Visitors at the 2004-5 Carnegie International. Photo: Tom Altany
They call themselves, simply, “Friends,” and they’re united in their belief in the universality of contemporary art and the far-reaching appeal of one of its first great forums: the Carnegie International.
By Julie Hannon
It brings the Big Apple to Pittsburgh, and as anyone in the contemporary art world will tell you, that’s a big deal. Add San Francisco, London, Basel, and Toronto to the mix, and the international flavor of the Carnegie International refers to more than its art.
It’s not just the audience who comes from far and wide. Financial support, thanks in large part to the Friends of the International, does, too. Created prior to the 2004-5 exhibition, Friends is a cadre of faithful museum patrons and contemporary art lovers across the country and the world who unite to support and promote the exhibition, in Pittsburgh and in their respective backyards.
“People assume I live in Pittsburgh because I’m so involved,” says Jill Kraus, a New Yorker. “The reality is there are a lot of really wonderful things happening in art in Pittsburgh, and the International is a big part of that.”
For Kraus, an avid contemporary art collector, it all started in Pittsburgh. As a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, her world changed when she visited the 1970 International.
“If it weren’t for the International, I probably wouldn’t be a collector today,” says Kraus, now a Carnegie Mellon trustee. “I had never seen contemporary art before, and I was an art major. The International was my first exposure to what was going on.”
It’s this kind of passion, coupled with support from museum staff, that has helped grow the group’s membership from about 50 to more than 80 members since the last Carnegie International. And Richard Armstrong, the museum’s Henry J. Heinz II director, remains positive more will follow.
“They’re informed people, so they’re part of the ongoing dialogue,” says Armstrong. “They’re also good allies all over the world because they act as ambassadors for the exhibition, the museum, the city.”
In fact, only about 30 Friends live in Western Pennsylvania; another 40 or so make their homes in or around New York City or California, one hails from Mexico, several are from Europe, and the remaining stretch across the United States in places like Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Wayzata, Minnesota; and Dallas, Texas.
“Nothing contributes to the vitality and prominence of Carnegie Museums throughout the world like the Carnegie International,” says Milton Fine, Carnegie Museums Trustee Emeritus and co-chair of the Friends group along with wife Sheila, Kraus and husband Peter, and Maja Oeri and Hans Bodenmann of Basel, Switzerland.
“It establishes Pittsburgh as an important player in world culture, and it permits us to raise funds in far off places,” Fine adds.
With donations of $10,000 or more per person or couple, to date the Friends have contributed $555,000 for previous Carnegie Internationals plus $565,000 in additional gifts for the 2008 exhibition, for a total that exceeds $1 million. It costs about $3.5 million to put on each exhibition.
“The Friends understand the power of investing in the International. It’s been the yeast from which the museum has grown since 1896,” says Armstrong. “It has had a profound effect on the collection and on the audience’s perception of what contemporary art is, all the way back to the beginning—for better and for worse, because some moments have not been as good as others.
“But since the mid-1980s, it’s been one successful exhibition after the other,” Armstrong continues. “And if you look around in our galleries and compare what’s now in the collection against what other regional art museums might have, the museum’s holdings have no peers.”
It’s this incredible contribution—to both the museum and the city—that inspired Fine and his wife Sheila to contribute, through the Fine Foundation, a $5 million gift in support of the long-term success of the Carnegie International, including the upcoming 55th installation. The largest gift ever earmarked for the International, it will also provide for the creation of the Fine Prize, to be awarded to an emerging artist from each Carnegie International.
“It is my hope that with this gift by The Fine Foundation, we will help to augment the commitment of Pittsburgh to the pivotal role of this exhibition, and thereby promote its future viability and durability,” says Fine.
Kraus, who with husband Peter has committed another $1.5 million to help endow the International, says they’re proud to play a role in its continued success. And both contend that they, also, benefit from their association with the museum through Friends.
The group of like-minded art lovers meets every four or five months, generally around other art events—sometimes in Europe, other times in Pittsburgh, for dinners and exclusive meetings with past and present International curators.
“Some of the best curators in the world have curated the Carnegie International,” notes Kraus. “That’s a remarkable thing.”
As Armstrong puts it, imagine having the World Series in your backyard every three years.
“The International is the World Series of Art. And it’s happening here in May 2008.”