Digital History in the Making: Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival Moves Online

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra cranks it up at the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Strike up the virtual band! Pittsburghers cannot pack the Point as they did in this photo from a past Arts Festival—so now, a massive digital experiment takes the whole event literally city-wide.

In the beginning, there was no Internet, only the art. Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival began in 1960. It was an outdoor exhibition in open-sided, tent-like pavilions, meant to give exposure to regional artists while bringing crowds and culture to the newly built Gateway Center area. For music, the American Wind Symphony played neoclassical airs on a docked barge. Computers in that time before Moore’s Law were bulky stand-alone machines, used mainly for their original purpose: computing. Hardly anyone could’ve imagined them having much to do with the festivities near the Point. 

But this year a pandemic dictates the twain shall meet. Our city’s early-summer art party, now produced by Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, has grown too big to cancel. And thanks to technology, you can attend whether you are in Wilkinsburg or Warrendale. The 2020 Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival goes online from June 5 to 14.  

The Medium Is Digital But ‘The Art Is Real’

You may witness digital history being made. The Festival involves hundreds of artists and featured performers of many types, plus participatory events, drawing nearly half a million visitors every year. Moving an entire public celebration like this online is a mammoth undertaking on a scale seldom attempted. Yet it holds promise. Although nothing can match the in-person experience of visual and performing arts, the digital medium offers benefits of its own. Sarah Aziz, director of festival management for the Cultural Trust, is working with the staff and artists to leverage the medium to the max. And, as the Festival’s promo material notes, one thing won’t change: “The art is real.” 

Almost every feature of a live Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival will be delivered to people’s screens—often, with enhancements.  

Three cheers for three cheetahs: Work by Canadian couple DaNisha (Dan and Nisha Ferguson) has been among big draws at the Artists Market.

Three cheers for three cheetahs: Work by Canadian couple DaNisha (Dan and Nisha Ferguson) has been among big draws at the Artist Market.

The Virtual Artist Market includes over 350 artists showing and selling their wares online: from paintings and sculpture to handcrafted furniture, jewelry, and wearables. Unlike at a live Festival, where the lineup changes during the run, all online “booths” will be up for the duration this year. A handy preview screen shows how to navigate the virtual market. 

Juried and Invited Visual Arts get special treatment as well. For the juried exhibition—this year, titled Transverse—each of the 51 selected artworks will have its own web page, complete with photos of the piece, commentary from the artist, and more. This year’s distinguished jury included Lise Ragbir of the University of Texas, nationally known for her writing on culture and society, along with Pittsburgh-based jurors Richard Hylton, Dan Leers, and Jessie Rommelt.

A new online attraction is Compass Roses: Maps by Artists, created by 20 artists from our region. The maps are interactive, inviting you to tour the byways and little-known corners of Pittsburgh as imagined and interpreted by some of the city’s foremost imaginers. 

Film is a natural for viewing online. With the Harris Theater in the Cultural District temporarily closed due to shutdown orders, a selection of films will be streamed over the course of the Festival’s 10 days. Meanwhile, some perennial favorites are being adapted for online presentation. They include the unique exhibit The Anthropology of Motherhood: Culture of Care, and interactive art activities for children like those in the Giant Eagle Creativity Zone. 

All can be accessed through the main Festival website linked earlier, absolutely free of charge. You can even sign up for email notifications of events you want to catch. Speaking of which …

There Will Be Music (and Dance, and Magic)

Performances on the Dollar Bank Digital Main Stage go live at 7:30 p.m. each evening, just as the physical concerts do in Point State Park.  Some shows may have an opening act that starts earlier, and each night’s event will be streamed to both the Festival Facebook page and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust YouTube channel. The complete Main Stage lineup:

Friday, June 5—Josh Verbanets (lead singer of Meeting of Important People) and Rick Sebak (you know who he is) host the opening show, with musical guests.

Saturday, June 6—91.3 WYEP FM presents Buffalo Rose and Inez

Sunday, June 7—Dance Battle 5 with DJ Inception

Monday, June 8—holding pattern, by the performance duo slowdanger

Tuesday, June 9—jazz by the Thomas Wendt Quintet

Wednesday, June 10—Social Justice Disco with Liz Berlin and Phat Man Dee, featuring guests Deryck Tines, HollyHood, and others

Thursday, June 11—electric guitarist Byron Nash and hip-hop creative activist Brittney Chantele

Friday, June 12—Liberty Magic@Home, with Derek Hughes and Nathan Christopher

Saturday, June 13—PHiLLTER Music Showcase, with technologically assisted live-loopers, one-human bands, and more

Sunday, June 14—Meeting of Important People.

Nor is that all. Other performers range from the Staycee Pearl Dance Project to the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.

Festival staff will even try to replicate the event’s live food experience, by partnering with eateries around the area for popular take-out items. 

The Power of Tradition

The original Three Rivers Arts Festival, 61 years ago, was a project of the Women’s Committee at Carnegie Museum of Art. It came during the high tide of Pittsburgh’s postwar Renaissance movement—and, while bulldozers and construction crews were busy reshaping physical aspects of the city, it added a purely human element to the process. Here was something that didn’t entail tearing down old neighborhoods or pouring concrete, just a chance for people to gather in the open air  

By the late ‘60s the Festival was already a civic tradition. It became a sort of cross between a pop-up museum, outdoor concert series, and gigantic street fair. Big-name performers over the years ranged from Ella Fitzgerald to Allen Ginsberg. One could say the Festival’s success helped to pave the way for other citywide gatherings, from the Regatta to First Night.  

Performance artist Christiane D leads the Complaints n'at Choir at Gateway Center’s “T” Station in downtown Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh performance artist Christiane D led the ‘Complaints n’at Choir’ in one of many memorable Arts Festival highlights. (photo: Martha Rial)

In recent times, with the founding of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Cultural District, the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival spread into galleries and venues throughout center city. The tragic onset of Covid-19 this spring made it clear that a Festival as usual couldn’t happen. But as Jim McQuade, president and CEO of Dollar Bank, has noted, an outright cancellation looked equally unthinkable: “The sense of community that this Festival brings is more important than ever this year,” he said. 

So now we will see how Pittsburgh’s first digital Arts Festival works out. Like everything in the past few months, it bodes to be unusual. But artistic content is uploading, the performers are primed, and rain will not be a factor. Stay safe and enjoy!

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers visual arts and theater for Entertainment Central.