The Carnegie International is the second oldest international exhibit of contemporary art in the world. The oldest is the Venice Biennale art show, established just one year earlier. On Nov. 5, 1896, steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie opened the first Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
In 1896, Pittsburgh had no reputation as an art center. In the eyes of the world, “it was exclusively an industrial center, from which little in the way of artistic endeavor could be expected,” according to art historian Kenneth Neal. At the time, a major yearly art exhibition was a popular idea in America, and most thought that logical venue for such a project would be New York, or Boston, or even Philadelphia. The fact that Pittsburgh became the home of the international exhibition was due to Andrew Carnegie alone.
Carnegie aspired to attract the art world to Pittsburgh and to build a collection of the “old masters of tomorrow” (some 320 works have been acquired from internationals over the years).
The man who said, “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community,” believed in the importance of the arts.
Ironically, Carnegie acknowledged that he himself had “just a little artistic sense.” When asked to improve on a list of names to be carved on the Carnegie Institute’s entablature, he complained that Perugino has been omitted and Rubens included: “The latter only a painter of fat vulgar women, while a study of the pictures of Raphael will show anyone that he was really a copyist of Perugino, whose pupil he was.” Andrew Carnegie didn’t understand art, he “just knew what he liked” and was mainly interested in the social utility of art, believing in its moral mission. He believed that art was “ennobling, uplifting, at once an agent and an index of social progress.”
Through the Carnegie International he sought to introduce Pittsburghers to paintings by contemporary American and European artists, “to educate and inspire the public” and “to spread good will among nations through the international language of art.”
Since its founding, the Carnegie International has expanded its scope beyond paintings and has become the most prestigious and important survey of contemporary art in North America.
Over the years, it has featured works by Winslow Homer, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Willem de Kooning, Camille Pissarro, Alberto Giacometti, Andy Warhol and many others.
The Post-Gazette archives contain mostly recent photographs of art exhibited at the International: the ones that shown here date to 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The Pittsburgh Press photograph in the center is of Janis Schreiber of Shadyside, who got to ‘feel’ an inflated sculpture by Otto Piene titled “Red Rapid Growth” at the 45th Carnegie International, which took place in October 1970.
This year, the Carnegie International will be held in Pittsburgh in October. The Post-Gazette’s art critic Mary Thomas gives a preview of it.