Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival

Three Rivers Art Festival, images above via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The festival began as an outdoor art show hosted on the mall of the Carnegie Museum of Art, founded by the museum’s women’s committee, and moved in 1960 to Point State Park. On the fourth day, a storm damaged 50 paintings and sent 10 of them flying into the river, but the festival is a great success. 

Three Rivers Arts Festival Opens at Point State Park,” The Pittsburgh Press, 1960:

“The Three Rivers Arts Festival may well become the cultural pivot for the people of our great Ohio River Valley. The scope of this cultural program will be nurtured and vitalized through the participation of all of our people. The Three Rivers Arts Festival is dedicated to the conviction that to have a democratic culture, “Everyman” who has the inclination shall have the opportunity to define his culture through his participation.”

- Robert A. Boudreau, Director, American Wind Symphony - 1960 festival program
By its next year, the festival grows from 20,000 to 100,000 visitors. In letters to The Pittsburgh Press editor in 1962, one resident calls the festival a “waste of time” due to the increasing presence of abstract art, and another calls those who found the exhibits laughable “sore losers” whose works were not selected. 

Exhibit featuring Pittsburgh as its subject, with Gateway Center buildings as a backdrop, mid-1960s. John Heinz History Center, via University of Pittsburgh Digital Archives.

In 1965, local artists protest the selection of 17 artists chosen without jury process, saying the anonymous committee has set a “dangerous precedent” and risks making the festival more of a museum exhibit than a community event. Most festival events are rained out as it rains 9 out of 10 days.

Eugene McCarthy, former presidential candidate and Democratic senator from Minnesota, reads his own poetry at the Three Rivers Art festival in 1972.

Image via The Pittsburgh Press, 1977. The festival is largely criticized this year for a lack of quality (including the growing exhibition of photography) from its earlier years and a shift of focus from regional artists to artists unknown in Pittsburgh. Interestingly, many of those pieces are a part of the Pittsburgh landscape todayClement Meadmore’s “Up and Away” is still on display in PNC Bank Plaza; Kenneth Snelson’s “Forest Devil” now resides in Mellon Square; and “Pittsburgh” by John Henry is in Frank Curto Park on Bigelow Boulevard.

John Jay takes over as the festival’s executive director in 1979. That year, Joan Mondale (a ceramist and the vice president’s wife) and the nation’s mayors are in town for the festival, which ends with a disco party for 3,000 people. 

Jay is credited for the festival’s expansion, spreading the events to six sites with a budget of $250,000. Allen Ginsberg performs a poetry reading on opening day. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1981. 

In 1982, the festival expands from 10 to 17 days.

In this 1999 Post-Gazette timeline of the festival, Jay admits that he was traumatized by the publicity that followed his comment and his subsequent resignation, but he kept a stiff upper lip back in 1983, saying that he was just “a high-energy guy who needs change.” 

The Three Rivers Arts Festival creates controversy in 1990 with the display of “Hunky - Steel Worker,” a sculpture by Luis Jimenez. 

“The steelworker was big and buff, but that wasn’t the kind of hunky Jimenez was channeling,” the Post-Gazette reported after the artist’s death in 2006. “He [Jimenez] meant no offense, believing “hunky” was a term of admiration and respect used among steelworkers. Pittsburgh erupted. Press conferences were called, ethnic outrage was expressed, letters to the editor were written. Soon the word was ground off the base of the sculpture, saving the steelworker formerly known as Hunky from being floated down the river, a scenario predicted by a United Steel Workers’ union spokesman if the situation wasn’t resolved.”

The change is made and immediately met with protests“Steel Worker” is now on display at the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston.

In 2008, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust assumed control of the festival, ending its 49-year partnership with the Carnegie Museum of Art. This is its 52nd year at Point State Park.


Three Rivers Arts Festival at Gateway Center, 1960s, via University of Pittsburgh Digital Archives.