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Pittsburgh Arts Festival Returns As In-Person Event With New Look

The 2021 Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival marks more than the festival’s return as an in-person event. It’s also one of Pittsburgh’s biggest civic celebrations in public since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Celisse is the festival's opening-night mainstage performer.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Celisse is the festival's opening-night mainstage performer.

Still, the festival, run by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, will look a bit different from in-person iterations in years past.

Last year, the festival went virtual. This year’s model, which runs 10 days starting Fri., June 4, was planned mostly before widespread vaccinations kicked in, and before Gov. Tom Wolf announced the lifting of restrictions on outdoor gatherings. So while it will feature many familiar attractions, it’ll be both somewhat smaller and more spread out.

For instance, as usual, touring musical acts will perform on a big stage in Point State Park. But this year, there’ll be just six of them, down from the usual 10. Friday’s opening-night headliner is singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Celisse.

There’s also a new spot to take in live music by local acts – the Riverside Stage, in Allegheny Overlook Pop-Up Park. The temporary park was created by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership on a closed stretch of Fort Duquesne Boulevard, and the street surface features a vibrant large-scale design by artist Janel Young.

“She named it ‘Pathway to Joy,’ and it feels like that!” said Sarah Aziz, the Trust’s program manager of festivals and special projects.

The Trust is also taking the opportunity to re-open its several art galleries Downtown, including SPACE and Wood Street Galleries. And the festival’s big Juried Visual Art Exhibition, “Transverse,” gives the artists who exhibited at last year’s virtual festival a chance to show off their work in person, at 820 Liberty Ave.

The festival’s popular artists’ market is a hybrid of in-person and virtual programming. The physical market, which would normally feature nearly 400 makers of ceramics, jewelry, photography and more, will this year host about 150, said Aziz. And instead of most of them packing into Gateway Plaza, they’ll be distributed among four locations in the Cultural District, including Allegheny Overlook Pop-Up Park, two surface lots, and Point State Park.

In a nod to COVID safety, the artists’ booths in each location will also sit further apart, Aziz said.

“Being able to kind of spread out still visit the artists and be out there with your friends and family, will be great hopefully in a much safer way,” she said.

In addition, some 350 artists will be featured in the festival’s virtual artists’ market.

The food court in Point State Park will include a half-dozen vendors, half the usual number, though there will be other small food courts spread throughout Downtown, Aziz said.

When festival programming was originally announced, in late April, the mainstage concerts were to be limited-capacity affairs held indoors, at the Byham Theater, with free ticketing required for those and other shows. But while those restrictions will no longer apply – no tickets are required for any festival events – the Trust is still taking some health-and-safety precautions.

Visitors who have not been fully vaccinated are asked to wear facemasks, Aziz said. And all festival staff and volunteers, including backstage personnel, will be screened daily for COVID-19 risks.

As to attendance, the festival typically draws an estimated half-million visitors over its 10 days, and Aziz said that initially, the Trust expected this year’s crowd would be much smaller. But anecdotal statements of enthusiasm from the public have led the group to believe visitorship might be higher than that.

The festival runs from noon to 8 p.m. daily (though mainstage concerts will end about 9 p.m.) For a complete line-up of concerts, exhibits, artists’ market vendors and more, see the festival website, here.

Note: Our sister station, WYEP, will be broadcasting live the main stage concerts from the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. Listen to 91.3 FM or online at at 7:30 PM on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from June 4 – 13.

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: