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The new Three Rivers Arts Festival footprint is a step forward

 A crowd of people listens to music.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
A crowd listens to KT Tunstall perform this past Friday at the Three Rivers Arts Festival main stage.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

While I haven’t talked to anyone who bailed on the Three Rivers Arts Festival after it left Point State Park last year for Downtown streets, they’ve got to be out there. If they are, they might want to give the new new Downtown arts fest a chance.

Last year’s layout was … fine. The main music stage sat at Ninth and Penn, and — though many visitors surely missed spreading a picnic blanket on the Point State Park lawn — the intersection accommodated a reasonable number of people, the acoustics were decent, and many seemed to appreciate being nearer restaurants and bars.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s 2023 relocation of the main stage to Fort Duquesne was inspired by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s Allegheny Overlook pop-up park there. Last Friday, during the festival’s lively opening-night mainstage set by KT Tunstall, it felt like a smart move.

The stage now sits on Fort Duquesne at Stanwix, facing upriver toward a crowd that filled the boulevard’s tree-lined riverside lanes and adjacent walkway running for most of a block toward Sixth Street. For those in the rear, a big video screen was elevated above the audience about 50 yards from the stage. Most people stood, but alongside the lawn-chair aficionados (who turned out in force even last year), additional seating was available on picnic benches, the curb, and the median strip.

In all, the riverside location directly across the Allegheny from PNC Park felt more open, breezy and comfortable than last year’s, without the jostling that happened because some people were watching the concerts and others were just crossing the street.

Perhaps even better is the relocation of the fest’s Artist Market to Fort Duquesne. Last year, most of the painters, woodworkers, potters, jewelry-makers, et al, were arrayed along Penn Avenue, with another couple dozen stationed in a lot on Fort Duquesne between Seventh and Ninth streets. This year, while that lot (which also serves as a food court) remains, most artists occupy closed-to-traffic Fort Duquesne itself: the riverside lanes from Sixth to Ninth for the whole of the 10-day festival, and both the riverside and cityside lanes on weekends.

Friday night, this setup felt like a big improvement not only from last year, but in many ways even from the traditional, pre-pandemic packing of artists’ booths into Gateway Plaza. That old arrangement occasioned much shoulder-to-shoulder sidling. This way is much roomier.

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Final word on the festival: Don’t forget to catch the annual Juried Visual Art Show, with work by 30 regional artists, chosen by Steve Alexis, Lexi Bishop, Tara Fay Coleman and Jillian Daniels.

Titled “Taking Up Space,” it occupies SPACE gallery, over on Liberty Avenue. Highlights include William Karaffa’s striking and symbolically loaded painting “Punish Me”; Abbi Ruppert’s contemplative installation “You Won’t Find Me Here”; and Lee Kennedy’s charmingly faux-naive painting “Stars for Days.” Dyvika Peel’s “Weight Room” is a nice one-liner, and Kirsten Ervin’s “I Am the World Champion of My Life” pairs humor with a message of resilience.

The festival continues from noon-9 p.m. daily through Sunday, wrapping with a main-stage concert by legendary bluesman Taj Mahal.

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: