Warhol Museum director Tom Sokolowski steps down

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When Tom Sokolowski arrived in 1996, The Andy Warhol Museum was only a toddler, 2 years old and still working hard at solidifying its footing and developing its persona.

Baby, if they could see you now.

Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh announced on Monday that Mr. Sokolowski has resigned as director of the North Side museum, effective Dec. 31. He leaves behind an institution at the top of its game that has exported its namesake to five continents and changed the activist face of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Sokolowski, 60, the museum's third director, said he felt it was time to move on.

"At this point I think I've been here too long. And change is a good thing."

The decision to leave was Mr. Sokolowski's. "There have been times when I felt I was repeating myself," he said, referring to some of the museum's programming.

Mr. Sokolowski has a reputation for inventiveness, progressive attitude and civic activism, having assumed a leadership role in the larger cultural community and the city as well as at the museum. But he's learned when to pull back, too.

He has no plans to leave Pittsburgh in the near future and is exploring options. He said he doesn't think he wants to run another museum because such positions generally only become bigger and more cumbersome. He does want to continue to be associated with the arts, and to continue to be a provocateur, working "maybe in television journalism, academia or for a liberal cause."

Reflecting on the last 14 years, Mr. Sokolowski said that what made him most happy was "when people would say 'Only The Warhol could do that' or 'The Warhol should take that on." Others wouldn't do so because of age, or lack of funding, or they didn't have a pulpit or they were too frightened -- "Ooh, what would happen?" he said.

The Warhol also provided, under his tenure, "a home for the homeless. Pittsburgh doesn't always welcome newcomers and people who are different." '

The Good Fridays programming that Mr. Sokolowski initiated, when the museum is open until 10 p.m., admission is half-price, events are scheduled and socializing is encouraged, provided a welcoming arena for the city's gay community, among others.

A panel organized after Sept. 11, 2001, brought diverse religious and ethnic groups together for dialogue. The 2002 exhibition "Without Sanctuary," historic photographs of the lynchings of blacks, "was a catalytic experience for visitors," Mr. Sokolowski said.

"We have been thinking of holding Sunday suppers for new immigrants from places like Somalia," he said, adding that he hoped those plans continue.

Mr. Sokolowski said the museum is in good shape, having had another banner year of attendance, admission revenues over budget, more critical success internationally, and both trustee donations and requests for its traveling shows rising.

Museum attendance has been climbing annually, with 73,200 visitors in 2005 and 103,298 last year. Attendance this year is already up 4,796 over 2009.

Since Mr. Sokolowski's arrival, the museum has traveled 56 exhibitions to 153 venues including in countries as varied as Turkey, Korea, Argentina, Russia, Greece, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Ukraine, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil and Hungary. Some of the shows are ongoing, said Warhol spokesman Rick Armstrong, and attendance at those 56 exhibitions is approaching 9 million.

Carnegie Museums President David Hillenbrand couldn't be reached for comment on Monday, but in a news release said: "Tom saw beyond what could have been the limitations of a single-artist museum and led The Warhol in many fascinating directions. Regionally, The Warhol is now known for its gutsy programming, its thoughtful outreach, and its willingness to lead as well as partner. Internationally, the museum is known as the definitive resource for everything Warhol and an enthusiastic collaborator on exhibitions that bring the work of Andy Warhol to the world, which has an insatiable appetite for Andy Warhol. Tom has also assembled an incredible team of talented individuals who are devoted to carrying out the museum's mission."

Warhol board member Terry Smith, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh, said the news of Mr. Sokolowski's resignation was "a bit of a shock."

"He's done an amazing job," Dr. Smith said. "He absolutely can be proud of his record."

"When you think of single-artist museums in the world, this one is fairly exceptional. Usually they're antiquarian even if having to do with a contemporary artist. ... Here you get a real sense of Warhol. It's the key place for Warhol, the key archive for Warhol, a wonderful resource for studying Warhol."

Under Mr. Sokolowski's tenure, the museum has seen positive change in three directions, Dr. Smith said. "The museum tells you about Warhol when you come in. It's information-oriented. Before it was like an art museum. The touring program has been a positive development." Dr. Smith said he's heard praise for the museum's exhibitions in venues as far spread as Brisbane, Australia, and Sao Paolo, Brazil. And thirdly, "the educational outreach has been terrific, particularly the outreach to high schools." Recently The Warhol has begun to reach out to universities, he added.

Before The Warhol directorship, Mr. Sokolowski was director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery and Study Center in New York City.

Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh spokeswoman Betsy Momich said she expects a committee to be formed soon to oversee a national and international search for Mr. Sokolowski's replacement.

Mr. Sokolowski isn't going to be a lame duck director. He leaves Wednesday on an Asian trip that will include stops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, to investigate partnerships and sites for Warhol exhibitions.

And on Feb. 26, two months after he vacates his official position, he'll install at The Warhol an exhibition he is currently curating, "The Word of God." It will feature contemporary artists' takes on the Bible, Torah and Koran.

"Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all Abrahamic religions from the same basic root," Mr. Sokolowski observed. "Only ethnic regionalism makes them different. The subject is really interesting, especially at this time when there is concern over building the Islamic center near the site of Ground Zero in New York.

"The show should juice people up."


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


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