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Three Rivers Arts Festival

“It offers the kooky to the serious; that’s been a hallmark of the festival for 30 years and continues to be so,”
- Bill Lafe





Three Rivers Arts Festival, 1972.

Popular musical artists are a staple of the Arts Festival today.

In the summer of 1960, a four-day arts extravaganza featuring drama, music, paintings, and sculpture took place in downtown Pittsburgh’s Gateway Plaza. People were blown away by this first-ever Three Rivers Arts Festival— especially by the rain and high winds on the festival’s last day.

Conceived in 1959 by the Women’s Committee of Carnegie Museum of Art,
the festival, modeled after the Boston Arts Festival, was a way to bring free art to the public while showcasing local artists. Today, the festival is still sponsored by Carnegie Museum of Art, but its funds are raised separately from corporate, foundation, public, and individual patrons.

Scale was small those first few years, but every year saw something new or expanded. The number of days lengthened, the festival spread into Point State Park and then through town, food booths and a family area were introduced, and in 1982 a film festival debuted (now operated by Pittsburgh Filmmakers). But the focus never strayed from art.

“ Our mission always was and still is to connect the community to the arts,” says Three Rivers Arts Festival Executive Director Elizabeth Reiss. “The festival has the unique opportunity to give art the large audience it deserves. And, in addition to producing our own programming,
we co-develop and host other organizations’ projects, which gives us the chance to put new art in front of new audiences.”

“ It offers the kooky to the serious,” says Bill Lafe, a long-time festival board member, “that’s been a hallmark of the festival for 30 years and continues to be so.”

Ella Fitzgerald skatted at the 1982 festival; artist Elaina Myrinz covered the Westinghouse Building’s front 14 stories in more than 4,500 square feet of nylon cloth; and live demonstrations—from raku firing to bronze casting—have amazed audiences over the years.

Every year the festival showcases one piece of public art “ranging from the pleasant and unassuming to the controversial,” says Lafe. But nothing shook things up more than 1990’s Hunky Steelworker. Created by New Mexico artist Louis Jimenez, the towering sculpture of a laborer was viewed by many Pittsburghers as an ethnic insult. “The artist didn’t do his research,” says Lafe. “He thought ‘Hunky’ was a word of praise. It caused such an outcry.”

The 2005 festival is likely to raise a few eyebrows, too. “Each year we try to push the envelope a little more and stretch the boundaries of what people consider art,” says Reiss. “This year, we’re going to erect a sculptural skate ramp in Point State Park, and if everything turns out okay, local artist Stacy Levy will be taking her work to the river by placing multiple long strands of spherical floats in the river radiating out like an eyelash from Point State Park.”

Today the festival is held over 17 days and it brings in artists from across the country and around the world. While every year brings something new and unusual, the rain, however, stays the same. But as Lauren Urbschat, the festival’s communications coordinator, says: “Have you ever been in Pittsburgh for 17 days and not seen it rain?”

This year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival runs June 3-19. For details about artists and events, visit

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