From Ella to Smokey, Three Rivers Arts Festival Rocks On

More than 500,000 annually flock to see some of country’s best art

By Rege Behe

Published June 17, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


The 60-year history of the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, which wrapped up another successful run on Sunday, has included many memorable events.

Over the years, legendary musicians including Ella Fitzgerald and Smokey Robinson performed on the festival’s main stage, drawing enormous crowds to Point State Park. Acclaimed artists including Nam June Paik and Paul Rand exhibited their works. Alan Ginsberg and John Ciardi read poetry, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane choreographed dance performances, and actor/writer Spalding Gray interviewed audience members.

The Women’s Committee of the Carnegie Institute launched the festival in 1960 with an estimated 28,000 people viewing the works of 223 artists and enjoying performances by the American Wind Symphony. A different kind of wind closed that inaugural festival on an ominous note: gale-force gusts blew some paintings into the river.

Weather would become the festival’s occasional bogeyman, with rain dampening the festival nine out of 10 days in 1965 and forcing the cancellation of a concert by Ray Charles in 1987. But in most years, Mother Nature cooperates: an average of 500,000 attendees usually finds its way to TRAF, with this year’s expected total right in line with that historical precedent.

Because the festival is free and unticketed, festival director Sarah Aziz says it’s hard to compare TRAF to other similar events such as the Equinox Music & Art Festival in Concord, N.H., which charges admission, or the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair in Michigan, which only runs four days.

“Keeping the festival free and open to the public (is important),” Aziz said. “You don’t have to come through a gate, you don’t have to pay to shop … we hope the fact that the festival is open and doesn’t charge admission frees up money people can spend on (artists) in the booths.”

More than 500,000 people attend Three Rivers Arts Festival annually to see some of country’s best art (Photo by Beth Hollerich).

For the craftspeople and artisans who set up booths at TRAF, the 10-day event is an opportunity to showcase their work to a huge number of people. Kim Fox, an artist from Mt. Lebanon who specializes in organic themes in mediums including patchwork tin, fabric, and wall coverings, first exhibited as an emerging artist seven years ago.

“It’s a great selling show for me,” said Fox, who also has exhibited at arts festivals in New York City, Rhode Island, and Wheeling, W.V. “In terms of the people who show up, it’s my favorite show to do.”

This year’s edition of TRAF included musical performances by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and the legendary Pittsburgh rock band Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. Houserockers guitarist Danny Gochnour, who has performed at the festival three times, said the event is one of Western Pennsylvania’s crown jewels.

“I think it’s a great event that provides an eclectic mix of styles and genres and gives both the artist and the listener new exposure,” said Gochnour, who released a solo album, “The Despair of Summer,” earlier this year. “As an artist, you get to play for people you might not ordinarily get to play for, and as an attendee you get to hear artists that you’ve never heard of before.”

Drew Donegan, the guitarist for Pittsburgh-based rock band Gene the Werewolf, agrees that playing TRAF is a priceless gig.

“(TRAF) gives developing local artists and bands alike an opportunity to showcase themselves right alongside their nationally recognized peers,” said Donegan, who performed with the band on June 11. “It’s great exposure and further proves that local Pittsburgh art is equally as good as anything going on nationally.”

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