When Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie Institute in 1895, one of his bold ambitions was to create a museum of modern art. The series of contemporary art exhibitions he established the following year became the linchpin of that scheme. Through the exhibitions, Carnegie sought to educate and inspire audiences, promote international understanding of art, attract the art world to Pittsburgh, and above all, to build a collection through the purchase of the “Old Masters of tomorrow” who would be represented in the exhibitions. Today, the Carnegie International is the oldest exhibition of international contemporary art in North America, and the second oldest in the world.
With the first exhibition came the acquisition of Winslow Homer’s The Wreck (1896) and James A. McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (1884), the first Whistler painting to be acquired by an American museum. More than 100 years later, at least 300 works have entered Carnegie Museum of Art’s permanent collection through the Internationals, including works by Georg Baselitz, Louise Bourgeois, Mary Cassatt, Eduardo Chillida, Willem de Kooning, Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Ellsworth Kelley, Mike Kelley, Anselm Kiefer, Sol LeWitt, Camille Pissarro, Sigmar Polke, Georges Rouault, John Singer Sargent, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol, among others.
While the mission of the International has remained constant over the years, it has had many incarnations. In 1896, the show was established as a yearly survey and presented as the Annual Exhibition. Over the years, the presence of such prominent figures as Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Pierre Bonnard, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, and Winslow Homer on its juries of award was testament to the scope of Carnegie Institute’s ambitions. However, relatively few avant-garde works appeared in these exhibitions. It was not until Henri Matisse’s work won first prize in 1927 that a modern artist was truly recognized at the International. During and immediately following World War II, from 1940 to 1949, the museum presented annual exhibitions of American art, returning to the International in 1950.
In the 1950s, under the direction of museum director Gordon Bailey Washburn, the Carnegie International emerged as an influential exhibition of the avant-garde, documenting the rise of significant developments such as Abstract Expressionism. During these years, jurors included Marcel Duchamp, Vincent Price, Ben Shahn, and James Thrall Soby. Willem de Kooning’s Woman VI (1953) and Franz Kline’s Siegfried (1958), along with many works by leading European artists, were purchased for the museum from that decade’s Internationals.
In 1950, the exhibition was renamed the Pittsburgh International and became biennial; in 1955, it was decided to present it every three years. During the 1970s, the name was changed to the International Series, and organizers broke with tradition by presenting one- and two-person exhibitions; the work of Pierre Alechinsky was featured in 1977 , and that of Eduardo Chillida and Willem de Kooning was shown in 1979. The show returned to the original 1896 anthology format in 1982, and the name Carnegie International was adopted. The exhibition was reestablished as the preeminent survey of international contemporary art in North America and has been presented approximately every three years since that time.
The Carnegie Prize was reinstituted in 1985, awarding $10,000 for outstanding achievement in the exhibition in the context of a lifetime of work. New to the Carnegie International in 2008 was the Fine Prize, which complements the Carnegie Prize and is awarded to an emerging artist in the exhibition. The Fine Prize is part of a $5 million endowment given for the Carnegie International by the Fine Foundation in September 2007.