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In the 10 years since it opened on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, The Andy Warhol Museum has reenergized Warhol’s image throughout the United States and around the world. At the same time, The Warhol’s exhibitions, performance art series, and educational programs have broadened the scope of what a museum can—and some say should—be.
In Pittsburgh, despite a long debate about whether the museum belonged here, The Warhol has won many friends, influenced development on the North Shore, and broadened the city’s appeal to artists, young adults, and tourists alike.
Today, Andy Warhol and his museum prompt art critics, travel writers, government leaders, and art enthusiasts from Tokyo to Turtle Creek to say the same thing—The Warhol is innovative, provocative, transformative. It makes people think—about art and about life.











The Warhol’s preview party for its 2000 exhibition Possession Obsession pushed some envelopes and was ranked by many as one of the year’s best events. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Andy Warhol left Pittsburgh as soon as he graduated from college and never looked back. So when word spread about the city’s campaign to bring him home—so to speak—via a new museum, it was natural for cynics and skeptics to ask, “What for?” It was a legitimate question. And so was the answer. “Why not?”

Why shouldn’t Pittsburgh try to identify itself with one of the most important cultural figures in the 20th century? Why shouldn’t Pittsburghers get a tourist attraction that would put the city on the map for reasons other than steel and sports, and feed its economy as well? Local leaders would have been crazy not to grab an opportunity to embrace and celebrate Warhol’s link to Pittsburgh, and, if possible, give this conservative town a much-needed dose of hipness.

Today, The Andy Warhol Museum has won many converts. Some naysayers changed their tunes after friends, relatives, or business associates pressed them into service as museum tour guides. Even those who have never roamed among the museum’s seven concrete-poured stories seem to appreciate its importance. They actually brag about it to outsiders when listing what makes Pittsburgh—to borrow an old marketing phrase—someplace special.

In fact, now it’s hard to find a high-profile local resident who has anything negative to say about the museum. But Chris Potter, managing editor of the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, admits he was one of those early doubters. “I was writing about art in those days and I tended to think that Warhol actually was a sort of pernicious influence on art. An undeniable influence, but a pernicious one,” he recalls. “It’s obvious that he felt he was better off without the city and, to a large extent, the city returned the sentiment.”

Potter says he feared the new institution would be the museum equivalent of Warhol’s art: an ironic monument to consumerism and as superficial as the artist himself had sometimes described his work. Now, Potter says, “I’m very glad the museum is here. The staff does a better job of being Warhol than Warhol did.”

Broadening Minds, Attracting Business
Like Potter, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto also has a responsibility to look at the city’s assets and shortcomings with a clear eye. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no question about the museum’s status as one of the city’s most important institutions.

“ To me, The Warhol is the equivalent of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam,” he says. “In the minds of people in the U.S. and throughout the world, Pittsburgh has become a destination for art.”

No one has to tell that to Tinsy Lipchak, director of tourism and cultural heritage at the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, who says visitors leave Pittsburgh with a completely different attitude than they had when they arrived. “The Warhol helps change people’s perceptions of Pittsburgh as a dirty, smoky city,” she says. “It tells people that there is a contemporary art scene here.”

Both Lipchak and Peduto have observed growth in the number of artists choosing to stay in Pittsburgh, and they attribute that partly to the museum’s
presence. Says Peduto: “The Warhol offers a sense of hope for those young artists who know there is such a thing as urban chic in a town like Pittsburgh. It really gives them a sense of pride and identity like other people find with the Steelers.”

Andy Warhol Foundation President Joel Wachs, John and Paul Warhola, and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy preside over the Andy Warhol commemorative postage stamp in 2002. The Warhol Director Thomas Sokolowski with U.S. Senator Arlen Specter at the opening for the recent exhibition November 22, 1963: Images, Memory, Myth. Specter spoke at The Warhol about his experience as a young lawyer on the Warren Commission.
An outdoor party complete with hotdogs and badminton kicked off The Summer of Andy, a season-long celebration of the year of Andy Warhol’s 75th birthday. A local artist discusses her work at the opening of AMP at The Warhol, a showcase of Pittsburgh area visual artists presented in collaboration with the Sprout Fund.

The Warhol has also become a hub for Pittsburgh’s underground art cognoscenti, just as Warhol’s Factory in New York City provided an outlet for the avant-garde, untraditional set. “It’s The Warhol, so it’s cool,” Peduto says.

Cool quotient is a major concern in a city desperately trying to attract and retain a young professional crowd—an imperative if it expects to reverse population
losses, maintain its tax base, and lure new, job-producing businesses.

It certainly has generated development on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. As one of the first organizations to call the Allegheny River section of the North Shore home, The Warhol is a strong anchor to developers and is credited with being one of the pioneers in the rebirth of the entire area.

Bill Flanagan, chief communications officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, says one of the reasons Alcoa built its headquarters on the North Shore was to be close to The Warhol. In fact, he and Peduto are both convinced the city would not have one of its newer jewels—the Pirates’ PNC Park—if The Warhol were somewhere else.

Breaking Barriers, Creating Change
Creating opportunities for freedom of expression is another important aspect of The Warhol’s mission, and museum Director Thomas Sokolowski wins unanimous praise for turning that objective into reality.

One reason Warhol is considered such a pivotal figure in the art world and popular culture in general is because he busted the barriers between high and low art. And in the process of questioning established values, he redefined common notions of what art is all about.

Sokolowski’s fans say he performs a similar role for Pittsburgh. Using the mantle of respectability provided by the museum’s stature as an art institution, Sokolowski is able to follow Warhol’s example in searching for the cutting edge of art and society—and occasionally, jumping over that edge. Says Potter: “The tendency in Pittsburgh is, ‘Let’s put up some art that’s inoffensive that everybody can feel warm and fuzzy about.’ And what Tom’s saying is, ‘The only purpose of art isn’t to feel warm and fuzzy about it.’”

Potter describes Sokolowski as something of a gadfly, unafraid to offer his opinion—an important role “in a city not used to having gadflys.” Adds Peduto: “He’s created a debate not only around art, but also around cultural and political issues that had been missing.”

Sokolowski wins kudos for using an exhibition of Warhol’s electric chair series as an opportunity to generate discussion about controversial death penalty laws. An even more disturbing exhibition, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, was designed with the specific intent of providing a deeper awareness—and even provoking outrage—in order to stimulate dialogue and, ideally, greater understanding of the issue of race relations in this country.

That 2001 exhibition is regarded as a milestone in The Warhol’s history, not only for its bravery in presenting images and raising issues many museums would not have touched, but also because it provided a different perspective of a museum’s function in a community. To help the public tackle the unsettling emotions and complex issues triggered by the exhibition, The Warhol partnered with many groups outside of the museum. Forums, films, performances, video diaries, and a daily public dialogue also helped visitors work through, both alone and with others, the disturbing feelings caused by the photographs.

“People’s thought processes have to have changed after seeing that,” says the Urban League’s Lee Hipps of Without Sanctuary. Photo:Terry Clark

“ The lynching display did a great deal to give me a different feeling about the museum,” says Lee Hipps of the Urban League of Pittsburgh. “Having seen it gave me a greater appreciation for what my ancestors had to go through for us to be where we are today. People’s thought processes have to have changed after seeing that, and those sort of things are going to help us move forward.”
As Flanagan observes, “Isn’t that the role of a cultural institution—a good one—to shake things up?”

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