For 60 years, the Three Rivers Arts Festival has been held largely outdoors. Recent festivals have drawn some 500,000 visitors to Point State Park over 10 days, making it Pittsburgh's biggest public arts event.
This year, as with so much else during the coronavirus pandemic, the fest will be a bit different.
Large gatherings are out. And so, therefore, are many festival hallmarks, from nationally touring bands performing for thousands on the park’s lawn to shoppers crowding the aisles between booths of the Artist Market.
Instead, the festival is going virtual, and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which produces the event, is trying to represent as much of a “real” festival as possible in the online incarnation. Motto: "The Festival is Virtual. The Art is Real."
Many summer arts festivals in Pittsburgh and elsewhere have canceled entirely. But Sarah Aziz, the Trust’s director of festival management, said the impetus to press on was largely about helping out the roughly 350 artists already booked to sell their paintings, photographs, ceramics, fiber art and more in the Artist Market.
“They were really impacted and we thought, we can’t just say, ‘See you in 2021,’” she said. “We need to give them some sort of platform to get in front of people and try to make sales.”
Those artists will in some ways be more accessible to visitors. Instead of rotating out of a physical booth after several days, as most have done for years, all 350 artists will be on the festival website for all 10 days, said Aziz.
Meanwhile, in lieu of in-person concerts, the festival is offering daily live-streamed performances by local musicians, dancers and more. Performers will play from home or other remote locations, said Aziz.
The digital main stage program kicks off Friday with an evening of music hosted by WQED’s Rick Sebak and musician Josh Verbanets (whose rock band Meeting of Important People closes the festival on June 14).
Other line-ups include Buffalo Rose & Inez (June 6); Dance Battle 5 with DJ Inception (June 7); dance troupe slowdanger (June 8); Thomas Wendt Quintet (June 9); Social Justice Disco with Liz Berlin, Phat Man Dee and special guests (June 10); Byron Nash and Brittney Chantele (June 11); Liberty Magic @ Home, with Derek Hughes and Nathan Christopher (June 12); and the PHILLTER Music Showcase, for live-loopers, one-person bands and more (June 13).
The 24-7 Stage, meanwhile, will feature original music, dance, and literary art created specifically for the festival.
The festival’s long-running Juried Visual Arts Exhibition will also continue online. This year's, titled “Transverse,” features 51 works by 40 artists from the region who were asked (during a submission process that began in October) to explore “ ideas about altered realities, utopias, and challenging the status quo.” As always, visitors can vote on their favorites for the exhibit’s People’s Choice Award.
There’s also the interactive “Compass Roses: Maps by Artists,” featuring 20 maps interpreting Pittsburgh by 20 local visual literary and performing artists.
Aziz said that the 2020 festival will even include a food component – though it’s sure to lack the singular charm of curly fries and fresh-squeezed lemonade beneath the open skies of Point State Park with 5,000 of your closest friends. Instead, she said, the Trust is setting up festival specials in conjunction with food trucks and neighborhood restaurants.
Aziz said that while the festival is always a challenge to produce, this year the struggles were different.
While the Trust never makes money on the festival, she said, it won’t lose any this year. Key sponsors stuck by the event, including Dollar Bank and Giant Eagle (which supports the kid-friendly Creativity Zone, also online this year).
And while the festival ended up spending “tenfold” what it normally spends on in-house IT and digital marketing, the overall budget is “a fraction” of that for a physical festival: no need to rent a park, let alone porta-potties, or to build stages, close roads, or hire security personnel, she noted.
For artists, a virtual festival also means no booth fees, she said. And the Trust, which typically takes a 20 percent commission on any art sold in the Juried Visual Art Show, is waiving that fee this year.
The festival runs Friday through June 14. A complete schedule is here.