By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Green leaves and warm, sunny days can only mean its festival season in Pittsburgh. The spring and early summer play host to favorite annual gatherings, including Art All Night and the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival.
Following the example of those gatherings, the annual Three Rivers Arts Festival will, for the first time, be held completely online. While the festival was initially cancelled in the wake of the national shutdown meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, the decision was made to instead transition the festival to a completely digital affair.
The Three Rivers Arts Festival is a storied Pittsburgh tradition, first begun in 1960 by the Women’s Committee of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
“The goal was to bring the arts out of the museum and to the people,” said Sarah Aziz, director of Three Rivers Art Festival. “That was sixty years ago and that remains our mission: to be an inclusive place where people can experience diverse art by diverse artists.”
The inaugural festival hosted approximately 20,000 spectators, and it became more popular as years went by. Last year’s gathering saw over 500,000 attendees over ten days.
Over the years, Three Rivers has hosted legends in art and music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Keith Haring, and Allen Ginsburg. The festival is usually held in downtown Pittsburgh, with stages and displays throughout Point State Park, Gateway Center and the lower Cultural District.
Shifting such a large-scale physical event into a complete digital format was a daunting task, to be sure. The web design team at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust took the online map used for previous festivals as a base, building it up to support the much higher degree of web traffic.
“It was really built as an on-site tool. It had schedules, listing of the artists, but it wasn’t particularly robust,” said Aziz.
The digital map was also fully reconfigured to be both visually enticing, but user-friendly. It will display a virtual layout of the arts festival, with sections for the artist’s market, digital stages, creative activities and much more.
“Our design team created this fun, whimsical, urban-looking map of different artistic neighborhoods,” said Aziz. “As you scroll through, you’ll see the photography neighborhood, the painting neighborhood, the graphic arts neighborhood.”
Over 350 artists will be on display through the festival’s ten day span. Many of the artists rely on events like Three Rivers to support themselves, a key factor in the decision to move online.
“The artists in the artist’s market make the majority of their living doing the circuit every summer,” said Aziz. “That was a big driving force to move the festival to a digital platform, instead of saying ‘See you in 2021!’”
The digital artist’s market will direct visitors to the artist’s personal online shop, where they can purchase directly from the artist. Visitors will also be able to vote on their favorite pieces at the festival. Whoever receives the most votes wins the “People’s Choice Award” and a $500 cash prize.
Spectators will also have front row seats at the Dollar Bank Digital Stage, which will feature a half-hour live performance every night, with Pittsburgh favorites including Brittney Chantele, Byron Nash and slowdanger. The main stage will be supplemented by a 24/7 stage, which will play pre-recorded material from local artists.
One of the mainstage performers is Thomas Wendt, a jazz percussionist who will be playing with his eponymous quintet on June 9. Wendt has previously performed at Three Rivers in the late 1990s and 2000s, but hasn’t been back as the festival placed less emphasis on jazz in more recent years.
“They used to have noon-time jazz concerts, I remember doing a bunch of those, and I did an evening concert in Point State Park, as well,” said Wendt.
Wendt is excited and honored to be returning to the Three Rivers stage, but acknowledged that this time around will feel very unusual, especially with the often intimate nature of jazz performances.
“With all music, but especially jazz music, there’s a very neat relationship between the musicians and the audience, so…it will certainly be different,” said Wendt.
Also on display will be specially curated exhibitions and interactive experiences. This includes “Transverse: The Juried Visual Art Exhibition,” a collection of 51 works by 40 artists selected by a panel of jurors. The works deal with themes of utopia and alternate realities.
“The Anthropology of Motherhood: Culture of Care” is another exhibition, featuring the works of ten artists grappling with themes of motherhood, caregiving and parenting.
Some exhibitions also have interactive elements, like “Compass Roses: Maps by Artists.” On display will be interactive maps created by 20 different artists working in a wide range of media.
For the young and young at heart, the Giant Eagle Creativity Zone will be online, with hands-on activities and educational artist demonstrations.
In some ways, having no choice but to create an online experience may ultimately enhance future events like Three Rivers Arts Festival.
“I think we’ll keep a lot of this infrastructure and hopefully be able to blend some of this with a real live festival in 2021,” said Aziz.
Being online, the festival is also more accessible than ever to those outside the city. Engagement on social media indicates that this year will see people from outside Pittsburgh attend in much larger numbers than usual.
“It’s much broader this year, which is pretty exciting that lots of people might be tuning in to see this show from Pittsburgh,” said Aziz.
Hopefully, in this time of turmoil, people across the country and the world can experience the amazing artistic energy that lives in Pittsburgh, and help to support the creatives that make Pittsburgh such an interesting place to be, and to bring us closer as human beings.
“The whole purpose of art…is to help people feel more connected to one another, so even though we’re not together physically, hopefully the festival and the music we make will help people feel more connected,” said Wendt.
The 2020 Three Rivers Arts Festival will be held June 5-14 at traf.trustarts.org.