It would seem that, in some ways, the Carnegie International markets itself. It is, after all, the only regular exhibition of contemporary artists’ work from all over the world in North America. And it has been around for more than a century.

But this year’s show that starts May 3, the 55th since Andrew Carnegie held the first one in 1896, has a few more extras that led Carnegie Museum of Art to work a little harder to attract audiences. It’s longer than past shows, running nearly nine months compared to about six months normally; and it comes as the region is about to launch a big birthday party for the city’s 250th anniversary.

To build and keep the buzz going through the summer months and deep into winter, the Carnegie decided on four marketing firsts — giving the contemporary art show a title; advertising it in The New York Times; buying substantial Internet ads and launching an interactive Web site where visitors can learn about the artists and comment on their work at kiosks in the museum.

“Life on Mars” — the title of this year’s exhibition that showcases 40 artists — poses three questions: Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?

“It tees it up in a way for people who might not be familiar with the International,” said Kitty Julian, marketing director for the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. “You wonder, what is that? It’s a way of opening a dialogue with our audiences.”

Attracting different audiences is essential because “nine months is a long time to hold people’s attention,” Julian said. In spring and summer, the exhibition hopes to draw cultural tourists from Los Angeles; New York; Baltimore; Chicago; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; and Washington, D.C. In August and September, the focus will be college students and professors who are back in school here and in nearby states. In November and December, the target will be friends and family visiting Pittsburgh during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Some board members did question why the second oldest survey of contemporary art — the first, begun in 1895, is the Venice Biennale — needed a title.

“The board’s reaction to the title was, ‘Why now? We’ve never done that before,’ ” said Richard Armstrong, the Carnegie Museum of Art’s H.J. Heinz II curator..

“It’s tremendously useful that we have a title, as a provocation. You understand why the hell you’re there,” Armstrong said, adding that the show is “an artistic reaction to an overly elaborate world. The show really has its own personality. What does it mean to be affiliated or alienated in today’s world? How can artists make an impact on that condition by exploiting it, examining it, explicating it or even ignoring it?”…

How relevant is a contemporary art show? Armstrong sees it as a forum “where people who have close connections to the avant-garde can self-reflect on the vocabulary of the moment. It’s an effort at collective consciousness.”

As an example, he noted that when some people think of the 1920s, they think of flappers, the stock market’s rise and fall, laissez-faire economics and Prohibition. But that decade’s culture, Armstrong noted, featured experimental music by Francis Poulenc and Erik Satie, daring modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and experimental literature by e.e. cummings.

“That’s what defined that era,” Armstrong said. “It’s very important for the cultural sector to be self-aware and define itself. Pop culture does it. The socio-political and economic sectors do it. Do you want to be recalled as the era of Paris Hilton or the era of one of the artists in the exhibition? We have the financial means, the space, the judgment and we really have the moral obligation to do this.”

Marylynne Pitz
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette