The news of his death has spawned a number of touching tributes, including Facebook posts by artist Vanessa German, Richard Parsakian, owner of the Eons Fashion Antique in Shadyside, and performance artist Phat Man Dee.
“RIP former @TheWarholMuseum director Tom Sokolowski. Tom was a monumental figure in the #Pittsburgh arts community for 14 years. He changed lives, ruffled feathers and helped make The Warhol a top arts destination in the world,” tweeted Sharon Eberson, online features editor, theater critic, and pop culture writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
A highly accomplished curator, arts advocate, and academic, whose work included organizing Warhol exhibitions, Sokolowski stepped into his role at the museum in 1996. In a Carnegie Magazine article published after his appointment, Sokolowski reflected on Warhol's legacy and how his upbringing in working-class Pittsburgh informed his art, and expounded on his vision for the then-young museum's future.
“Although we are a one-artist institution, our programming will transcend that,” said Sokolowski, adding, “Our museum is not just going to be a mausoleum. I am very concerned that it not be that.”
Sokolowski remained as the director until his resignation at the end of 2010.
Sokolowski was also remembered outside of Pittsburgh, including by Visual AIDS, a New York collective he helped found in 1988 as a way to highlight AIDS-related art.
On Twitter, Apollo Magazine editor Thomas Marks recalled meeting Sokolowski in 2019, calling him a “real character.” That description shines in interviews like the one by former Pittsburgh City Paper arts editor Bill O'Driscoll, who spoke with Sokolowski in 2010 before he officially stepped down. In it, O'Driscoll calls Sokolowski “an outspoken cultural gadfly” and “a reliably frank and funny voice against whatever's kitschy or dull,” something the interviewee demonstrates when discussing subjects like the city's public artworks, of which he said, “Well, they're shitty here. There's not been a good one since I've been here.”View this post on Instagram
Visual AIDS mourns the loss of Thomas Sokolowski (1950–2020), one of our four founders. Tom served as the director of the Grey Art Gallery at NYU @nyugrey for many years before moving on to direct the Andy Warhol Museum @thewarholmuseum and the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University @zimmerliartmuseum . In April 1988, Tom and three fellow arts professionals—Robert Atkins, Gary Garrels, and William Olander—wrote a letter to their colleagues inviting them to join Visual AIDS, a collective effort to “coordinate, encourage, and facilitate the presentation and discussion of AIDS-related art.” Tom hosted the group’s first meeting at the Grey Art Gallery, in the context of a show he had curated, "Rosalind Solomon: Portraits in the Time of AIDS," one of the first exhibitions of AIDS-related photography. He went on to play a central role in organizing Visual AIDS’ first major project, Day Without Art, coordinating 800 art museums, galleries, and non-profit spaces for a day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis. Tom used his encyclopedic knowledge of art history to situate art about AIDS in a long lineage of artists responding to crisis and plague, and to advocate for the political potential of art. In 1992 he curated "From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS" with Robert Atkins, one of the first touring museum exhibitions to address the subject. He served on Visual AIDS’ Board of Directors for many years before moving to Pittsburgh to work at the Andy Warhol Museum. In remembrance of Tom’s steadfast commitment to the power of art, we are sharing on our website an excerpt from the speech he gave during the Museum of Modern Art’s observance of the second Day Without Art in 1990. Photo: Tom Sokolowski (left), Patrick O'Connell, and a friend wear Visual AIDS' Day Without Art t-shirts featuring artwork by Barbara Kruger, 1994.
Sokolowski stayed active in the Pittsburgh arts scene after leaving the Warhol and took on other gigs, such as co-hosting the CP Lynn Cullen Live show in 2014. At the time of his death, he was director of the Rutgers Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey.