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Artists At Virtual Three Rivers Arts Fest Market Struggle With Sales

There’s a whole subculture of artists and craftspeople who make their living traveling to fairs and festivals to sell their work.

The coronavirus pandemic has not been kind to them.

Credit Courtesy of Vessel Studio Glass
Courtesy of Vessel Studio Glass
Drew Hine and Jeannine Hine own Vessel Studio Glass.

One is Vessel Studio Glass. Drew and Jeannine Hine’s glassblowing studio is on the South Side, but they spend much of the year traveling to and setting up booths at sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Pittsburgh’s own Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival alone accounts for up to 10 percent of their annual sales, said Jeannine Hine.

Vessel Studio has done the Arts Festival for each of the past 10 years, she said. But this year, for the first time in 61 years, the fest isn’t an in-person event. There’s no music at Point State Park, and no fried foods (or any other kind) on sale there, either. And both the park and nearby Gateway Plaza are absent the booths of hundreds of artists who’d normally be selling work, everything from ceramics and jewelry to paintings, clothing, and musical instruments.

The festival does exist online – in large part because the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which stages the event, was concerned about the artists who faced losing so much revenue as fairs and festivals around the country shut down during the pandemic.

“They were really impacted and we can’t just say, 'See you in 2021,'” said Sarah Aziz, the Trust’s director of festival management. “We need to give them some sort of platform to get in front of people and try to make sales.” (The virtual festival also includes livestreamed performances by local musicians and other artists, and other visual-art offerings.)

"There's no way to replace a show with online"

The fest is hosting all 350 of this year’s Artist Market artists on its website, for free. And the artists, who hail from around the country, are all on the roster all 10 days, rather than the three, five or seven days they might choose during an in-person festival.

But while several artists contacted by WESA said they appreciate the help, sales as of early this week were at best a fraction of what an in-person festival would bring.

“I tell you, there’s no way to replace a show with online,” said Claudia Carreon, a metal smith who makes jewelry, hair and scarf accessories in Dublin, Ohio. “There is nothing like being there in person.”

Carreon does about 20 festivals a year, she said. She said that since this year’s Three Rivers began, on June 5, traffic on her website had risen “a lot.” “It’s been good advertising,” she said. But as of Monday, the fourth day of the 10-day festival, that hadn’t translated into any sales. 

She cited the tactile nature of the jewelry trade, something impossible to replicate online. “We have to be too close to our customers,” she said. “I have to demonstrate, I have to touch people.”

Credit Courtesy of Claudia Carreon Designs
Claudia Carreon is a metalsmith in Dubin, Ohio.

Carreon acknowledged that changes to that sales style might outlast the pandemic. But makers of nonwearable art are struggling, too. Gene Pembroke, a world-traveling photographer based in southern New Jersey who has sold at the arts festival “at least 10 times,” said he was happy the festival had provided the opportunity. “I appreciate it, because the alternative is nothing, and the fact that they’re doing it free of charge is a nice gesture,” he said.

But as of Monday, Pembroke also hadn’t sold anything.

Pembroke is among the many Artist Market artists who lack a brick-and-mortar retail presence, and who also – perhaps surprisingly these days – sell very little online. (Pembroke said that in his case, he is out of the country photographing half the year and so doesn’t tend closely to his web site.)

The festival atmosphere is itself conducive to sales, he said.

“You want to go to the place, and you’re outside, there’s excitement, people were waiting all year, the food and all this,” he said. He said he attends 30 shows a year, some of them geared toward high-end customers. At Three Rivers, he sells prints ranging in price from $20 to $800. He said the festival is among his favorites. “Just regular people show up," he said. "It seems like people have saved up. It just seems like it’s really important to people that come into my booth.”

"It just seems like it's really important to people that come into my booth"

Blake Anthony runs Pittsburgh Pottery. The Carnegie-based ceramics business, too, was suffering from canceled festivals, including the Home & Garden Show, which was to have been held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center the very weekend Allegheny County saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19, in March.

Anthony, too, is grateful for the chance to sell online through the Arts Festival’s website – though he does note the irony that this was that rare year the first weekend of the festival was rain-free.

Pittsburgh Pottery's merchandise includes a black-and-gold line of crockery emblazoned with Pittsburghese terms like “jagoff” and “n’at.” The company relies on the festival for about 7 percent of its annual revenue, Anthony said. While he hadn’t seen much in the way of sales through the festival website, he’s hopeful the exposure will bring him business at some point.

“We’re just rollin’ with the punches, trying to stay afloat,” he said.

The Three Rivers Arts Festival continues through Sunday. Information about the Artist Market is here.

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: