'Teenie Harris' exhibition at Carnegie turns out to be big hit

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"We've had spectacular attendance at all the Teenie Harris programs by a great cross-section of Pittsburghers by age, geography and ethnicity," said Marilyn Russell, Carnegie Museum of Art curator of education.

Viewers of Mr. Harris' images often think about the subject matter or the discipline of photography, Ms. Russell pointed out. Another dimension is added when seen through the eyes of other art forms. Those have included theater, in a collaboration with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, and gospel singing.

That the Teenie Harris exhibition has been such a success is made even sweeter by the chances that were taken in mounting it. Due to its archival nature, such a show is atypical for a fine arts museum. The material is equally valuable as cultural history, with both local and national significance. Objects that enter museum collections generally arrive with established background, but Mr. Harris' photographs were for the most part not identified by date or subject. And it is not clear that all were taken by Mr. Harris.

Louise Lippincott, Carnegie curator for fine arts and exhibition project manager, emphatically described the show as a team effort, from the cataloging supported by National Endowment of the Humanities Preservation and Access grants to the many components of the handsome exhibition design. Most praiseworthy is the input of community members and volunteers, whose efforts helped identify 2,000 photographs and counting.

Three much smaller Teenie Harris Archive Project exhibitions at the Carnegie built upon information gathered at an exhibition of his photographs at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in 2001. That exhibition drew national media attention, which has blossomed for the Carnegie show.

The Carnegie exhibition was reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and an Associated Press story about it was picked up by 300 newspapers nationally, Ms. Lippincott said. Media coverage has ranged from Time magazine to the Daily Mail, London. Ms. Lippincott was interviewed by National Public Radio's "Tell Me More." The music playing in the projection gallery, composed by MCG Jazz, is on the Billboard Jazz Charts. "This show got us out there where you don't normally see Carnegie Museum of Art," she said.

The images are finding a wide audience through other channels also: The museum has received a steady stream of requests to use Mr. Harris' photographs for such things as book covers and illustrations and with academic and literary writing.

The exhibition book "Teenie Harris, Photographer" has sold more than 800 copies at the museum shop alone, and a CD with the MCG Jazz music and images sold out its first run of 1,500 by Christmas, Ms. Lippincott said.

Overall museum attendance was up last year over the previous year, said Jonathan Gaugler, Carnegie media relations manager, with "huge spikes over the holidays and after Teenie opened." It's also been "way ahead for the year" to date compared with last year at this time. African-American attendance has approximately doubled, he said. Counts for individual shows are difficult to tally because admission numbers include Natural History Museum visitors, but attendance on March evenings, free through a Jack Buncher Foundation grant, gives some idea, escalating from 1,082 early on to 1,665 last week.

"Our next big push," Ms. Lippincott said, "is for a NEH grant to endow the archivist's salary. The show may be closing, but we're not done."

Kerin Shellenbarger, Teenie Harris collection archivist, said there are 20,000-25,000 negatives left to scan, approximately 10,000-15,000 of which are black and white. The staff has only so far glanced at Mr. Harris' later color photographs. She estimates it will take at least five to six years to finish scanning and cataloging the negatives, along with continuing to build the website.

Several hundred comments including identifications and stories have been left in the galleries, some of which are periodically posted on the Carnegie website (click on Information and scroll to What's New). "People write, 'This was my mother, my grandmother, I was the flower girl in this wedding.' They tell heartwarming and heartwrenching stories," Ms. Shellenbarger said.

She and staff enter everything into an internal database, which will be made public in the near future when the new Carnegie website is launched.

The Carnegie is traveling a condensed edition of the exhibition comprising 120 photographs digitally printed in 16-by-20-inch format. It has been at the Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago, since Feb. 4 and will go to the Robert Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center in January. It was to have gone to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in August, but that venue had to withdraw, at least temporarily, due to funding shortages. The museum is pursuing other venues.

Ms. Lippincott feels it's been worth all the effort.

"I think we're unique. It's been a great experience. The show in some ways is about what you can do as an archive, what you can do with digital presentation of the art, but also with interpretation of the material and visitor experience," she said.

"We put his name out there on a national level. We've established the archives as a major resource. We've established him as an important documentary photographer. And he's been confirmed as a Pittsburgh hero."

"The Harris family had real goals for the museum when they entrusted us with his archives. They wanted us to 'make dad a famous artist.' One of my great thrills was to see their faces on opening day."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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