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“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
Inspired by its namesake to think big, The Andy Warhol Museum is embarking on an ambitious 10-year development project designed to transform Pittsburgh’s eastern North Shore neighborhood into a cultural and economic force to be reckoned with.
Officially dubbed The Pop District, the six-block area adjacent to the museum will feature public art and gathering spaces, as well as workforce development programs that will serve as catalysts for real job creation.
Paying tribute to the art icon who was a pioneer in the Pop Art movement, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and whose (nearby) final resting place is livestreamed 24/7 in his namesake’s lobby, the idea of The Pop District is also an evocation of Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory.
Back in its heyday, the Factory was the center of New York City’s creative universe, and the goals for The Pop District are nothing less than groundbreaking.
“Warhol was industrious and ambitious,” says Museum Director Patrick Moore. “He saw the idea of working as central to his life and his art practice, and so the idea of creating job opportunities for young people makes a lot of sense in the context of a museum focused on Andy Warhol.
“We know we will always attract international tourists,” he adds. “But we want to make sure we’re relevant to the needs of our community. We have to be outward-facing.”
Time hasn’t been particularly kind to the North Shore. Although anchored by two iconic venues—The Warhol Museum and PNC Park—the community has seen its share of restaurants come and go and buildings fall into disrepair.
Bringing The Pop District to life doesn’t come cheap. The estimated price tag stands at $60 million. Fortunately, two stalwart institutions—the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation—have committed $15 and $10 million, respectively.
“We’re seeking to move the region forward by revitalizing a part of the community that hasn’t seen the same level of investment as other areas, and by preparing the next generation to participate in the digital economy,” says R.K. Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman.
“It’s The Warhol Museum’s bold vision that has allowed us to make this commitment.”
That vision is already starting to come into focus as several commissioned pieces, including a vibrant mural by Miami-based artist Typoe and an exterior installation of colorful banners by Michael Loveland (also of Miami), are enlivening the neighborhood. The next two projects, by local artists, will be announced soon.
Plans are also in the works to relocate some of the museum’s art education activities from the museum’s underground studio to street level in the North Shore Garage on General Robinson Street. The expectation is that this higher-profile location will infuse the area with energy and provide a space where people can learn the tools of the artistic trade, like the silkscreen printing technique Andy Warhol used in the making of his celebrity portraits.
“Right now, there’s not a whole lot for the ballpark crowd to do in the neighborhood other than walk to the stadiums” says Dan Law, The Warhol’s associate vice president of capital projects and major gifts. “We want to generate more interest and provide more attractions so that we can count on 50,000 to 100,000 additional visitors each year.”
One of the main attractions of The Pop District will be a new concert and event venue on the site presently known as Parking Lot Blue Seven J (the lot diagonally opposite the museum). Slated for a 2024 groundbreaking, the building will feature an 800- to 1,000-seat concert hall, a flex floor, and a rooftop event space available for rentals. The Warhol’s long-running Sound Series will continue to operate primarily out of the museum.
“Not only are performers leapfrogging over Pittsburgh because we don’t have that small, state-of-the-art space that Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Cleveland have,” Moore says, “but the museum is also turning away almost 300 higher-capacity rental requests a year.”
These lost bookings affect the bottom line in a very real way. As a result, The Warhol is looking to the new facility as an ongoing source of revenue and a real catalyst for change.
“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
That The Warhol has a TikTok account is no big deal. That it’s run exclusively by Gen Zs—digital natives born between 1997 and 2012—serves as a real-life example of the museum’s commitment to developing jobs. Specifically, jobs in creative fields and jobs for younger, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), LGBTQ+, and immigrant populations.
Moore says this attention to job creation is what distinguishes The Pop District from other culturally driven endeavors around the country. “I don’t believe there is another museum in America which has started a workforce development program in this intentional way, especially one focusing on digital media production,” the museum director notes. “Obviously, many museums have been involved in public art and many museums want to build their endowments, but the thing that is truly unique to The Warhol is this component.”
“What we’re doing with The Pop District is rewiring the museum’s operating system,” says Anneliese Martinez, senior director of The Pop District. “Our aim is for the museum to function like a small business, a gig dispatcher, a school, an arts-creativity-and-entertainment neighborhood. It’s ultimately about living up to what a museum’s highest potential can be. And what’s great is that The Pop District has in its DNA the museum’s key mission, which is to uphold the legacy of Andy Warhol.”
To date, The Warhol and its workforce partners, marketing agencies Built Different and Look Creative, have created 90 full-time, part-time and gig jobs, as well as paid internships. Going forward, The Pop District is putting into motion a four-part strategy.
Part One: Start a marketing firm. Together with Built Different, a firm already committed to hiring high school and college students, the museum has essentially entered the brave new world of advertising, public relations, and branding. To date, the collaboration has netted two clients, The Warhol and Dell Technologies, and has provided job opportunities for talented Gen Zs like 23-year-old Aaliyah Lewis and 18-year-old Ezra Jones.
A recent graduate of California University of Pennsylvania, Lewis is a full-time brand manager with Built Different while Jones, a student at SciTech (Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy), is a part-time Warhol employee.
Although the two are fluent in the language of TikTok and Instagram Reels, they still must do their homework. For Lewis, that means reviewing the algorithms, identifying trends, posting new content two to three times a day, and shooting fresh video once a week to keep up with the posting schedule.
“We try to make it educational and entertaining,” Lewis says. “Our audience ranges from teenagers to 30-year-olds, so we want to teach them about Andy Warhol, answer questions, and show different pieces within the museum.”
Part Two: Encourage personal expression. Part of the art studio’s mission is to provide young women of color the digital know-how—Adobe Creative Suite—and the creative can-do skills— by way of printmaking—to speak to things that matter most to them.
“What I like about these educational programs, including our two main ones, RUST [Radical Urban Silkscreening Team] and Power Up, is that we don’t tell people what we think is important,” Moore says. “They define the issues— for example, food scarcity and food deserts—and then they make art in response to those issues.”
Part Three: Teach the fun stuff. Pennsylvania Department of Education-approved, The Warhol’s Digital Marketing Specialist Certificate program will offer a six-month course in production, editing, and other skills, beginning later in 2022.
Part Four: Teach the business stuff, too. The Creative Entrepreneurship Lab will concentrate on the business of running a creative business, including billing and taxes.
“Our metric for success,” Law says, “is to matriculate at least 100 people through our workforce programs every year. The great thing is we’re already meeting that goal in this pilot phase.”
“The idea is not to live forever; it is to create something that will.”
Even though I cross the Andy Warhol Bridge every day,” Ezra Jones says, “I had no idea who Andy Warhol was.”
But he quickly discovered that the topics trending on TikTok—arts, culture, celebrity—are the same themes reflected in Warhol’s art and life, in the popular new Netflix series The Andy Warhol Dairies, and in new Broadway productions The Trial of Andy Warhol and Chasing Andy Warhol.
“The Andy Warhol Museum belongs to young people like Ezra Jones; it’s in their backyard,” Martinez says. “They’re equal partners in this endeavor.”
Warhol’s appeal to a new generation is fitting, given his history of working with younger artists.
“If you look at the end of Andy Warhol’s life,” Moore says, “he made these friendships and partnerships with much younger artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Francesco Clemente; he counted on their energy to keep his practice lively and relevant.
“So, for him to see a 17-year-old speaking authoritatively about his work to hundreds of thousands of people via social media, I think, would have made him crazy with glee.”
But Warhol’s early life in Pittsburgh was anything but gleeful. The son of immigrants, Andy Warhola grew up during the Great Depression. His family struggled to survive financially, and he struggled to overcome a serious childhood illness.
When he left Pittsburgh in the late 1940s to pursue his dreams in New York, he never looked back. When he returned to his hometown it was to be buried next to his mother and father at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Bethel Park.
According to Law, The Pop District is about flipping that script. “Pittsburgh has had its industrial revolution and its software revolution, now it’s time for a human revolution.”
In the 21st century that means giving people the skills to harness technology while also making sure they’re getting paid to unleash their creativity.
Frankly, that’s the reality Warhol manufactured for himself.
“At the end of the day,” Moore says, “Andy’s Silver Factory was about making art and making money. In a sense, that’s what we’re doing with The Pop District. We’re looking to provide revenue opportunities for young people.
“But we also want to make sure we’re doing it in a sustainable way. We want to make our endowment more robust so that these programs and the museum itself are here for the long run.”
From Reiman’s perspective, the true measure of The Pop District’s success will be found in the individual success stories yet to be written.
“The end goal,” he says, “is to make sure that the next Andy Warhol doesn’t have to leave Pittsburgh to become Andy Warhol.”
The Pop District is generously supported by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. Additional support comes from Dell Technologies, the official technology partner of The Pop District.
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