Andy Warhol Museum looks to next chapter

| Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

The resignation of its gadfly director won't turn the Andy Warhol Museum into a wallflower.

Thomas Sokolowski, 60, who departs Dec. 31, leaves the North Side institution with a nearly $9 million endowment and a yearly attendance that is expected to top 106,000 visitors for the first time since it opened in 1994.

"Tom was known for the originality and creativity of his programming, and I would expect the new leader to do the same," said David Hillenbrand, president of the Warhol's parent organization, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

Sokolowski's successor will inherit an institution that is closely identified with its former director. Since assuming the position 14 years ago, Sokolowski grew the Warhol from a mere repository of the artist's work to a worldwide franchise that exported his work around the world — and imported international art lovers.

During the years, the list of visitors has read like the index in People magazine: Mick Jagger, Bono, first lady Michelle Obama, Robert Downey Jr, Rupert Everett, Brooke Shields, Nelly Furtado, Willem Dafoe, Donna Karan, Laura Linney, Eddie Izzard, France's first lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Prince Andrew, Duke of York, to name a few.

Beyond the glam, Sokolowski took a social activist role, reaching out to marginalized groups such as gays and the homeless.

But with his departure, the pop culture party will continue on the museum's seven floors, with paintings, drawings, films, sculptures, prints and general atmosphere of playful subversion.

The Warhol's 73 employees shouldn't be affected by Sokolowski's departure. The staff includes three curators who carry institutional memory.

"I just hope they go in the same direction that Tom did," said Mernie Berger, a board member on the Carnegie Museum of Art. "Tom has done such a fabulous job."

Assisting with the continuity is Hillenbrand, who announced his retirement earlier this year, but said he will stay on until a new president is found.

"I would certainly hope that my position would be filled prior to the conclusion for Tom's successor," Hillenbrand said.

In the meantime, the search for Sokolowski's successor will begin in January, with the assistance of a search firm.

Phillips Oppenheim, an executive search firm for nonprofits, found a director for the Carnegie Museum of Art last year after the departure of Richard Armstrong. Armstrong left to head the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York. His vacancy was filled with Lynn Zelevansky, former curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It usually takes three to five months to fill an executive position at an arts organization, said Sarah James, a principal of Phillips Oppenheim. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, she said.

"The actual duration of the search allows the group to transition from what the past was to what it means to look forward," James said. "You never want to find a repeat of what you had before, no matter how wonderful it is. You don't want to build on what that person's accomplished.

"Leadership has a time and place," she said. "There will be somebody who will take what Tom and his team have done and take it to the next level with whatever skills and talent they have."

Her firm has not been contacted by the Carnegie to look for Sokolowski's successor, she said.

Generally, executive search firms charge a nonprofit organization one-third of the yearly salary of the executive position they are filling, James said. That means the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh could pay about $65,000, computed from Sokolowski's base salary of $193,876 for 2008, the most recent year for which information is available.

Prior to his position at the Warhol, Sokolowski was director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery & Study Center. A Chicago native, he received his B.A. from the University of Chicago and earned his master's degree at New York University, where he specialized in late 17th- and early 18th-century Italian art. His first job as an arts administrator was at the Chrysler Museum as curator of European painting and sculpture. He was the museum's chief curator from 1983-84.

Sokolowski hopes the Warhol's successor will carry on the artist's unconventional legacy, but find his or her unique way to do so. He said he has not decided where he will go next.

"When a new person comes in," Sokolowski said, "you hope they're not going to put on the shoe you always wore, but put on a new pair from the back of the closet."

Additional Information:

The Andy Warhol Museum

• 16 years old
• 88,000 square-foot facility, containing 17 galleries on seven floors
• $6.1 million operating budget for 2010
• 900 paintings, nearly 2,000 works on paper, more than 1,000 published and unique prints, 77 sculptures and 4,000 photographs in collection
• 103,298 visitors in 2009, 106,396 estimated for 2010
• 56 travelling exhibits have attracted 8.9 million visitors in 153 venues worldwide since 1996
• 73 full-time and part-time employees

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