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“It was really a very insightful strategy that Mr. Carnegie developed,” says former Carnegie Museum of Art Director John Lane. Right, museum visitors review the 1900 International.

Since Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie International in 1896, the Museum of Art has organized 54 installations and companion catalogues of the best contemporary art from around the world.


What a different city Pittsburgh would be if Andrew Carnegie hadn’t lived here. Without his business acumen, his love of art, science, literature, and music, and his belief in education, we wouldn’t have our libraries, Carnegie-Mellon University, or a stately home for dinosaurs and Degas. And without his desire to create an art collection filled with “the old masters of tomorrow,” we wouldn’t have the Carnegie International, the prestigious survey of modern art that draws the world’s attention to Pittsburgh every few years.

Trying to quantify the International’s importance to Carnegie Museum of Art, the city of Pittsburgh, or the art world in general is just about impossible. But former curators, informed art lovers, and others have much to say about the ever-evolving exhibit, widely regarded among modern art cognoscenti as second in stature only to the Venice Biennale or Germany’s Documenta, both of which are curated and presented very differently than the International.

Former Carnegie Museum of Art Director John Lane, who oversaw the 1982 International and co-curated 1985’s version with the late John Caldwell, calls it Carnegie Museums’ single most significant contribution to culture in general. “The Carnegie International is Pittsburgh’s great cultural legacy,” says Lane, who left Carnegie Museum of Art to head the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and is now director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “It’s the one event in any of the arts that occurs in Pittsburgh that the whole world—at least, the visual arts world—pays serious attention to.”

Madeleine Grynsztejn, who organized the 1999 International as the Museum of Art’s curator of contemporary art, concurs. Both nationally and Internationally, she says, “It’s one of the most important indicators of our culture.

“The Carnegie International is always looked on as a kind of prescient compilation of the best art made anywhere,” says Grynsztejn, now senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “It’s used almost like a resource for the growth of collections and exhibitions elsewhere. If you made a study of the artists in the current International since they’ve been asked to be a part of the International, I guarantee their exhibition activity has increased.”

Lane says similar artistic surveys have come and gone, but the Carnegie International’s more than 100-year history shows both stability and commitment. Only one year younger than the Venice Biennale, it’s also got the venerability of age. “You know it will always be there and always be important,” he says. “The Carnegie International is not ephemeral.”

An endowment of its own, begun in 1980—unusual for specific exhibitions—further assures the International’s future.

“The Old Masters of Tomorrow”
When art aficionados discuss Andrew Carnegie, they often use the word “visionary.” Lane calls Carnegie’s foresight atypical for the development of an art museum. Carnegie saw the International not only as a means of presenting current artistic achievements to Pittsburgh audiences—as the salons were doing in Europe—but also as a way to bring significant contemporary art to Pittsburgh for possible addition to the Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

“It was really a very insightful strategy that Mr. Carnegie developed,” says Lane, “and he was not an art collector. I don’t even know that he was serious about art, not personally, but he was serious about providing opportunities and he was serious about developing cultural institutions for the city of Pittsburgh.”

Former Carnegie International Co-Curator Lynne Cooke, who, with Mark Francis, organized the 1991 International, thoroughly researched both its history and that of its founder, and studied “the philosophy of the whole institution.” “Carnegie didn’t want a ‘collection’—he wanted it to be vital and ever-changing, with an emphasis on vanguard art, on bringing things to Pittsburgh in a way that would be exciting for audiences,” she says. “When you look at the permanent collection of 20th-century art, you can feel how the Internationals have actually shaped Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection, shaped the institution.”

Lane says Carnegie also wanted to differentiate his institution from the growing art collections of other wealthy American businessmen, including his one-time partner, Henry Clay Frick. Most of those men were buying European old masters. Carnegie declared his museum would house a collection of “the old masters of tomorrow.”

According to Sam Berkovitz, owner of Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square, Pittsburgh, “The International is central to the Museum of Art’s identity. To me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see what’s current and what’s important in contemporary art. I feel like I’m cheating because it saves me countless months of travel.”

Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum, says the Carnegie International is really beneficial to smaller museums for the same reason. Many of them just don’t have the travel budgets to traverse the world in search of art. “This may not be as good as seeing what’s going on Tokyo,” he says, “but if you see a half-dozen good Japanese artists, at least it’s emblematic of what’s going on in Tokyo.”

Neutral Ground
Unlike Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival, which seems to have a controversy-arousing piece of art nearly every year, the International, according to Lane, historically has not been “flavored” by scandal—not even in the 1999-2000 exhibition, when the International showcased works by British artist Chris Ofili. Ofili’s work, which incorporates purified, dried elephant dung, incensed then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art earlier in 1999.

“I don’t think the exhibitions that were presented early on, when Carnegie was still alive, were in fact cutting edge,” Lane says. “I think they were very solid, but I think they were essentially conservative.”

A history of the International, titled International Encounters: The Carnegie International and Contemporary Art, 1896-1996, suggests that there were some early “scandals” regarding presentations of nudity, but on the whole it confirms Lane’s assessment. Not until the 1950s and early ’60s did the Internationals get involved with what Lane terms “advanced visual arts,” i.e., abstraction.

By all accounts, the International slipped in quality and importance in the ’70s and early ’80s, but since 1985, says Lane with a laugh, “It has been an exhibition about the leading edge, although perhaps not the bleeding edge.

“One of the particular virtues of having this show in Pittsburgh is that it isn’t a city that’s a lightning rod for cultural controversy,” he adds. “A lot of artists have historically enjoyed the invitation to show in Pittsburgh because it’s neutral ground. It isn’t like showing in one of the great art capitals of the western world. The environment is different. It’s not under the radar, because people are certainly cognizant of what happens there. It’s just that it’s not a blood sport in Pittsburgh.”

He notes Pittsburghers tend to be open-minded about art, a trait they may have cultivated over a century of Internationals. Instead of dismissing new, different, strange—and perhaps disturbing—work, they’re interested in learning first, then forming an opinion. The Andy Warhol Museum’s well-attended exhibitions, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, and new Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib, reinforce that theory.

Grynsztejn says the International’s success hinges on compelling, accessible material, but also on an audience “that is interested and curious and intelligent, not necessarily expert and empathetic.”

Western Pennsylvanians have always turned out for Internationals, whether they really “know” art or not. That’s a testament to the community’s appreciation for what Lane calls “this cultural endeavor and the pleasures and provocations that one experiences when coming to see it.”

Kilolo Luckett, a University of Pittsburgh graduate in art history who does “know” art, describes the International’s impact on the regional art community as multi-layered. Besides the opportunities it provides for art institutions, galleries, and individual artists to interact, she says, “The International brings fresh, cutting-edge, contemporary work that engages me on a visceral and intellectual level. It creates a ‘hyper’ synergy and awareness that pulsates and enlivens the city.”

Luckett was a curatorial assistant at the Wood Street Galleries and a publicist at Pittsburgh Filmmakers before joining Cool Space Locator, a non-profit real estate company. She loved the fact that the 1991 International involved other locations, including the Mattress Factory on the North Side, which was the site of four installations, and the fact that she could interact with the artists and art critics at various International-related events.

One North Side institution—The Andy Warhol Museum—might not be in Pittsburgh if not for the International, Lane suggests. He theorizes that the ’85 and ’88 Internationals proved Pittsburgh’s devotion to showing “the greatest works of our time” —including, in ’88, a series of Warhol’s self portraits.

Warhol studied art at Carnegie Museum of Art, he exhibited there, he was born in Pittsburgh. All these were factors in considering whether The Warhol would wind up in Pittsburgh. But Lane says the International proved to the Warhol Foundation and the Dia Center for the Arts, both of whom would decide where the museum would be located, that Carnegie Museum of Art was a peer institution and that the city took contemporary art seriously.

“It would be my sense that one of the legacies of Andrew Carnegie’s invention of this exhibition and the institution’s perpetuation of it over a century is that it made Pittsburgh a serious candidate for having this incredibly great, incredibly important one-person museum,” says Lane.

A Major Attraction
When discussing the International’s effect on Pittsburgh and its people, the tourism factor must be considered as well. The International does bring its share of visitors to the area.

Tinsy Lipchak, director of tourism and cultural heritage at the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, “People who are in the know about contemporary art come here specifically to see the International. It does have its place in the scene, and not just for high art/contemporary art aficionados, but for the average tourist who wants to see something cutting-edge.”

Those who visit for the first time are inevitably surprised by how many other attractions the city has to offer, she says. The hard-core International art community shows up to party —and to shop — during the opening weekend.

Says Grynsztejn, “The opening is not only very good-looking and filled with the latest fashions, it’s also filled with artistic bounty hunters. Every collector, every museum director, and every curator worth his or her salt is going to that opening on the lookout for things they can acquire because 2004 International Curator Laura Hoptman will have done this incredible groundwork on their behalf.”

Grynsztejn can’t say enough about the experience of overseeing an International.
“The International hones you, it hones your curatorial skills like very little else can,” she says. “Carnegie Museum of Art has acted as a sort of Harvard of the curatorial world. One of the things that I don’t think it’s touted for enough is that it trains the curatorial field and produces the best curatorial minds, who then go out and influence institutions nationwide.”

Each International opening is also an alumni gathering of sorts for former curators. “I look forward to it every time,” Grynsztejn says. “I look forward to it as a way of learning even now. It’s the best show in the country.

“Andrew Carnegie did the right thing.”


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Copyright (c) 2004 CARNEGIE magazine. All rights reserved.