When it comes to setting the culture of community events, artists hold power. They create opportunities for others to become immersed in their environment and help establish sustainable, equitable pathways for the future.
During the weekends of May 14th and 20th, Pittsburgh saw the kickoff of festival season around the city, three of which included the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books (GPFB), Millvale Music Festival (MMF), and Pittonkatonk. GPFB and Pittonkatonk being fiscally sponsored projects of New Sun Rising (NSR) and MMF as a project of Millvale Ecodistrict partner, Millvale Community Development Corporation (MCDC).
This was the first year of the GPFB and founder Marshall Coehn said well over 2,000 people pre registered for programs, which were all free and spread across six venues in East Liberty.
“The poetry tent was filled. The children’s events were filled. Billy Porter’s event was filled within the first 20 minutes it was announced,” Cohen said. “The feedback we are getting has been really good and we are very pleased with the turnout.”
Cohen attended his first book festival around 30 years ago in New York City, and since then he and his wife have traveled far and wide to experience others. The two that stand out to him are held in Los Angeles and Boston, and as the GPFB grows, he hopes to emulate Boston’s model. Cohen said he is sending out a survey to those who registered, and will be accessible on the website for those who attended the festival, to collect data on the event that will be used to entice more publishers and authors to participate next year.
“We want to get more national authors here, but at the same time give more Pittsburgh authors national exposure,” said Coehn. “Pittsburgh is now able to say, along with Los Angeles and Boston and Miami and Chicago, ‘We too have a book festival, here’s what happened at it and you should think about coming to it.’”
From the beginning stages of planning, which started pre-pandemic, Cohen said NSR was a tremendous help in knowing that he didn’t have to “worry about the administrative side of things.” Fiscal sponsorship through NSR allows leaders to focus on project design and implementation while NSR takes care of compliance, and reduces friction between the work required to manage funds and implement ideas.
Pete Spynda, co-founder and co-organizer of Pittonkatonk, has been fiscally sponsored for nearly a decade and said he has grown considerably with NSR’s guidance. Held in the Vietnam Veterans Pavilion, this was the ninth year of the festival. Filled with Balkan brass, cumbia, hip-hop, and big bands, “Pittonkatonk is music in public spaces that belong to everyone, with no stage, no doors, and no right way to express yourself,” according to the website.
“Ten years ago I didn’t know how to write a grant, and now I can connect with the foundation and think about building a sustainable festival mostly through their mentorship and I’m very thankful for that and the resources they provide,” Spynda said.
Since 2018, NSR has collaborated with Pittonkatonk to run The Activist Greenhouse during the event, which is a community resources tent that connects people with social and environmental justice organizations. This year’s performers included May Day Marching Band, Casa San Jose, Afro Yaqui Music Collective, 1Hood Media, Sto-Rox Marching Band, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Hugo Cruz and Caminos.
Spynda said there were around 10,000 people at the event this year, based on the estimate from Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) after weighing the compost, recycling, and waste collected that day. Pittonkatonk and PCR have partnered since 2019 with the goal of making tonk a Zero Waste event. This year, Spynda said Pittonkatonk maintained an 83% diversion rate, meaning out of 827 pounds of trash, 274 pounds were composted and 370 pounds were recycled, and there were 40 pounds of reusable materials collected.
“The first couple years of the festival I had to rent a dumpster and hauling service to get rid of all the trash. It was a lot and hard to manage,” Spynda said. “Thanks to foundations like The Hillman Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, and support of New Sun Rising we are able to pay for this resource and make the event even more sustainable.”
The Millvale Music Festival also went Zero Waste this year by partnering with PRC as well as NSR, Triboro Ecodistrict, and ZeroFossil. Melissa Mason, MMF organizer, said 90% of waste being diverted from the landfill is needed to consider an event Zero Waste.
“Last year we did pretty decent and it was our second year [going Zero Waste] so we had some numbers to compare it to,” Mason said. “In 2021 we were at 58% diverted and this year we were at 76% so that was a nice jump and the big difference was that we had compostable cups in all of our outdoor bars.”
The festival manages five bars and they also provided compostable cups to Grist House Craft Brewery. Mason said it was great to have NSR and the Triboro Ecodistrict stepping up to sponsor the Zero Waste initiative alongside PRC and ZeroFossil, because it showed the community’s support for going green.
This was MMF’s fifth year with 350 musical acts, over 40 visual artists, a mobile “stage” by Redfishbowl, and two new stages were added: The Purple Onion at the Millvale Food + Energy Hub, 112 E. Sherman St., and Distinctly U, 419 E. Ohio St.
“I was at both The Purple Onion and Sprezzatura stages [in the Hub] and it was awesome,” Mason said. “I love the swanky jazz club atmosphere at Sprezzatura, and The Purple Onion kind of had this kind of speakeasy vibe. I hope we can start having more music there regularly.”