Weeks before it was to open, the Three Rivers Arts Festival began hanging banners marking its multiple venues Downtown. One banner prominently adorned the Fort Pitt Bridge overpass, announcing the fest's return, after a two-year absence, to Point State Park.
But while the 50th annual festival differs from the editions that renovations chased from the park, it also diverges from the older models longtime attendees recall.
Most notably, the revamped fest is shorter: The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which took over the financially troubled institution last year, shortened it from the traditional 17 days to 10 (including two full weekends). There'll also be no signature, large-scale public artworks of the sort that populated the park in years past. And while the Trust still owns the shipping containers in which some art was displayed in 2008, it's not using them this year.
The changes reflect the pressures on the Trust to handle this new responsibility, but also the down economy: In late May, Trust CEO Kevin McMahon said the group was still $70,000 short of meeting its budget of $700,000 (already reduced from $1.3 million in prior years). That's largely due to diminished corporate and foundation support.
But McMahon said that many artists and crafters in the festival's Artists Market -- some of whom stayed only two weekends in years past -- have "been very enthusiastic" about the shortened schedule. Moreover, adds McMahon, a two-week festival might spur festival-goers "to get up and get out to do it" more than a three-week timeline did.
McMahon says he's anticipating a half-million visitors. That's similar to the benchmark head-count the festival did several years ago.
And indeed there's reason to expect good turnout (assuming people literally get around closures of Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street for construction of the new underground "T" extension). The number of Artists Market vendors in Gateway Center Plaza, for instance, will be the same as in years past, about 260. The range of programming remains wide, from visual art and film to live music and other performance, and from edgy to family-friendly. And everything takes place in venues along the Penn-Liberty corridor, from the park to 10th Street.
New wrinkles include a show called Now I Am the Master, a gallery exhibit drawn from work by some 50 past recipients of the festival's own Emerging Artist Scholarship. There's also a retrospective of 50 years of festival artists; Sarver's Bait & Tackle, a fishing-themed installation by festival favorite Tom Sarver; and De-Tranquilizers, curated by the Andy Warhol Museum's Eric C. Shiner.
Performances include the aerial antics and clowning of the Zany Umbrella Circus; the provocative political performance art of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes; and Pittsburgh Playworks' Play Development Lab, with intimate readings of new work. The Harris Theater, meanwhile, hosts screenings of locally made shorts and locally themed documentaries about artists. And as always, there are plenty of programs for kids from the likes of WQED, the Children's Museum and Creative Reuse Pittsburgh.
Finally, the musical acts, always a main draw, seem strong. The main-stage mix of local and national performers includes the blues-rock of The Black Keys; the jazz of Medeski, Martin & Wood; the live-band hip hop of Formula412; and the classic soul of Booker T.
Main-stage concerts especially will benefit from the return to the remodeled Point State Park: With the "moat" gone from the park's front lawn, there'll be room for many more listeners than the makeshift Stanwix Triangle stage could accommodate in '07 and '08.
While the Dollar Bank Stage occupies the north end of the lawn, the south end will host an Artists Market annex, creating elbow room at Gateway Center. And though the "Point" side of the park (past the bridge) remains largely off-limits, food vendors will return to their traditional spot along Commonwealth Place -- also roomier than Stanwix allowed.
Three Rivers Arts Festival Fri., June 5-June 14. Downtown. Most events are free. www.artsfestival.net