By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
Now in its 60th year, the Three Rivers Arts Festival is practically synonymous with summer in Pittsburgh. From June 7 to 16, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust brings musical acts, art shows and special exhibits to Downtown for all to enjoy without any admission fees.
“When you talk to Pittsburghers, almost everybody knows about the Three Rivers Arts Festival,” says Sarah Aziz, festival director. “They’re like ‘Oh yeah, we go every year.’”
“It’s really become part of the fabric of the city—it’s sort of the unofficial kickoff to summer, it’s the joke about the rain—it’s really part of our city at this point.”
So while it’s become a part of the routine as sure and true as pierogi races at Bucs games or the Potato Patch fries at Kennywood, it should not be taken for granted that each year world-class art is made available to Pittsburgh, completely free of charge.
But some things have changed over the festival’s 60-year tenure. It started as a small outdoor arts show put on by the Women’s Committee of the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1960. A few years later it moved Downtown and grew and grew until it became the largest multidisciplinary show of art in the region.
Three Rivers Arts Fest has hosted more than 10,000 artists, from legendary musicians like Ella Ftizgerald, Smokey Robinson and Phillip Glass, to recently successful acts like Norah Jones, the Avett Brothers and the Black Keys. Renowned writers like Allen Ginsberg and Spalding Gray have taken part in the festival, as well as visual artists like Keith Haring and Nam June Paik.
This year’s festival continues the legacy of hosting diverse talents. The list of musicians performing across three stages is padded with internationally touring bands like Nahko and Medicine For The People, Grammy winners like India.Arie and Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, and the winner of NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Concert Contest, Tank and the Bangas.
Local acts like Brittney Chantele, Lily Harvey, Wild Blue Yonder and Jordan Montgomery will also be performing.
Aziz says that when they are choosing artists and performers for the festival each year, there are a few main priorities that they take into account.
“We feel really strongly about inclusion and diversity, and I don’t use those terms lightly,” she says. “We really want people to feel like they belong at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and we feel like the best way to do that is to program lots of different musicians and artists throughout the ten days so that people find someone that they love—that they identify with.”
The visual art exhibits include Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena’s “Los Trompos”—colorful spinning tops woven in a traditional Mexican style that festivalgoers can play on at Point State Park. Compagnie Furinkaï brings their performance piece “Origami,” where dancer Satchie Noro defies gravity on a 40-foot shapeshifting shipping container, from France to Pittsburgh for its U.S. debut.
A couple of the visual art exhibits selected for this year take on a theme of looking at the past as a nod to the festival’s history in honor of its 60th anniversary. The theme for the 2019 Juried Visual Art Exhibition is “Remember Me.” In this exhibition, open all ten days of the festival on the fourth floor of the Trust Arts Education Center, 52 works of art by 39 artists interpret what the theme of remembrance means to them. The blind jury chose the featured creations from over 500 submissions by 300 artists.
“We also strive for that balance of really fine craftsmanship and accessible art,” Aziz says. “So we want to really balance the fact that art is for everyone and it doesn’t have to be a high-brow, stuffy, uptight experience that’s only for certain people, but we also want to highlight and honor the craftsmanship that’s put into the art around the festival. ”
A theme like “Remember Me” gives people something universally human to connect to, whether they frequent galleries or only see art once a year at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
The other visual art project that deals with looking back also requires us to look forward. Local artist Toby Flatey is creating “The Pittsburgh Time Capsule.”
“I thought it might be interesting for the future people of Pittsburgh to get an insight into what the average, everyday person thought about things, because we’re going to have all kinds of records of celebrities and politicians and what they think about what’s going, but we don’t hear a lot about what the everyday [person] on the street might be thinking about,” Flatey says.
The 8-foot tall booth will be open at Gateway Center Plaza from noon to 9 p.m. each day of the festival. People will be welcome to enter the booth and film a one-minute-long video, telling the people of Pittsburgh in the year 2120 whatever they wish to tell them.
Flatey is saving the videos—of which there could be as many as 2,000—in different mediums and formats, including on a type of CD called an M-disc that is guaranteed to last for a thousand years.
“Right now we live in a purely digital age as far as recording things, and my concern was having something that’s still going to be a readable format and a common format one hundred years from now,” Flatey says.
The videos will take some time to compile, edit and archive so Flatey says the capsule won’t be officially sealed until 2020, putting the opening date in 2120. There will be two capsules for safe-keeping—one entrusted to the Mayor’s Office of Pittsburgh and the other with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
Upon entering the booth, participants will type their names into an iPad and check a box that indicates whether they want their video to be unseen until 2120, or if it can be included in a montage that Flatey will create in the much nearer future. He says it was important to him that there be the option that people’s entries to the capsule be kept entirely secret if they wanted them to be, for now.
“It’s almost like one-part time capsule, one-part confessional booth in a way,” says Flatey. “However they want to be represented in the future, I wanted that to be the basis of this whole project.”
Flatey will be the first and last person to record a video in the booth. In a way, he’ll be hosting the 2120 exhibit centered around the capsule.
As people exit the booth, they’ll be given a momento postcard with their entry number and the day they filmed their video—a “save the date” for an event that none of them will be attending, but that will bring crowds to the Three Rivers Arts Festival a hundred years from now.