Rarely do museums in close proximity to each other collaborate. Yet that is exactly what the art museums of Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Greensboro, have conspired to do for a traveling exhibition of Andy Warhol Polaroids that begins this fall.

Warhol was famous for surrounding himself with actors, models, hangers-on that he dubbed superstars. For years, the most famous record of the company he kept came in the form of the “screen tests” he conducted in his Factory in its 1960s heyday. (Some of these short clips are easily found on YouTube.) But in 1970, he purchased a large Polaroid Big Shot camera, and he proceeded to document the polyester decade with it. He shot actors and models, dancers and authors, rough boys and presidents.

Two years ago, The Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program donated 28,000 Warhol photos to 181 institutions. Each museum received approximately 150 Polaroids and 50 black-and-white gelatin prints.

“The photographs are indicative of the entire social scene, the milieu of that era, of the ’70s and ’80s,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art. “It’s candid snapshots. It’s people who were a part of his Factory, a place for his high-class socialites, the denizens of the art world and rock world, the DJ culture.”

People like Andre Leon Talley, Durham native (and subject of the forthcoming documentary September Issue), painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and figure skater Dorothy Hamill are some of the more prominent subjects, but then, Warhol loved to photograph just about everyone, although being famous didn’t hurt.

The most important reason for the museums’ decision to collaborate was that by pooling their photos, visitors would be treated to a larger and more cohesive exhibition. Each of Warhol’s Polaroids was actually roughly 3.5 by 4 inches. If each museum had decided to do its own exhibition, not only would there be redundancies, but also 150 Polaroids would be far less striking than 400.

“We thought it would make a bigger show, for one thing, and it would really show that cumulatively having all our works together also further demonstrates how much Warhol used the camera,” explains Nancy M. Doll, director of the UNC-G’s Weatherspoon Art Museum. “I think collectively having 400 works instead of 100 just helps to demonstrate that.”

Another reason for this collaboration is the ever-important money issue. By integrating their collections, several cost issues are resolved. “We’ll share the expenses of having the works framed,” Doll says. “And there were some speculations about how to present the work. We’ve come up with a couple solutions that will be most cost-effective, and we’ll be able to share the cost.”

This raises the question, however, as to why visitors would want to go see the exhibition at the Ackland if they just saw the same one at the Nasher the previous month. To address this concern, each museum plans to differentiate the exhibit by adding its own special pieces. The bulk of the exhibition will remain the same, but the Nasher just happens to have Warhol portraits of its benefactors, the Nasher family, and it may also screen several Warhol films on a continual loop. The Ackland and the Weatherspoon plan to add their own flourishes, as well.

Emily Kass, director of the Ackland Art Museum, says that these varied additions to the exhibit will not only make it more interesting for the visitors but will also showcase what the museums have to offer: “It really highlights that there are three really strong university museums within driving distances of one another. So I hope it encourages people to go see each museum as part of following Andy Warhol.”

The Nasher will exhibit A Contemporary Collaboration: The World through Andy Warhol’s Lens from Nov. 12 to Feb. 21; the Weatherspoon from June 6, 2010 to Sept. 19, 2010; with the Ackland finishing it off in September 2010. Visit www.nasher.duke.edu/exhibitions_warhol.php for more information.