Warhol’s archives undergo a reorganisation

Old news: Andy Warhol, Time Capsule 232 (Photo courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum)

By Jean Wainwright

The synchronicity of Andy Warhol’s record saleroom prices with the rise of art as a celebrity culture often overshadows the reality of a complex, introverted man, with a fine analytical, sociological mind. This side of Warhol’s character is easier to find in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh—but there is an irony in the fact that this important research facility is currently closed (except for very limited individual access).

Warhol left an enormous body of work, as well as his collection of as much of life as he could gather through recordings, films and photographs and his “Time Capsules” project—cardboard boxes of items that Warhol built up over the years of materials that he wanted to keep at particular times. Describing the archive as a “treasure trove”, Eric Shiner, the director of the Warhol Museum acknowledges that it “reveals Warhol’s motivations, processes and connectivity to the world around him”. Since the museum’s inception in 1994 it has received thousands of requests for access, the number of enquiries increasing “as Warhol’s popularity in our culture grows”. But 17 years after the archive opened, it has been closed for “rehousing and reorganisation”: many of the objects are still not catalogued. It is hoped that the work will be finished by early in the new year and the archive will reopen. But while the reorganisation has affected direct access, “it hasn’t stopped us from lending objects to exhibitions, preparing our own shows, or cataloguing Warhol’s Time Capsules, all of which are moving along,” says Matt Wrbican, the museum’s chief archivist.

Warhol in his own words

Problematic at a more fundamental level is Warhol’s collection of audio tapes, housed in the archive. More than any other artist in history, Warhol is identified as much by what he said as what he did. Exhibitions of his work, books, catalogues, articles and reviews all include his sayings; but these usually come from published interviews, autobiographical writings and his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.

In the archive are around 4,000 recordings that Warhol made with his “wife”, the tape recorder. His constant companion, he even had one at his bedside when he died. But access to the recordings is extremely limited. Museum staff agree that there are major challenges with the tape archive, but says their hands are tied: “While The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts [the donor] has a vested interest in intellectual property rights surrounding the audio tapes, they do not maintain ownership of the materials, and the museum follows the access policy established by the donor”. Thus the tapes are not publicly available, and if you want to listen to them as a researcher you have to fly to Pittsburg: “Access is granted only to the tapes that have been duplicated and… is only in the form of listening. No note taking, transcription, quoting, or duplicating is permitted”. It is frustrating that this material cannot be freely shared. Meanwhile, the fragile tapes need to be preserved and digitised before they start to degrade. Funding is also a challenge “owing to the intellectual property concerns that limit the number of preservation funding sources that are available”.

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