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The Warhol museum opens this month

At 83,000 square feet it is bigger than the Whitney

New York

Andy Warhol called his centre of operations in New York The Factory. On 13 May, the Andy Warhol Museum, commemorating the artist’s career, opens in a renovated industrial building in Pittsburgh.

The Warhol Museum houses a collection of some 300 works by Warhol, plus the vast “archive” of papers, notes and other materials collected by the man who recorded his opinion of almost everyone he saw and the price of everything he bought. In the burgeoning US museum landscape, it is the largest institution devoted to the work of a single artist.

The museum is part of the Carnegie Institute. Its collections come from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. and the Dia Centre for the Arts.

Siting a repository of Warholiana in Pittsburgh, however, might seem odd. But Warhol was born to Slovak immigrant parents named Warhola not far from Pittsburgh, and he grew up in the city. It was there that he developed his earliest interest in art, says the museum’s director, Tom Armstrong, “the years in which he decided to become an artist were in Pittsburgh”.

Last year, when the museum’s administrative and fundraising chores turned out to be larger than expected, Armstrong (most recently the embattled director of the Whitney) replaced Mark Francis, an Englishman who remains the museum’s chief curator.

Five hundred works will be shown in the opening installation, with visitors entering the galleries through a ground-floor bridge in deep indigo. The floors will be organised thematically. Not surprisingly, the top floor offers objects associated with Fame, Fortune and Fashion.

Like virtually every US museum, the Warhol Museum will have an education department to bring its mission to the young. This generic feature seems unusual, however, given the legacy of a man who directed the film “Blowjob”, celebrated car crashes and electric chair executions, and surrounded himself with transvestites and junkies. No contradiction at all, protests Tom Armstrong. Warhol learned to draw at Saturday art classes in Pittsburgh. Education for school children at the Warhol Museum will continue in that tradition, he maintains.

For more than a year, the Andy Warhol Foundation, the museum’s parent and largest benefactor, has been battling with its former lawyer over the size of his fee for settling Warhol’s estate after the artist’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 1987. Now that costly fight has turned into a debate of appraisals. The Foundation’s figures (via Christie’s) value the estate of Andy Warhol at $220 million, while others put that valuation at some $600 million. None of the protracted lawsuits involving the foundation has affected the museum schedule or its projected operations, Armstrong insists. “We’re very much separate from the Foundation, other than the fact that the collections of the estate have come through the Foundation to us. The Foundation received the collections of the estate and then what was given to the museum came out of the Foundation”.

In a market oversaturated with Warhols, the museum will not be a buyer. What the museum does acquire, it hopes to receive through gifts, Armstrong says. “As time goes on, we’ll identify works in private hands, and attempt to convince their owners that they belong in the Andy Warhol Museum. But we’re not going to auction. We have no funds for that”. So far, he admits, no major works have come to the museum as a result of gifts from dealers or collectors.

Not all the works in the museum’s planned exhibitions will be Warhols. The museum will host an extensive loan exhibition once a year, and several smaller ones, where works by other artists will be shown. Attendance is expected to reach 200,000 visitors a year, an ambitious figure for a museum in Pittsburgh, since the one-time US steel capital appears on few tourist itineraries.

Loans from the Warhol Museum also figure in Armstrong’s plans—and should help boost the museum’s revenues. A retrospective of some 150 works will travel to three museums in Japan in 1996.

Funding for the conversion of the museum’s building included a budget to operate the institution until June of this year. Armstrong’s job is to raise an endowment to operate it “in perpetuity”, a term that might have amused the museum’s namesake, a man who understood the ephemeral nature of fashion. Armstrong’s mandate is to raise $20 million, and he says his own goal is to bring $34 million into the museum’s coffers. So far, Armstrong says, he has received promises of gifts amounting to $2 million.

“Death means a lot of money, honey”, was one of Warhol’s many mantras, but the museum opens as Warhol’s reputation has plummeted. Last spring, almost none of the paintings consigned at Christie’s by the Warhol protégé and business adviser, Fred Hughes, were sold. Dealers now report that the Warhol Estate is unloading works to museums at half-price. In court, the Warhol Foundation defended its low appraisal of the value of the works it owns by doubting the longevity of Warhol’s appeal. The dealer Andre Emmerich echoed those sentiments in court on the Foundation’s behalf.

If Tom Armstrong shares any of those doubts, he’s not expressing them. “I’m confident of Andy’s place in history, in the pop art movement, in the development of filmmaking, in the history of journalism, as an author, as a graphic artist. You simply can’t dismiss his accomplishments”, he argued. “What happens in the marketplace doesn’t disturb his historical importance”.

A new movie may help revive the publicity that Warhol would have coveted. Currently making the rounds among the producers is the script “I Shot Andy Warhol” by Mary Harron, about Valerie Solanis, who almost killed Warhol in 1968 in the name of her one-woman feminist organization S.C.U.M., the Society for Cutting Up Men.

Correction

In our May report on the opening of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, a technical slip led to our publishing that it contained 300 works in the permanent collection, when the true number is 3,000. Our apologies to the director Thomas N. Armstrong.