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A tribute to Thomas W. Sokolowski (1950–2020)

18 May 2020

Thomas W. Sokolowski (1950–2020) had a distinguished career in American museums, especially as director of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh from 1996 to 2010, and finally – for the last three years of his life – the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

I knew Tom when he came to Pittsburgh in ’96 to run the Andy Warhol Museum, which had opened to the public only two years prior in 1994. At that time, the city and its cultural life were still rather conservative, notwithstanding the Carnegie Museum of Art, which had been revitalised under Jack Lane in the 1980s. It was hardly recognised then that the founding gifts to the Carnegie Institute for the Warhol Museum – from Dia and the Andy Warhol Foundation – were, and perhaps still are, the largest in numbers of works and in value ever given to any American museum.

It was even then hardly acknowledged in Pittsburgh that Warhol was gay, and Tom’s arrival made it immediately clear that change was afoot. He was flamboyant, articulate and convinced of the critical importance of Warhol’s work to the pantheon of contemporary art and the social issues of the day. His tenure at the museum, which was at that time poorly endowed and funded, encompassed an innovative approach to local audiences and communities, with all-night ‘circuit parties’ in the museum, and a wide-ranging foreign policy which led to travelling exhibitions of Warhol’s work to more than 40 countries worldwide.

Tom’s reputation had been made earlier in New York, when in 1988, along with Gary Garrels, Robert Atkins and Bill Olander, he initiated the project of Visual AIDS, which is still active as an organisation that supports HIV-positive artists. In 1989 Visual AIDS held its first ‘Day With(out) Art’ memorial, a now annual event when many hundreds of museums veil or remove works of art to mark the AIDS crisis each 1 December. Tom later said that ‘Visual AIDS is the most important thing I have ever done’.

Mark Francis was the founding director of the Andy Warhol Museum.

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