For institutions that insist they’re there to “share art with the public,” art museums are really not very good at sharing art with each other. That’s what make it even more incredible that the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum – two of the most powerful art institutions in the world—share Andy Warhol’s first commissioned portrait.


Or, rather, the Whitney and the Met share Warhol’s first commissioned portraits: “Ethel Scull 36 Times,” created in 1963, is a multicolored montage-style painting, composed of three dozen images of socialite, collector, and Warhol-patron Ethel Scull. Ethel Scull’s taxi-magnate millionaire hubby, Robert Scull, commissioned Warhol to paint his wife’s likeness for her 42nd birthday.  Warhol agreed, and promptly marched Ethel to a photo booth in Time Square – there, he coaxed and prompted her into a series of flirty, silly, and even serious poses. The hundreds of black-and-white photos from the impromptu shoot became the basis for Ethel Scull’s infamous montage.


Despite Robert’s incredible present and Ethel’s seeming happiness in this portrait,  the marriage eventually crumbled. Robert Scull auctioned off the vast majority of his collection in 1973, and the Sculls entered a viciously messy divorce soon after. In the early 80’s, determined not to let Robert dictate the fate of her portrait, Ethel asked Warhol what she should do with it. Having long been patronized and supported by the Whitney, Warhol recommended she gift the work to that museum. The Whitney was so determined that this promise should come to fruition, that when Ethel had back surgery in 1984, a Whitney curator actually went to her hospital bedside to ask her to sign the gift papers. Supposedly, Ethel asked the curator, “How do you think Bob will feel about my giving the portrait away?” The curator cheerfully responded, “Well, I think he’s probably going to be very angry.” With that, Ethel signed it over.


The Whitney had no idea that all was not signed and settled. Two years later, Robert Scull died – soon after, the Metropolitan Museum called up the Whitney to gleefully inform the institution that, in his will, Scull had left the portrait to the Met and that they were sending a truck to pick it up that very day. After much discussion and debate, the director of the Whitney finally went directly to the Met. In a closed door meeting – no Museums, no lawyers, just the men – the two directors agreed that they would share the painting.


Now, “Ethel Scull 36 Times” travels back and forth from the Met to the Whitney every five years. I was lucky enough to see it at the Whitney this past weekend, featured in their “Portraits” exhibition. It makes me very happy, though, to consider that in the next few years, an entirely new audience will be viewing Ethel – and all because two museums learned how to share. 

Kelsey Leonard