Inaugural Pittsburgh Humanities Festival Wraps

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The festival concluded Sunday night with a talk by George Takei at the Byham Theater. And co-organizer Paul Organisak, of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, says the four-day program of presentations on scholarly and popular topics went "extremely well."

The line-up of about two dozen events, most at Downtown venues, drew about 750 attendees, according to the Trust. (That figure includes neither a festival performance event at The Andy Warhol Museum nor the Humanities Fest's VIA Festival music event in Lawrenceville.)
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Asked whether those numbers met expectations, Organisak replied today via email: "None of us knew what to expect going into this first Festival nor did we have expectations [about turnout]."

The festival's kickoff event last Thursday, featuring author Azar Nafisi, was booked at the Byham but drew only about 150 to the 1,300-seat venue. But as to the festival as a whole, wrote Organisak, "I was pleasantly surprised and gratified by the turn out."

About 120 people, for instance, attended Saturday's talk by famed independent filmmakers John Sayles and Maggie Renzi — well in excess of the 85-seat capacity of most festival events. Organisak said that "every session had a respectable attendance. And, hey, it was a very cold Saturday in March and people still came out!"

Organisak said he was also excited by the participation of National Endowment for the Humanities chairman William Adams, who introduced Nafisi.

The festival's tagline was "Smart Talk About Stuff That Matters." Topics ranged widely, from contemporary to historical.

At another of Saturday's events at the Trust Arts Education Center, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University professor of English Christopher Warren presented “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon," focusing on social networking in early modern England. Warren has analyzed vast quantities of data to establish how people were connected at the time, and introduced a digital humanities project that aims to depict social connections.

A play on the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” which theorizes that every major actor can be linked to Kevin Bacon within six steps, Warren’s website posits that knowing the network of individuals a person was involved with can give insight into his or her thoughts and positions on contemporary political events. At the same time, knowing whom those people weren’t connected to illustrates the limitations on social networking at that time.

“I had to know as much about … context as possible. Six Degree of Francis Bacon exists because I suspect others have had a similar experience,” Warren said in his lecture. Context, he asserted, is the key to understanding past events and people. “The reconstruction of historical networks can be a bulwark against historical amnesia.”

One attendee at Warren's talk, Carol Goldburg, told CP: “It was very exciting to see the humanities presented to the larger public, not just the academic community. I’m very excited to see the humanities celebrated."

“It was a great turn out," Goldburg added. "I would hope that the festival comes back next year and that we see some younger Pittsburghers attend.”

For Organisak, it's too soon to know what's next for the fledgling Pittsburgh Humanities Festival. "Our next step is to take a breath, do an internal review of how it [went], gather feedback via a survey of attendees and then think about the future," he wrote.

Bill O'Driscoll contributed to this report.

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