Individual Special Events: University of Pittsburgh - Gold Medal

Category 7A: Individual Special Events
University of Pittsburgh – Three Rivers Youth 125th Anniversary Exhibition and Opening Event

Contact: Robert Hill, vice chancellor, public affairs, 400 Craig Hall, 200 S. Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260, Phone: (412) 624-8891, e-mail:

Research: Three Rivers Youth (TRY)—a Pittsburgh nonprofit agency devoted to the development and wellbeing of abused, neglected, runaway, and homeless youth—celebrated its 125th anniversary with a gala fundraising event in April 2005. TRY’s origins—dating to 1880—brought together the privileged (Caucasians) of Pittsburgh with the least privileged (“coloreds”) in a remarkable forerunner of today’s Pittsburgh philanthropy. TRY hoped to use that gala event as an opportunity to increase awareness about its organization.

A community partner of the University of Pittsburgh, TRY approached the University of Pittsburgh Office of Public Affairs after the gala to see if the university would publish its 125-year history as a community service. Pitt’s reputation for high-quality publications—and its previous fulfillment of its community partnership mission—led TRY to believe it would be mutually beneficial to have the University publish its history and we agreed wholeheartedly. In sorting through TRY’s archives, we discovered a treasure trove of artifacts, documents, and memorabilia that was truly worthy of a museum exhibition, so the anniversary history project was expanded to do justice to the material in front of us.

Planning: This Pitt project began in late 2005 with editing of the history for the history publication and expanded to include the museum exhibition to help celebrate Black History Month (February 2006). The Pitt planning team was led by Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs, who created the name for the project (From Colored Orphans to Youth Development); and included the creative director, associate director of publications and marketing, and other public affairs staff. Throughout the project, we worked closely with TRY’s CEO and TRY staff.

The objectives of the anniversary project—including the exhibition and opening event—were:

  • Create an increased awareness of the history and the current contributions of Three Rivers Youth to the people of Western Pennsylvania.
  • Establish an authoritative and accurate account of a worthy, but previously unrecorded, chapter in Pittsburgh’s philanthropic and social history.
  • Pay tribute to a partnership that has existed on several levels between the University and TRY.
  • Help Three Rivers Youth reconnect with its alumni.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate Black History Month (Feb. 2006) in a profound and lasting way.

The exhibition’s creative direction concept needed to tell the story from 1880 through today, bringing the visitor into the world of TRY’s 125-year history—in an effort to compel them to become more familiar with its history and mission; and to drive them toward supporting TRY by spreading the word, by donating time or money, and by purchasing the history book that Pitt produced in conjunction with the exhibition and related grand opening event.

The exhibition’s message and thematic approach was to give the visitor a sense of the deep-rooted history of Three Rivers Youth; and to provide the visitor with real-life accounts of how the story began, how it evolved, and how it thrives today.

Intended audiences included the media, community and governmental leaders, TRY alumni (past residents), current and potential donors, and the general public. In Pittsburgh, as in other cities, there are many worthy nonprofit organizations in the community and it is extremely difficult to obtain positive media coverage for their efforts.

Execution: This one-of-a-kind multimedia project included significant editing and fact-checking of history copy provided by TRY; design and production of the 60-page anniversary publication; planning, design, and production of the exhibition at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center (in conjunction with Black History Month); production of a video to include as part of the exhibition; writing, design, and printing of an exhibition promotional brochure; and writing, design, and production of invitations for the chancellor’s reception to launch the exhibition.

All of the above—which had to be completed by the February 1, 2006, chancellor’s exhibition opening event reception—were developed as a coordinated package with common themes in content and design. With an almost symphonic synchronization, we produced the publication, sent the invitations, and perfected the exhibition’s structure, positioning, accuracy, lighting, sound, video, copy, and featured imagery in time for the exhibition’s grand opening. We also searched for, located, and secured unique, vintage items that were incorporated into the exhibition’s display cases to enhance Three Rivers Youth’s stories. Other artifacts were displayed on the floor, i.e., vintage flag, flagpole base, replica swing set. To preserve the exhibition’s impact for posterity, we also produced a DVD narrated by renowned university history professor (and chief advisor for the TRY publication) Laurence Glasco.

Community influentials and TRY associates were invited to the February 1 grand opening event, hosted by Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill. Pitt’s Office of Special Events coordinated the event details. Held in the History Center’s elegant Mueller Ballroom, adjacent to the exhibition space, the museum’s entire fifth floor was turned into an elegant venue with industrial city flair. Hors d’oeuvres were creatively served on marble slabs and glass block; party tables were smartly dressed in TRY colors, with Jeopardy-style questions on table tents (answers were in the exhibition). Specialty signage was strategically positioned inside and outside the building. Each attendee received a copy of the history publication as a keepsake. (The history publication was also available for purchase in the History Center’s Museum Shop during the exhibition and through Three Rivers Youth.)

Regardless of extreme challenges—including extremely short development time, poor condition and disorganization of images and artifacts, ability to accurately depict and narrate the history, sifting through thousands of photos, slides, films, videos, books, papers…creating hundreds of scans and rounds of proof approvals in developing display materials—the exhibition was concepted, developed, finished, and refined in record time (5 weeks).

Interim budget targets were set, with a targeted budget of $200,000. The final anniversary project cost of $195,600 covered: 2,000 history books; the exhibition at the Heinz History Center, Jan. 28-March 5; 3,250 exhibition promotional brochures; 5,400 opening event invitation packages; and two videos. The Pitt production team contributed more than 1,300 hours to this project.

Evaluation/Results: Through this extraordinary effort to have the exhibition completed and ready for public and grand opening dates, the client benefited from generation of greater awareness of the organization, as well as the preservation of historical artifacts—which are now being permanently preserved for Three Rivers Youth by the History Center in their special collections archives.

The outstanding results of the exhibition, the opening event, and the entire anniversary project overwhelmingly confirm an increased awareness of Three Rivers Youth.

  • Peggy Harris, chief executive officer of Three Rivers Youth, said at a July 2006 luncheon wrapping up the project, “Pitt’s involvement got us on the map by giving our anniversary credibility. This project and its results are an extraordinary gift that we can not begin to put a dollar value on.” She added, “Where we were once quietly doing our work on the North Side, people now tell us we are doing an incredible job. This had led to tremendous respect for Three Rivers Youth.”
  • The publication and the exhibition garnered extensive—and extremely positive—media coverage, which included major stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Courier, an opinion piece in the PG, and an editorial in the PG. Peggie Harris also noted that she was interviewed on all the major television and radio stations. KDKA-TV (a CBS affiliate) coverage included a walk through the exhibition. On one local radio show, former clients called in “and reconnected to TRY” according to Harris. Pitt publications also reported on the book and exhibition.
  • The History Center reported that more than 7,300 visitors experienced the exhibition during the 37 days it was open. That averages nearly 200 per day. TRY staff report that they heard from many former residents who attended the exhibition.
  • The exhibition grand opening reception, held on the first day of Black History Month, was an unforgettable event, and our client benefited not only from a raised awareness of her organization, but also from the preservation of the featured historical artifacts. The event drew many influentials from the community and was featured in the social sections of the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review.

    • “I was reminded at your event the other night, just how much these partnerships benefit the History Center and how they really further the work we do and advance our mission. Congratulations to you. I appreciate the work that goes into an exhibition and can tell the many hours that were spent creating an exhibition that tells a story, but also makes a very personal, emotive connection with people. You should feel really proud! It was a pleasure working with such a creative, competent team.” —Anne Madarasz, Director of Exhibitions at the Heinz History Center
    • “This is probably arriving among many other notes on the success of the Three Rivers Youth exhibition. I just got off the phone with Robert [Hill], asking him if it might be permanently installed. It should be. That being said, I was thrilled to be part of the effort. Your vision for projects is outstanding and it validates what I’ve felt, that such vision belongs to only a few. Robert stretches us and you answer that passion for greatness." —Graham Park, Director of Special Events at Pitt
    • “I just wanted to write to you and tell you how wonderful everything was last night. The program, atmosphere, and the exhibition were just so impressive. I know how much work you put into this event and exhibition. I hope you are very proud of yourself as we’ve heard nothing but rave reviews. It is all thanks to you and your staff. It was a pleasure and honor for me to be involved with this event.” —Jason Morrill, Associate Director of Special Events at Pitt
  • The accompanying history book raised awareness for Three Rivers Youth even as it recorded previously unwritten history. The carefully fact-checked publication documents the different eras of Three Rivers Youth, beginning with its charitable roots in 19th-century Pittsburgh’s North Side, following it through the Civil Rights Movement, and concluding with the networked 21st-century youth agency that Three Rivers Youth has become.

    • Following the book publication, many letters and e-mails were received by both Three Rivers Youth and Pitt, including the following: “I recently received a copy of From Colored Orphans to Youth Development. I have read every word of it; it is, perhaps, the best written publication of this type that I have ever seen.”—Maurice Cohill, former Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court and former board president of Three Rivers Youth
    • “This book has generated discussion and dialogue,” said Harris. One foundation contacted her after receiving a copy to meet with her to find out more about TRY and its needs for financial support.

    • The History Center sold 20 copies of the book and additional copies have been sold by TRY. One church has 20 on consignment, as does a local bookstore.
    • After reading about the book on the TRY Web site, a former resident of the Termon Avenue Home and now a writer/evangelist in California contacted TRY. “TRY saved my life,” she said. She ordered books and later sent in a donation of $100. “I hope this will be just one of many more to come,” she wrote.
  • The Glasco exhibition tour DVD is being used to educate TRY stakeholders including the media, community and governmental leaders, TRY alumni (past residents), current TRY clients, current and potential donors, and the general public.
  • The CEO reports the exhibition DVD has been a valuable tool in promoting her organization, including in meetings with foundations and potential donors.
  • Recently CASE District II presented Gold Accolades Awards for the entire project and the history publication and a Silver Accolades Award for the publication cover. In other communications competitions, the exhibition received the 2006 IABC/Pittsburgh Golden Triangle Awards Best in Show, an IABC/Pittsburgh Award of Excellence for Signage, Exhibit, or Display, and a MarCom Creative Platinum Award for Design; the exhibition and opening event received a PRSA/Pittsburgh Renaissance (top) Award for Special Event; the opening event invitation package received an Award of Honor from IABC/Pittsburgh for Other Graphic Design; and the history publication received a 2006 Award of Excellence for Design from The Communicator Awards, a PRSA/Pittsburgh Renaissance Award for Creative Tactic, a MarCom Creative Honorable Mention Award for Design, and Awards of Honor from IABC/Pittsburgh for Special Publication, Publication Design, and Book and Magazine Cover Design. The exhibition tour DVD also received a Merit Award for Electronic Media from PRSA/Pittsburgh.