abeyta’s “O:NE:KA’ ” on the festival’s last day. “Before I Die” and “Complaints Pittsburgh,” which drew crowds at various festival locations, are global projects that now have a Pittsburgh chapter.

The Complaints n’at Choir is planning a video; the “Kaleidoclock” an app; and Squonk and Bricolage, more performances, giving legs to art first encountered at the festival.

These all indicate a positive direction as the trust includes, at times improves, people pleasers like the Artist Market while using its honed expertise in such things as signage, marketing and networking to build a professional foundation, and brand, for festivals to come.

The festival remains free, unusual in these economic times, due to corporate and individual sponsorships including that of Dollar Bank, which had supported the Point State Park stage for years and has been title sponsor since 2010.

In 2009, Kevin McMahon, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust president and CEO, said a long-term goal was to find “a way to think about this festival in a larger sense, less as the Three Rivers Arts Festival and more as Pittsburgh as a great arts city.” Noting that the festival already pulls a half-million visitors, he said that it could be a catalyst to expose others beyond the region and state to Cultural District attractions. 

“We don’t want to put all our eggs into one basket, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could expand our thinking to take the festival to a bigger and higher level over a period of years?” he asked.

Perhaps it’s time to think about closing off Penn Avenue during festival week and creating a pedestrian zone, sprinkled with ephemeral visual and performative arts that are anchored by such local treasures as the Benedum Center, Louise Bourgeois sculpture at Katz Plaza and Fort Pitt Block House. Pittsburgh as an arts hub would be a win-win for local cultural talent, merchants and those hungry for a vacation destination enlivened by creative surprises. 

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

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