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That's not the Point: Many arts festival visitors prefer its new 'urban' layout Downtown

On opening weekend, with thousands flocking to the Three Rivers Arts Festival, reviews of its new Downtown layout were mixed, though considerably more positive than initial concerns about it might have suggested.

When the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust abruptly announced, in March, that the festival would leave Point State Park this year, many were confused and upset. After all, discounting 2020’s pandemic hiatus, the festival had occupied the park, with its sprawling green lawn, each of its first 62 years. Some feared the new location, encompassing several square blocks of the Cultural District, would be too tight, too paved, or otherwise unappealing, especially for audiences for the fest's signature main-stage music acts.

But on Saturday night, many seemed pleased.

“It’s great. It’s a great vibe,” said Colin White, a Pittsburgh native visiting from Washington, D.C. Interviewed near the main stage at Ninth Street and Penn Avenue, he said he liked the 10-day festival’s new footprint. However, he added he did feel a pang of nostalgia. “It’s still a bummer that it’s not at the Point, though,” White said. “When you’re on the street it could be any city, but when you’re at the Point, it’s only Pittsburgh.”

In fact, most visitors WESA talked to liked the new setup just fine.

“We think it’s a lot better,” said Jim McNally, of Mount Lebanon, who had joined friends to watch a set by Pittsburgh band Meeting of Important People. He preferred the compactness of the layout, which integrated the festival with bars and restaurants along Penn Avenue and neighboring streets. “Earlier today we had dinner, and we walked outside and we were right in the middle of the arts festival, and I think that’s very worthwhile.”

“Hope we keep doing this in the future,” McNally added.

“They have it organized extremely well,” said Paul Bunker, of Squirrel Hill. “It’s terrific. Stage is fantastic, great location.”

Several attendees WESA spoke to said they liked that the artists’ market booths are now arrayed in a series of surface lots, rather than lining the narrow walkways of Gateway Center, as in years past.

“I feel like things are spread out more, so we’re checking out more booths, there’s like less lines in front of the booths,” said Seth Portenlanger, of Dormont.

“I like it because there’s more room to walk around,” said Mary Ann Glunt, of Munhall.

But not everyone had the same positive impression.

“I don’t like it,” said Deja Cargile, of Coraopolis, interviewed at Ninth and Penn, as it bustled with pedestrian festival-goers. “I’d rather be back at the Point, where there’s more space. It’s too crowded.”

Her objections echoed critics on social media. In one widely shared review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pop-music critic Scott Mervis called the layout “cramped” and derided the view around the main stage.

The Cultural Trust moved the festival after the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources banned from the park events of longer than 7 days because of the toll they take on the lawn and other amenities, and the park manpower required to supervise the festival’s own staff. The arts festival was the only annual event affected by the change.

Interviewed Saturday morning, the day after opening night, festival director Sarah Aziz said she had gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback about the new footprint. People “like that everything’s closer together. They like that it’s more urban feeling,” she said.

It’s true that the new main-stage setting can’t accommodate as many listeners as Point State Park’s big lawn, and that asphalt and concrete are not amenable to the hours-long picnic spreads people liked to bring there. Still, on Saturday, a couple dozen people popped open lawn chairs on the pavement in front of the main stage to watch headliner Madeline Edwards.

The festival intentionally did not book acts whose audiences might overwhelm the intersection and the adjoining stretch of Ninth toward the river, which Aziz estimated could hold up to 5,000.

There were many fewer than that on hand both for Friday night’s headliner, Cory Edwards – Aziz estimated the crowd at 2,000 or so – and for Edwards on Saturday night, when several hundred people stood facing the stage.

The festival artists’ market, meanwhile, continues to host fewer vendors of paintings, jewelry, ceramics and the like than it did in the festival’s pre-pandemic years. This year’s total is just over 200, compared to nearly 400 in 2019, said Aziz. She said some of that decline is due to the fact that many artists themselves still shy away from in-person sales in the midst of the pandemic. She said the festival is still “ramping back up” toward its former capacity.

Aziz said overall festival attendance is likewise likely to continue at levels well below its estimated pre-pandemic mark of 500,000 over 10 days. But she said turnout this year might overtake the 150,000 or so who visited last year, the festival’s return to a full in-person program after a year off because of the pandemic.

The Three Rivers Arts Festival, with its presenting sponsor, Dollar Bank, continues through Sun., June 12. A complete schedule 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: