The very first Three Rivers Arts Festival, as created by the Women’s Committee of the Carnegie Institute, took place in June 1960. It ran four days, and drew 28,000.
Attendance in 1961 rose to 100,000. It was an auspicious reprise, and boded well for an event that’s lasted 60 years and counting as Pittsburgh’s biggest free showcase for live music, visual art and more. It’s a history that’s included performances by luminaries including Ella Fitzgerald, Philip Glass, and folk-music legend Doc Watson; an inflatable special-events tent in the early ’70s; and a 1979 disco party on the Boulevard of the Allies. And these days, the festival draws visitors in the hundreds of thousands.
The 60th annual festival’s full line-up was announced Tuesday, at a press event attended by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. (The latter wryly recalled how he and a friend, then high school students, posed as artists at the 1983 festival, where they used Magic Markers to draw inaccurate likenesses of visitors’ faces on balloons.)
The festival has grown and shrunk in length over time; for years it ran 17 days, though it’s been 10 days long since 2009, shortly after the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust took over as producer.
But this year’s event – officially named the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, for its longtime principal sponsor -- will look familiar to anyone who’s attended in recent decades. It takes place June 7-16, centered in Point State Park. The mainstage music acts will be joined by second-stage acts, the craft market, the Juried Visual Art Exhibition, kids’ activities, and the public artworks that have traditionally been a hallmark of the event.
Highlights include an eye-catching outdoor dance performance. “Origami,” by French troupe Compagnie Furinkai, takes place at the Point Park fountain, where a specially designed steel shipping container will serve as the set, continually unfolding into a 3-D stage for a solo dancer. It's the show's U.S. premiere.
“There’s tightropes that connect the different pieces of the container as it unfolds, so she’s a dancer, but it definitely has that circus feel to it as well,” says Sarah Aziz, who directs the arts festival the Cultural Trust. There will be five performances, all on the festival’s closing weekend. The show is a co-presentation with the Trust's Pittsburgh Dance Council, itself marking its 50th anniversary; the groups previously collaborated in 2017 on "Blue Lapis Light," in which dancers performed while hanging on the side of a Downtown building.
Other public-art attractions this year include work by Ocean Sole Africa, a Kenya-based group that reclaims discarded flip-flops washed up by the Indian Ocean and fashions them into multi-hued sculptures. The festival will exhibit at least seven of the sculptures in Point State Park – including, Aziz says, a life-sized giraffe. (Ocean Sole says it pulls 500,000 flip flops a year from Africa’s shores.)
Another public artwork recalls the festival tradition of art you can play on. (Aziz cites a 1970 photo of Josefa Filkosky’s abstract sculpture “Pipe Dream IV,” which depicts kids clambering upon its interlocking tubes; the sculpture – made not of metal but of rigid urethane foam – debuted at that year’s fest and still sits in the median strip in Gateway Center.) This year, the usable artwork is “Los Trompos,” by Mexico City-based artists Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena: five spinning, people-powered platforms that work like playground equipment. (“Los trompos” mean “spinning tops.”)
As with "Pipe Dream IV," the festival plans to purchase the trompos and deploy them elsewhere after the festival ends, say Aziz.
“That was what the Three Rivers Arts Festival was sort of born out of, that art is for everyone, that art is accessible, that it’s not some highbrow thing that you have to wear fancy clothes and go to a museum,” says Aziz.
Musical headliners, all previously announced, including opening-night act India.Arie; Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives; Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe; Lucius; and Tank and the Bangas.
Other live performers include roving clowns Tut ’Zanni: Beep and Bop.
As in years past, art-making activities for kids will include the Giant Eagle Creativity Zone.
WESA is a media sponsor of the Three Rivers Arts Festival.