At first, it wasn’t so clear it would work. Sure, some smart guy snatched up all the Warholiana available and stashed it in Pittsburgh, Andy’s hometown. And, sure, they could exhibit it, some of it at least, ’cause there’s tons of the stuff, Andy would never make one image, or collect one cookie jar, when 40,000 would do.

It may have looked great on paper, October ’89, when the one-artist museum was announced less than three years after Andy died. Four years later, ready to go, Tom Armstrong, former Whitney director, was tapped to head the nascent Warhol.

By that time, the 88,000-square-foot, seven-story former Volkwein’s music store had had a $12 million makeover, all set to display some 1,000 works—making it the world’s largest single-artist museum.

Some 25,000 people came that opening weekend, May 13–14, 1994. By quaint irony, one face in the crowd belonged to a young man named Eric Shiner. Now the Warhol’s director, he remembers it well. “People couldn’t believe that it was here,” Shiner says. “It was an alien space craft that landed in Pittsburgh.”

In some ways, the environs didn’t work, either. No less an art mandarin than Hilton Kramer complained that The Warhol was “too sedate, even bleak, and at times too tedious…the atmosphere…is surprisingly dour and formal, as if a perpetual memorial service were in progress.”

Hm.

Within nine months, Armstrong had resigned, and The Warhol’s survival was hardly assured. After all, here was all this weird stuff, banished from the safe, staid Carnegie Museum of Art. Like an unwanted stepchild sent off to bed without its supper, the enfant terrible and his crazy collection was not placed in Oakland, Pittsburgh’s cultural nexus, but instead abandoned on the crack-house-infested North Shore, left there to swim, or, more likely, fall on its own pop-art arse.

All those tiresome silk screens of soup cans and celebrities. How… outré! How…old school! How…over!

And yet…

Self Portrait of Andy/ photo by Rob Larsen

The very boldness of the move spoke wonders. By giving a key collection its own signature space, The Carnegie gave it a much-needed identity of its own. By putting it on the North Shore, The Warhol received immediate cachet as part of an emerging neighborhood, another in the string of petals stretching from the new Science Center through the re-furbished National Aviary, the eye-popping Buhl Planetarium, the bustling Children’s Museum.

“The neighborhood grew around us,” Shiner recalls. “The city, too. Pittsburgh has returned in the last 20 years. We’re part of that. Part of the quality of life.”

Here and elsewhere. Over two decades, some 10 million people worldwide have flocked to traveling Warholiana.

Online, The Warhol is the world’s 7th-most followed museum with 650,000 Twitter folk and tens of thousands likes on Facebook.

Up close and personal, The Warhol is a must-see for Pittsburgh visitors of all stripes—to academics, entertainers to activists. Some 120,000 annually make their hajj to the shrine, including the likes of Anne Hathaway (filming The Dark Knight Rises), Michelle Obama (with a phalanx of G-20 First Ladies), Jay-Z, Chloë Sevigny and far too many more to name.

They come to see:
900 paintings
100 sculptures
2,000 works on paper
4,000 photos
60 feature films
200 screen tests
4,000 videos
608 time capsules (Andy’s collectables)
and more…

Just in case all that isn’t enough, there are those unique shows and exhibitions, photographer/model Bettie Page to clothier Halston, Deadly Medicine (euthanasia) to Without Sanctuary (lynching). Both brilliant and provocative, the specials induce thought and—anger and disgust.

Deliberately so.

Warhol Director Eric Shiner/photo by Rob Larsen

Enter current Director Eric Shiner. At the helm since 2011, he’s getting ready for the big anniversary weekend, May 17-18. Just back from a recent jaunt taking Andy to Asia, he shepherded Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal through Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beijing. “Warhol is now a household name in China,” he smiles. “That’s very satisfying.

“Everybody wants to see him,” Shiner continues. “Andy’s presence is so strong. He’s a critical part of American popular culture. His stature continues to grow, even now, 27 years after his death.”

Why is that?

“He was a great sage with his finger on the pulse of America,” Shiner says. “He predicted the future. The world of cyber art, reality TV, and social media. So his work is constantly relevant, constantly understood. Teenagers think Warhol’s cool. A rebel. An innovator. They see him as a positive role model. Be yourself. Step outside the box. And still succeed. He both authenticates and sets the stage for them.”

And now The Warhol is resetting the stage for…Andy!

As if they’re answering Hilton Kramer’s 20-year-old complaints, The Warhol is revised, re-imagined, re-hung from top to bottom.

Now, instead of a piecemeal look at the art, visitors view the evolution of the man and his work. Starting at the top, the Seventh Floor presents the Early Years. The Warhola family. Art school. Schenley High. Early paintings and graphic work. As a post-Carnegie Tech New York City advertising illustrator, Warhol did very well — well enough to buy his own Manhattan town house. That part of his career is here, as are early handed-painted pop studies—before he discovered silk screening.

The new gift shop

One floor down, on the Sixth Floor, Andy bursts into the ’60s: pop culture reproduced in repetitive, hypnotic, wholly irresistible images.

Here are the silk screens that made him famous. Elvis, Natalie. Marilyn. Jackie.

The Brillo boxes.

This was the full flowering of The Factory, and here are movies and “screen tests.” A true 21st-century attraction, visitors can create their own four-minute screen test, then share it on social media. Cleverly, The Warhol uses Andy’s actual camera—gutted, digital, with software that slows time to render subjects in the dreamy way that Andy preferred. Up for a year now, 6,000 people have already made their own screen tests.

Down on the Fifth Floor visitors find The Warhol’s number-one-vote-getter: the Silver Cloud Gallery. “It has a calming effect,” Shiner explains. “People get lost for a couple of minutes.”

Here, too, is the ’70s, when The Factory became The Office, and Andy went more commercial than ever. Here are the silk-screen portraits and commissions. Truman Capote. Mick Jagger. Dennis Hopper. Judy Garland.

The Fourth Floor recalls the ’80s, when Andy reached out to hot young ‘uns like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, doomed street artists who shared their power and immediacy with il maestro. Here, too, are Andy’s Last Supper, Skull, and Mao series, images in vibrant color.

On the Third Floor, Andy’s possession obsession comes full flower, with time capsules, glass boxes, mucho material to sift through and catalogue.

By the time visitors arrive on the Second Floor, they’ll find the justly famous special exhibitions. Currently, Halston and Warhol: silver and suede presents the fashion and artistic visions that informed the ’60s.

The First Floor features a greatly enlarged museum shop and cafe, more open, inviting, available.

It adds up to something far more contemporary, far more engaging and informative, than the previous incarnation. “You see more Andy,” Shiner says, “learn more about him. It makes so much more sense.

“I’m looking forward to what the next 20 years will bring,” he adds. “Keep an eye out for what we do next.” He winks. “You never know.”

Abby Mendelson

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh:...