Three Rivers Art Festival     18 July, 2006, 04:34 pm
Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Art Festival in June has been a favorite of ours since the early 1990s. My mother and her large family were from the ‘burgh; I spent my high school years there, and so it seemed like a natural choice when we expanded our show schedule beyond Virginia. I can remember attending the festival in high school in the 1960s, so that I thought that I already knew the terrain.

The festival runs for 17 days starting at the first full weekend in June. Artists can choose 3-day weekend sessions, 6-day weekday/end sessions, or some combination up to a maximum of 12 days. It takes place at Gateway Plaza, a lovely park, set amid the office towers of the Golden Triangle in downtown. Artists can choose to stay for $25/night for a bunk bed at nearby Point Park University, in the posh on-site Pittsburgh Hilton, or drive in from a wide range of motels in nearby Greentree.

Any festival that runs for 17 days in June is bound to have its share of hot (and less frequently, cold) weather and storms, and Three Rivers is no exception. In fact, dealing with the extremes of Pittsburgh weather becomes sort of a badge of courage for participating artists. Winds whipping through the show site are funneled between the buildings to create some tent-lifting situations that are enough to discourage the faint-hearted exhibitor. There’s even a name for it – artists refer to being “three-rivered.”

In our first year, we stayed at the dorm. Susan’s back went out early on the iron cots, and she was forced to rely on Doan’s Backache pills for much of her tenure. I think that she was returning from the chiropractor’s office when I was in the booth for our first real Pittsburgh storm. It came up fast; the wind and rain hit, and I was drenched as our roof lifted up and swung into our neighbor’s booth. Two customers (looking for shelter from the storm) helped me get the roof back on about the time Susan arrived. There she was horrified to see the frames on her original watercolor paintings slowing filling with water. A neighbor gave us paper towels, and we commenced damage control. We had to get some of the art out of the booth to dry out; we carried the art to the dorm where it dried rather quickly in the hot, non-air conditioned room.

We learned a lot during our first Pittsburgh session. First is to be ready before the storm hits because there will often be customers wanting to make purchases just as the first drops hit the tent. One of those customers has become one of our most-valued area collectors. In addition, we always carry paper towels, a personal rain suit, and try to have the tent well-secured. Actually, weather-tracking technology has improved so that the current festival organizers will announce “Code Blue” for coming storms, and the more ominous, “Code Red” for those zeroing in on the festival site.

Along with the weather, parking is another issue of concern to artists. Basically we are a pampered bunch when it comes to parking because we are accustomed to exhibiting in fair grounds, etc. where parking is not an issue. Pittsburgh’s geography prohibits large exhibitor parking areas near the show site. The organizers provide lists of available lots and prices, but it is up to each artist to decide where to park and how to get his or her vehicle to the show site. I know an artist who would pay about $30-50/day to be parked in front of the Hilton within the purview of the hotel doorman. Another artist arranged with the U.S. Postal Service to park his cube truck on their property over the weekend. We were lucky this year to discover that the Gateway Center Garage, located within hand-truck range of the site, had become van-friendly and was offering $5/day pay-in-advance rates for artists. This is a big savings from the usual $18/day at the nearby open lots.

Loading into the show has become a rather sedate affair, where artists are staged in from a remote assembly site in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Festival assistants with walkie-talkies arrange vans in neat rows perpendicular to the curbs on Liberty Avenue. Your time is monitored and you are asked to quickly unload and move your van.

Contrast this with the wild old days. Artists would try to arrive as soon as possible to avoid parking charges. Liberty Avenue would be full of parallel-parked vans several hours before the start time. By the time load-in commenced, artists would be double and triple-parked on Liberty, enraging Pittsburgh drivers and the police. This all came to an end the year that artists started getting parking tickets en masse. By the next year, the new staged-entry system replaced the old anarchy.

Pittsburghers love their art festival, as was evidenced in the high attendance figures for this year. They are fickle about the weather, knowing that the 17-day festival is bound to have some nice days, even as they joke about the rain. Much to the dismay of the artists, festival-goers don’t like cold rainy days! They also seem to genuinely like the artists, wish us well, and ask us to return. What more could you want?





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