Pittsburgh's Squonk Opera will play during the PIFA street festival this year

What if you hosted a world-class arts festival, and no one cared?

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that about the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, aka PIFA. But the city-wide collection of striking visual art and high-energy performances, which returns this spring for a third edition following events in 2011 and 2013, doesn’t yet get the notice it deserves.

Yes, there’s PIFA coverage in many local newspapers and magazines and TV, but ask a random city dweller — especially one of the thousands who’ve only recently moved here — and they’d likely have a hard time describing what makes the event internationally noteworthy. They might point to the street fair that takes over Broad for a day, or the installation in the Kimmel Center (an Eiffel Tower replica one year, a “Time Machine” sculpture the next). But world-class?

Absolutely, says PIFA artistic director Jay Wahl, who points out there’s really nothing else like it.

“A lot of big festivals focus on a particular art form, like jazz, film or dance,” he says, “or some cultural touchstone — pumpkins, cherry blossoms, Oktoberfest. Or they seek to engage a common audience with similar taste, like at Bonnaroo or Coachella.”

What makes PIFA special, he explains, is that the festival tries to appeal to a broad and diverse community via as many disciplines as possible. This year, there will be a fire show on Penn’s Landing, French musicians playing in city fountains, a Swedish circus performing in a maze of yarn and an Australian theater troupe inviting people through an interactive forest of cardboard trees.

“We have projects for 3-year-olds and teenagers and urban hipsters and retired folks. We’re doing projects with the Barnes and Penn Museum. We have local artists and international artists. I want PIFA to be for all of Philadelphia.”

Hidden in plain sight

French troupe Aquacoustique will make music in various fountains across the city

Wahl, 40, is no crusty outsider. Before the Kimmel Center came to him for help figuring out how to best use their $10 million Annenberg grant for the first PIFA, the UPenn grad had a cool claim to fame: He was a co-creator of Hidden City Philadelphia and the associated Hidden City Festival.

That project highlighted different under-explored, lesser-known spaces around Philly by hosting art shows and performances in them, things like a display of quilts inspired by the Underground Railroad hung in Mother Bethel AME church, and a film showing in the long-vacant Royal Theater. It was a hit, and Hidden City now gives regular tours of “forgotten” locations across the region.

With PIFA, Wahl wants to do the same kind of connecting of Philadelphians with their environment. Except instead of “hidden” spaces, he aims to get people thinking differently about places they pass by every day.

“When you’re sitting in the grass in the middle of Broad Street eating lunch with your friends or riding in a ferris wheel and looking down on City Hall, it helps you see the city in a whole new light,” he says. And yes, that really did happen during PIFA 2011, when a lawn was laid out in the middle of the street fair that took over the Avenue of the Arts, complete with a giant ferris wheel.

The grand finale street fair is what most people remember about PIFA, and it’s what organizers cite when asked about the festival’s draw — more than 200,000 people attended. Many were attracted by the group of musicians who played while hanging suspended 200 feet above the ground.

Downsizing for focus

Article 13's fire, water and sand installation will take over Penn's Landing to open the festival
Article 13’s fire, water and sand installation will take over Penn’s Landing to open the festival Credit: Courtesy of Article 13

A spectacle like that it’s not likely to be repeated. Although there’s still a finale street fair planned for this spring, it won’t be of the same scale — the whole festival has been downsized. In general, that’s probably a good thing.

In 2011, PIFA featured 31 commissions and 135 events over the course of 25 days. Even though a reported 40 percent of the $10 million budget went to marketing and advertising, that’s too long a timeframe and too busy a schedule for most people to realize everything fell under one giant PIFA umbrella.

In 2013, the budget was held to around half that, $5.6 million. This year, it will be around $4.5 million, and the festival has been streamlined to just 60 events over the course of 16 days. Much more reasonable, and easier to make cohesive.

“The tighter festival is really about bolder projects that are more tightly connected,” Wahl says. “We were able to focus and create a consistent experience collaging local artists and international artists with art forms you wouldn’t normally see during the calendar year.”

Unlike the Philly Fringe, in which just about any group can participate, PIFA is entirely curated. Each and every act is solicited and vetted by Wahl and his team. He spends months searching for interesting troupes and attending shows, trying to build a diverse slate built around a certain theme.

Farm to table to art

Paper Planet will construction and perform in an interactive forest of cardboard trees
Paper Planet will construction and perform in an interactive forest of cardboard trees Credit: Martin Reddy

The theme for 2016 is “Material Goods,” which Wahl explains came out of noticing trends in the city’s booming restaurant industry, like farm-to-table dining and the proliferation of raw materials (wood, glass, steel) in decor.

“More and more, we’re making deliberate choices about what goes into things,” he says. “We explore and talk about how the things we make and consume affect others and our environment. Who grew this? What chemicals were used to make that? What’s our responsibility to future generations?”

Wahl asked his artists to come up with shows that address these questions, but at the same time are fun and whimsical. Not a simple trick, but he’s confident they can pull it off, and also that if there’s anywhere to look at the big picture of modern society, it’s Philadelphia.

“Philly is now a World Heritage site, we hosted the pope, it really is an impressive place on a global scale,” he says. “The city has a long history of bold personal expression. Aspirationally, that’s what PIFA is trying to represent.”

PIFA 2016 runs April 8 through April 23, 2016. Find the full schedule and get tickets here.

Danya Henninger is a Philadelphia-based journalist who believes local news is essential for thriving communities, and that its format will continue to evolve. She spent six years overseeing both editorial...