Contemporary art Museums Conservation USA

Warhol’s archives undergo a reorganisation

The Andy Warhol Museum faces problems in preserving the documents of his life

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

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”.

A 50-year project

The “Time Capsules” cataloguing project is also time consuming. To date, 400 of the 612 “Time Capsules” have been opened, but, more than four years in, the archivists at the museum estimate that “it would require another 50 years to fully catalogue all of the objects in the ‘Time Capsules’.”

The identical cardboard boxes that Warhol habitually kept by his desk were used for dealing with all the ephemera that he wanted to preserve, but was cluttering up his desk. The contents of the boxes have had a huge impact on studies of Warhol. The leading Warhol scholar and author Reva Wolf suggests that without the boxes “the results [of my studies] would not have been the same”. She describes finding “a revealing interview with Warhol, published in 1962—apparently his first published interview—which helped me understand Warhol’s thinking about the meaning of interviews", and that "thanks to my study of published and handwritten materials in Warhol’s archives, I was able to establish myriad direct connections between Warhol and poets such as Ted Berrigan and Diane di Prima”, which are central to her book, Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s.

Alas, poor Andy: Warhol's archive is closed as it gets reorganised
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