Obituary: Thomas N. Armstrong / Opened Warhol museum after Whitney tenure

July 30, 1932-June 20, 2011


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Thomas N. Armstrong III, who as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art became friends with Andy Warhol and eventually opened the Pittsburgh museum that honors the city's best known native artist, died Monday in New York City. He was 78, and the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

"He was a whirlwind of activity," said Alice Snyder, an art adviser who lives in Squirrel Hill.

As Mr. Armstrong's staff assistant, Ms. Snyder helped him open The Andy Warhol Museum in May 1994 -- seven years after the artist's death. Nine months later, Mr. Armstrong left Pittsburgh after clashing with Ellsworth Brown, then head of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. The two men disagreed over the direction of the Warhol museum.

"He got the museum up and running. That was a feat in itself," Ms. Snyder said.

Together, Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Snyder planned the legendary opening party that included an effervescent mix of Warhol buddies Billy Name and Ultra Violet, Pittsburgh society, international art collectors and locals.

The opening weekend set a standard, said Milton Fine, who is a member of The Andy Warhol Museum's board.

"I'm sure there has never been a party like that in Pittsburgh," Mr. Fine said. "There were lights and action and famous people and just so much spirit and energy. It was phenomenal. People were dressed in outlandish ways."

Mr. Armstrong arrived here in April 1993 after his 15-year tenure at the Whitney in New York City ended with the board dismissing him in 1990. By then, he had raised the collection's quality and quantity by acquiring more than 2,000 works by artists who played important roles in the evolution of American art. He also mounted two shows at the Whitney devoted to Warhol: a 1971 retrospective and a 1979 show that focused on commissioned portraits.

Mr. Armstrong's drive and connections aided The Andy Warhol Museum when it was in its infancy. He and his wife, Virginia Brewster Whitney, nicknamed "Bunty," lived in an elegant apartment at the Park Mansions on Frew Street near Carnegie Mellon University.

"He served a very important purpose for the museum. He was extremely well known in the art world everywhere, not just in New York, but Europe and Asia," Mr. Fine said. "He was a very charming man, very daring, full of ideas. He was somebody that people noticed and enjoyed being with. He made a difference because of his presence here, and the museum became very well known around the world and still is. That was very important -- to get off to a good start," he added.

Donald Miller, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's retired art critic, recalled driving to Fayette County with Mr. Armstrong to introduce him to Warhol's brother, Paul Warhola, who was living in Smock then.

Mr. Armstrong "insisted on paying for the gasoline," Mr. Miller recalled.

Born in Portsmouth, Va., Mr. Armstrong grew up in Summit, N.J. He studied art at Cornell University, graduating first in his class in 1954.

After working eight years in New York City's financial district for Stone and Webster Inc., he married and earned a master's degree in art from New York University.

A summer seminar at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection landed him his first job as a curator at Colonial Williamsburg. He moved to Virginia in 1969.

In 1971, he became director of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. At America's oldest art school and museum, he talked board members out of selling the academy's building, designed by architect Frank Furness, and prevailed upon them to preserve it.

In 1973, Mr. Armstrong left Philadelphia to run the Whitney. In 1974, Warhol showed up at Mr. Armstrong's annual Christmas party.

When the host found the artist reading Antiques magazine, he asked Warhol if he'd ever been to Colonial Williamsburg. Warhol said no, inspiring a five-day trip the two men took to Virginia, stopping at Monticello, Williamsburg, the Chrysler Museum and the homes of several collectors. A scrum of celebrity-seeking photographers greeted Warhol at the Virginia Museum of Art.

John W. Smith, executive director of the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., worked closely with Mr. Armstrong, who hired him to work at the Warhol.

"He believed deeply in art and artists and the role museums can play in generating that excitement in a community," Mr. Smith said.

Frank Brooks Robinson Sr. chaired the Carnegie Institute trustees during Mr. Armstrong's tenure and remained close to him. Both men have homes on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound off the Connecticut coast.

There, Mr. Armstrong and his wife built a modern home and a 3-acre garden that was featured in Architectural Digest last year.

"It is just a spectacular show place that he poured his love into and opened it to everybody on the island," Mr. Robinson said.

Besides his wife, Mr. Armstrong is survived by two daughters, Amory, of Greenwich, Conn., and Eliot Armstrong Foote of Vero Beach, Fla.; two sons, Thomas Newton Armstrong IV of Baltimore and Whitney Brewster Armstrong of New York City; one sister, Susan Armstrong Watts of Summit, N.J.; and seven grandchildren.


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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