How the Andy Warhol Museum Lost Its Way

Art museums are ostensibly public spaces, but generally, they function in a private manner, like corporations, at least until the directors and their staff are safely retired. That’s my experience as an outsider. When Thomas Hoving, who was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1967 to 1977,  published his 2009 autobiography, I was astonished at his aggressively personal account. In the final chapter of the memoir he writes, “My heavily-cleverly disguised low self-regard manifested itself in my constant showing off, my addiction for publicity and my intolerable ‘me-me-me’ attitudes and actions.”

I doubt that any of his successors will publish such a personal, amazingly indiscreet account.  

I live and work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a good place for an art writer because of the local museum. The Carnegie Museum of Art is good enough to attract first-rate directors and curators — albeit with a high turnover rate — but small enough to be relatively accessible to a mere academic. Over 40 years, I have learned a great deal in informal ways about art museums by meeting some curators, reviewing shows at the Carnegie, writing catalogue essays, and participating in public debates organized by the museum.

The Andy Warhol Museum is one of the four museums of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, housed in a marvelous seven-floor refurbished building on the North Side of the city, within walking distance of downtown. The biggest single-artist museum in this country, it contains a large collection of Warhol’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures, as well as extensive archival materials. In some provincial American cities in the early 20th century, the newly rich devoted considerable attention to art collecting. Cleveland, Ohio, with its amazing old master museum, is a conspicuous example. In the late 1890s, Andrew Carnegie built a grand museum building in Pittsburgh and organized the Carnegie Internationals, the second such international survey exhibition to be established. He wasn’t interested in organizing a permanent collection, although after his passing his museum did somewhat belatedly collect Old Master and modernist art. Now the Carnegie hosts regular rotating shows, the internationals, and massive, influential survey exhibitions. Pittsburgh plays an important role in the history of the American art museum world. It’s the birthplace of the fortunes that made possible the National Gallery in Washington and the Frick Museum in New York. But the Carnegie, as large and important as it may be, is clearly not of the caliber of these institutions, at least when judged by the permanent collection.

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. When he suddenly died in 1987, aged just 58, there was no plan in place for his estate, which included a large selection of his artworks and the archives in his Manhattan townhouse. He went to college in Pittsburgh but then rarely returned after moving to New York. And so there was a real felt need here to memorialize the most famous artist of his generation in his hometown.

Opened in 1994, the Warhol Museum contains a useful permanent display of his major works, changing exhibits of some marginal Warhol ephemera, exhibitions by other artists, and his archives. When I was writing a book on Warhol, I benefitted from access to the film archives. (And I was involved in a failed project to write about the archives.) I have visited the Warhol often, and regularly reviewed its exhibitions. Because Warhol was so influential, this is the right site to exhibit some contemporary artists, among them Deborah Kass and Firelei Báez.

Thanks to generous local foundations, Pittsburgh can support a major opera company and a first-rate symphony. A single-artist museum is a harder sell, at least when that artist is Warhol. The Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris owns 1,300 paintings and 5,000 drawings of the 19th-century French artist. In regular, limited doses, his art is great fun. The problem with Warhol, by contrast, is that his art doesn’t lend itself to extended aesthetic contemplation. Once you’ve seen Brillo Boxes or his soup cans once, you’ve seen them enough. And while his archives are important, they aren’t yet organized in a way that supports scholarship. In Manhattan, there probably are enough graduate students and faculty in art history to support a major research institution devoted to Warhol. In Pittsburgh, there aren’t. And so, the very real question facing the Warhol in Pittsburgh was finding a role for such a museum. How might it be an appropriate monument for a great local artist?

Early on, after 1994, I imagined the Warhol Museum doing shows like, “Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg: Early Masterpieces” or “Warhol/Jeff Koons/Cady Nolan: Postmodern Pop Art.” Or — why not? — “Camille Pissarro/Chaim Soutine/Warhol: Three Urban Visions.” Such exhibitions would bring in a steady stream of numerous local and out-of-town visitors. But they would be expensive to organize. And while there’s nothing wrong with a museum with relatively small audiences, the Warhol hasn’t as yet defined a clear role for itself. If the Warhol legacy had been absorbed into the Carnegie, then just one gallery might have been devoted to his artworks. As it is, because the museum occupies a large building, the situation is more complicated.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that recently there have been some controversies in the press. Several staffers departed, the museum engaged in a controversial loan of works to an exhibition in Saudi Arabia, and most recently, Director Patrick Moore, who had ambitious plans for the museum, has stepped down. As I indicated in an opinion article for this publication about the loan to Saudi Arabia, I felt that art museums owe better accounting to their public. To the extent that the Warhol Museum, like any such establishment, depends upon our funding, it is a semi-public institution. That’s my naively optimistic belief. As someone who admires this museum and values the labors of its staff, I sincerely hope it ultimately finds its way.

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