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“If The Warhol were just about getting the most people in the world to see Warhol’s work, we shouldn’t be here.”
-Thomas Sokolowski

“I love the chance to be able to spin on a dime; and I love the chance to engage with communities and people who have never come here before.”
-Thomas Sokolowski

Who was the key figure in bringing Warhol’s collection to Pittsburgh?
I don’t think there was any one key figure, and I don’t think the collection came to Pittsburgh just because it was Warhol’s hometown. I do think it was a strategic moment when all things came together.
It was the fact that Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh had a system that could much more easily absorb a new entity, and that Senator Heinz, who was a visionary, really wanted it here. He felt somebody with an international reputation would help raise the stakes of the depleted steel city of the past.
The sub rosa catalyst may have been that there was a very famous collection of abstract expressionist pictures by G. David Thompson that came to Pittsburgh, and people didn’t take to him. Those pictures are now in major museums throughout the world, and I think that some of the more discerning natives decided that they couldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Which of Warhol’s values do you think The Andy Warhol Museum has been able to keep alive?
Warhol was totally entrepreneurial, exploited the media, and created art of every sort. We do the same. The idea of democratizing the art-viewing experience is Warhol’s, and so is the idea of hanging pictures differently. Warhol once made the comment that “museums should be more like department stores,” and we’ve taken that approach—offering more in-depth experiences juxtaposed with fast thrills!

What do you think Warhol would have thought about the museum?
Warhol wouldn’t have liked that the museum is in Pittsburgh. He would have wanted it to be a penthouse at the Met, because then it could be the biggest and the best right there on Fifth Avenue.

However, the idea of a working-class kid who reached high was very much a part of his cast and I think there are some things he would have liked about the place. He would have loved our website (but he would have done a more brilliant one because he was Andy Warhol). I think he would have liked some of the easy, more commercial things we’ve done. And in a funny kind of way, even though he wasn’t overtly political, he would have liked the idea of using art as a fulcrum to leverage change in society—that was what he was all about.

Do you think The Warhol has evolved the way its founders thought it would, or is this evolution largely your vision?
I don’t think anybody was necessarily thinking about how the museum would evolve when it first opened. I think they just wanted a Warhol Museum—kerplunk!
However, even before my time, the museum realized there wasn’t going to be enough to engage our local audiences, to make our earned income goals, etc. I think what I may have contributed to The Warhol’s evolution is the notion of the “Museum-Plus”—looking at museums in a less grand but more modern and directed way.

Do you think the audience in Pittsburgh is a good audience for The Warhol?
I think it is. When we did our strategic plan, one of the things we recognized is that we were this specific museum in this specific city. The museum would work on a whole different level if it were in a different city. If we were in New York we would probably have 750,000 visitors a year without doing anything, simply because of tourism, Warhol’s fame, and the art-going public. We’re never going to get that here.

If The Warhol were just about getting the most people in the world to see Warhol’s work, we shouldn’t be here. But seeing Andy Warhol’s works in the notion of a city that has transformed itself, just as Warhol did, is very interesting.

If you look at everything Warhol did, it was all about transformation. It was about making Campbell’s soup into art, about making going out at night to Studio 54 an artwork. And I think that was from someone who came from working class roots in a working class city.

I hope and expect that we’re playing the same role that Warhol played on a wider scale back in the 1960s. We’ve been transformative in the way that we deal with TV, and government, and products, and social issues, and communities. I think that’s where museums of all sorts should be going.

Do you find the word “museum” restricting?
Jessica Gogan, our assistant director for education, told me, “Tom, you’re right and you’re wrong . . . museums can be vital and exciting—it’s just that most museums are not. We don’t need to change the word, but redefine what it means.”

I think of museums as places where the Muses reside, not places where you just hang up their old tutus and worry if the lace is going stale. But I don’t think that’s the way that a lot of museums around the world view themselves. People largely look at museums today in 19th-century Germanic terms.

I think we really break the boundaries that way, unabashedly. At The Warhol we’re willing to do something like Without Sanctuary or the Kennedy exhibition, both of which are about American and world culture, which is now very much at the heart of what art making is all about.

We also see our Good Fridays programs and the political things we do as our meat and potatoes, but many people would say all we do is throw parties. The difference is that while we might have a party and use it to make money, at the same time, we’re doing the stuff that’s really important to us. We just don’t do it in the same old, boring, 19th-century way.

For example, if you say you’re going to do a wonderful exhibition on Etruscan Funerary urns and then give a party with whores wearing pasties where everyone dances the Mambo, that’s cheesy, and it’s not what we do. But if you say, sex played a seminal role in the way the Etruscans dealt with their culture that was very different from what the Greeks and Romans did, and you integrate that message in an archaeologically sound way into the exhibition, then you’re really getting a holistic look at the culture. That’s what we do that’s different.

Why was it important for you to build a culture around The Warhol?
I think it was important because, quite frankly, we needed more people to come and see the museum. If you’re selling steroids at the Olympics it’s a no-brainer. But if you’re selling steroids at a conference of philosophers, they better appeal to brain cells as well as to muscles.

It’s 2004 and Warhol died 17 years ago. Is his work getting to be old-fashioned at this point?
Not in the least. Because Warhol really understood how people thought, the role the media played in those thoughts, and had such a sense of style, his work is still very easy to absorb.

His early years were all about Pop to be sure, but when you get into the car crashes and the electric chair paintings, it was a whole different sensibility. Many of the Pop artists of the day—Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein—had a fun-fun-fun mentality. Warhol took a more sober, investigatory approach into everyday things that still appeals to audiences today.

What do you like most about your role?
I work with a smart, young staff that isn’t afraid of change. I love the chance to be able to spin on a dime; and I love to engage people who have never come here before.I would love to crack the religious community and show that we can engage in religion in a serious way, and still get away from the boring stereotypes.

I also enjoy interfacing with the city. I’m proud of the fact that one of the trustees said to me that I was probably one of the most visible people in the city who was not a politician or a sports figure. That’s important—not because it’s about Tom Sokolowski—but because it means an arts leader is thought of as being worthy to comment on issues such as the failure of the school system for example.

What are The Warhol’s plans for the next 10 years?
We’ve done surveys and the analysis tells us we’re doing some things well. I would like us to set up a curriculum for educators to instruct them how to teach art using Warhol as a model—but not the only model. We’re interested in selling the curriculum—philosophically and educationally—because the school systems aren’t doing it well. It’s about extending the museum outwards, and also about bringing people into the museum to do things in a different way.

We would like to turn the museum into a complete media-savvy center. Maybe we should merge with Filmmakers? I would also like to open a for-profit arm of the museum where we could design and market our products, whether literary or decorative. And, I’ll leave you with the idea that perhaps we should merge with Target. Andy really would have thought that was a great idea!

Is there any message about The Warhol that you want people to think about on this important 10th anniversary?
Keep on watching. You never know what we’ll do next.

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Copyright (c) 2003 CARNEGIE magazine. All rights reserved.