Somewhere, in a silkscreen studio far away, Andy Warhol's vibrant spirit is laughing gleefully over the large crowds his Pop art attracted on its recent Asian tour and the high prices it commands. Although he died in 1987, fascination with the Pittsburgh native's life, times and work shines as brightly as the disco balls at Studio 54, one of his favorite haunts in New York City.
"I think he's laughing and smiling intermittently," said Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum. "Andy was so careful about the way he constructed his artwork, his identity and his persona. He created the brand Andy Warhol."
On Wednesday, a piece of that brand, a Warhol silkscreen of the Last Supper, is expected to fetch at least $8.7 million at an auction in Sweden.
On Saturday, the North Side museum that interprets his life and work will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a sold-out black-tie gala for 650 people. Collectors, donors and people who worked with the shy superstar will dine, dance and dish, then view the recently rehung collection. The chronological exhibition is designed to show Warhol's richly textured approach to drawing, painting, silkscreening, sculpture and filmmaking. It also includes some of the more than 600 time capsules he created.
Tourism officials and others say the quirky museum, part of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, has increased the city's hipness factor, helped attract conventions and put Pittsburgh on the world's cultural map. More than 1.56 million visitors have included first lady Michelle Obama, the Flying Elvises and the Rolling Stones.
Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Pittsburgh, counts the Warhol museum and Fallingwater as its biggest attractions when he pitches the city to 250 convention organizers each year.
"We invariably take them to The Warhol if they have a need for an off-site reception. It's a very atypical museum," he said.
The museum's founding began in summer 1988 with a single phone call, which is fitting because the artist loved chatting on the phone. In 1988, Charles B. Wright III, who ran the New York City-based Dia Art Foundation, called Bill Lafe at the Heinz Endowments, wondering who in Pittsburgh would want the foundation's collection of 120 Warhols plus a loan of an additional 20 artworks.
Mr. Lafe called Robert Wilburn, who ran the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh from 1984 to 1992. The city's past art losses motivated Mr. Wilburn and museum trustees to act.
"I had a meeting in my office of anyone I thought would have any interest in pursuing this. We did not want to lose another major collection. We wanted to make sure it didn't happen again," Mr. Wilburn said.
Henry Clay Frick's collection wound up in New York. Paul Mellon donated his artworks to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1959, steel entrepreneur G. David Thompson offered his collection to the Carnegie Museum of Art if it would build a separate building to house it and put his name on it. The museum ultimately rejected the offer because of Thompson's demands. The collection went to the Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler.
Exhibiting Warhol's art in a loft-style building similar to the spaces the artist worked in was paramount.
"What Charlie Wright and the Dia Art Foundation was most interested in was the setting in which the paintings would be displayed," Mr. Wilburn said.
The group considered many buildings in the East End, South Side and North Side. The Volkwein Building was considered the best option, but it was under contract to Allegheny General Hospital. William Penn Snyder III, then president of the hospital's board, talked its directors into letting the Carnegie have the seven-story, terra cotta-clad structure for The Andy Warhol Museum.
"Bill Snyder proved to be very valuable in convincing the board that this was for the community's good," Mr. Wilburn said.
To show their good faith, Mr. Wilburn joined museum trustees James Mellon Walton, Milton Fine, the late Jim Fisher and Henry Hillman in a meeting with Mr. Wright at the Dia Art Foundation's office in Manhattan.
"We convinced them that we were for real and we were serious. Shortly after that, the Warhol Art Foundation became involved," Mr. Wilburn said.
The stakes suddenly got higher.
"I don't know if this was planned or serendipity. Instead of talking about 100 paintings, we were talking about 1,000 paintings. Negotiations became even more serious," Mr. Wilburn said.
A key player in the negotiations was Ed Hayes, a scrappy New York criminal defense lawyer who represented boxer Mike Tyson and became the model for Tommy Killian, the lawyer in Tom Wolfe's classic novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
"I spent I don't know how many hours with him," Mr. Wilburn said. "He had a very down-to-earth way of speaking. He really turned out at some point to be our champion."
Mr. Wilburn also waged an internal campaign within the Carnegie Museums.
"When I first introduced this to the board, there was some reluctance to do this. We were in the middle of a capital campaign, and this was going to increase the amount of money we needed to raise. The campaign went from $125 million to $140 million."
But he prevailed, and in November 1992 work began to convert a former warehouse and music store into The Andy Warhol Museum. It opened on May 15, 1994. Four directors have led The Andy Warhol Museum and left their stamp on it.
Founding director Mark Francis, now at one of the London offices of Gagosian Gallery, brought his Oxford education, British perspective and curating skills. His urbane successor, Tom Armstrong III, used his worldwide art connections to promote it.
The third director, Tom Sokolowski, pushed the envelope during his 15-year tenure. He and his staff organized traveling shows that exported Warhol to the world. On his watch, the museum exhibited "Without Sanctuary," a show of black-and-white photographs of lynchings. Pictures of prisoners being degraded by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison in Iraq, were shown in 2004.
"No place in town would do those kinds of shows," Mr. Sokolowski said, adding that when tough subjects arose, arts leaders would say, " 'That's an issue that The Warhol should take up.' "
Among the original supporters of the museum was Ann McGuinn, a Warhol board member from Shadyside. She organized the first gala with art adviser Alice Snyder and a band of volunteers. They are back at it 20 years later and planned this Saturday's party. Mrs. McGuinn loves the diverse audience the museum attracts.
In 1999, "We did a great show on some of Andy's works," including a Warhol of Marlon Brando on his motorcycle. Members of a local Harley-Davidson club parked their gleaming cycles outside the museum and stayed for cocktails. "The kids were in cute leather black outfits. I had somebody drive a Harley into the museum. It was spectacular. Everybody likes art in some fashion," Mrs. McGuinn said.
Mr. Davis loves to tell a particular story when he pitches for convention business. One year, when the Rolling Stones came to town to perform, they stayed at the William Penn Hotel, where Mr. Davis was employed as director of sales and marketing.
"I took Mick Jagger up to this room to make sure he didn't get accosted in the lobby," Mr. Davis said.
"The next day ... he went to The Warhol and had a private tour."
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.