Written by Susan Jacobs Jablow
Eric Shiner leads one of the world's "destination" museums for contemporary art. As someone immersed in Japanese art and language, he never expected to direct an enterprise devoted to the influential Pop artist and cultural icon Andy Warhol. But it's not a surprise that Shiner is at the forefront of emerging trends in art and culture.
Early on a clear, spring morning, Eric Shiner walks energetically across Pittsburgh's Sandusky Street toward The Andy Warhol Museum. Noticeable at 6'5" tall, he is dressed in black jeans and a black-and-white plaid shirt with a red bow tie. He stops to greet a museum visitor, asking whether he can point her in the right direction. He never mentions that he is the museum's director. A New Castle, Pa., native and Pitt alumnus, Shiner is both a down-to-earth Western Pennsylvanian and an internationally respected art historian and curator.
His education and work in Pittsburgh, Japan, Yale University, and New York City have made him one of the foremost experts in contemporary Japanese art but have never diminished his engaging charm or hometown pride.
Shiner jokes that in the 11 years he was away from Pittsburgh, he should have been paid by the tourism office because he spent so much time extolling the region's virtues and encouraging people to visit. "I have always been a huge fan of Pittsburgh," he says. "I love it here."
With old and new industries, affordable real estate, and an engaged arts community, the city has become a fertile incubator for contemporary art. "Pittsburgh has the perfect storm for becoming a center of arts production," says Shiner, who also is an adjunct faculty member in Pitt's Department of History of Art and Architecture and an advisor for the department's Certificate in Museum Studies. Since his return to the city in 2008, when he accepted a job as chief curator at The Warhol, he has worked to integrate the arts with Pittsburgh's industrial legacy of innovation.
In June, The Warhol opened the exhibition "Factory Direct: Pittsburgh," featuring 14 artists, three of whom are Pittsburghers. All of the artists worked in-residence at area factories. Locations included Alcoa, Heinz, and the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The resulting artworks were created in collaboration with the host facilities and were based on the factories' histories, technologies, materials, and processes.
The exhibition, which is open until Sept. 9, is staged outside the museum in a surprising space—Guardian Self-Storage in the city's Strip District, historically known for its warehouses and factories. Examining the relationship between art and industry was central to Warhol's ideas; he even named his New York studio The Factory.
"I hope that the exhibition inspires people to think about art and industry and where the two overlap, through such divergent areas as skill sets of the workers/artists, creativity, and innovation," says Shiner, who sees similarities in the processes of making both technology and art.
Shiner's enthusiasm for Pittsburgh and its industrial heritage contrasts with Andy Warhol's feelings about the Steel City. After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology—now Carnegie Mellon—Warhol moved to New York City in 1949, where he began his storied career as a commercial artist and, eventually, world-famous celebrity artist. He is said to have visited his hometown only twice after that, and many believe he disdained Pittsburgh. Even so, says Shiner, Warhol admired Pittsburghers' work ethic and had fond memories from his childhood and college years. The 'Burgh simply didn't have the cachet of New York. "Warhol wanted to be famous," explains Shiner. "New York was his epicenter."
Early in his career, Shiner's own epicenter was Japan, but the road from Pitt to there and back to Pittsburgh was far from straight. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Shiner pursued a double major in the history of art and architecture and in Japanese language and literature. His fascination with Japan had begun in high school during the summer of 1989, when he participated in the Pennsylvania Governor's School for International Studies on the Pitt campus. The theme that year was Japan, and he became enthralled with the country's culture and language.
Then, as a college sophomore, he visited Japan for the first time with the Semester at Sea program and went on to spend his junior year abroad at Konan University in Kobe, Japan. By the time he graduated from Pitt with a Bachelor of Arts degree, his fluency in Japanese caught the interest of corporate recruiters, but Shiner was equally passionate about art.
During his undergraduate years, he had become a regular volunteer for Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, and when the brand new Andy Warhol Museum—part of the Carnegie Museums complex—announced that it needed an intern, the volunteer coordinator recommended Shiner for the position. Fresh out of college, he started the internship during the first week the museum was open to the public, in 1994. There was just one problem: He wasn't well versed in contemporary art. His focus had been on medieval Japanese art and architecture.
Fortunately, The Warhol was a great place to learn. He was assigned to do research for the Andy Warhol Chronology, a project that mapped the artist's life day by day—even hour by hour, and minute by minute—thanks to records Warhol kept of his activities.
"I was reading every book about him, where he was, how much money he spent," says Shiner. "I got very deep inside Warhol and his world."
In his research, he discovered that Warhol had admired Japanese art. In fact, after visiting Japan in 1956, Warhol had used gold leaf in some of his drawings, a commonly used technique in the Japanese screen paintings that Shiner had studied so closely in college. He didn't know it then, but his future in the contemporary art world was beginning to take shape.
After a year as an unpaid intern (with a restaurant job at night), Shiner left The Warhol to become program director for the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania. A year later, he was hired at Pitt as the program manager for an intensive Japanese language program for scientists and engineers. His job included finding internship placements for students, which gave him the opportunity to travel frequently to Japan. Those visits made him realize that he wanted to go back to the island nation to study Japanese contemporary art.
Before long, he was awarded a Monbusho Prize, a prestigious scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, to earn a master's degree at Osaka University. After completing that degree in art history, he stayed in Japan to work on the 2001 Yokohama Triennale, an important contemporary art exhibition with works by artists from Asia, North America, and Europe. He spent a year and a half on the project as an assistant curator, selecting art works, determining the exhibition layout, cataloging the show, and promoting it.
Then, he found himself at a crossroads. He was offered a museum job in Tokyo and also was accepted into a graduate art history program at Yale University. Although he loved the role of curating, he decided to return to the states for graduate education.
At Yale, he enjoyed the academic atmosphere, but the contrast between urban life in Japan and university life in New Haven was stark. At the time, the market for Asian contemporary art was exploding, and Shiner was one of the few people in the United States who was deeply knowledgeable about Asian artists. While at Yale, he was being approached to write essays and curate exhibitions. So, after earning a second master's degree, he moved to New York City, where, for the sake of stability, he got a day job at a nonprofit arts organization. "Pretty quickly I was doing everything I wanted to do in my career," he says.
For the next four years, he lived his dream of curating shows, writing art criticism, and living and breathing the international art scene. He lived in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, with its thriving art gallery district. Soon he was able to drop the nonprofit job and focus full-time on a freelance career, while also teaching at various local colleges.
In 2008, at lunch with a museum friend from Pittsburgh, he learned that The Warhol, where he had begun his contemporary art career, was hiring a chief curator. Within days, he was meeting with the museum's then-director, Tom Sokolowski, and Milton Fine, the benefactor for the curatorial position. A few months later, he started the curatorial job and was pleasantly surprised by how Pittsburgh had changed in 11 years. The growth of the health care and high-tech industries had brought newcomers to the city, and the art scene was quickly expanding.
As chief curator at The Warhol, Shiner worked directly with artists to select particular works for exhibitions and to display them in educational and thought-provoking ways. In an exhibition, paintings, photographs, and objects are arranged in relation to one another to transmit the purpose and meaning intended by each artist. As a curator, Shiner tried to anticipate what visitors might think as they navigated the space. "They build an opinion on what you give them," he says. "Everyone comes to it with their own history. You guide them in a certain direction."
Within a few years, Shiner became acting director of The Warhol and was officially named museum director in July 2011. Returning to The Warhol has given Shiner the opportunity to reflect upon how the disparate parts of his education and professional experience have come together in his current job.
His office at the museum includes a handful of art works from some of his favorite artists, including a folding hand fan in the traditional Japanese accordion style, painted in bold colors with a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, one of Warhol's most recognizable icons. The fan was made by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, for whom Warhol was a major influence. Shiner grew to love Morimura's work during his time in Japan, and in 2013, The Warhol will host a retrospective of the artist's work.
Though Shiner could not have imagined it as an intern, The Warhol played a significant role in shaping his art sensibilities. "I would never have been able to achieve what I have without first having those deeply formative experiences, learning the business, working with artists, and ultimately deciding that this was my passion in life and what I must do to survive," he says.
Now, as museum director, Shiner does not have the same intimate connections with the artists and artworks, but he serves an even more important purpose in shaping the museum's future and representing it on an international stage.
"Our culture is excessively Warholian," says Shiner. He sees the phenomena of Twitter and Facebook as outgrowths of Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would be world famous for 15 minutes. In fact, social media may become a more integrated part of the museum experience. More profoundly, though, The Warhol is known for hosting exhibitions that are provocative, such as "Without Sanctuary," a 2001 show of postcards and photographs of lynchings in the American South. Shiner plans to continue the tradition of exhibitions that are challenging and thought provoking.
Although Shiner's work takes him all over the world, when he's back at The Warhol he acts like a host, welcoming visitors to his home. He wants to make the museum a place that appeals to local families, not just visiting art enthusiasts. On a typical weekday, with school groups and tourists exploring the museum's displays, he can be found walking the museum floors, an energetic and friendly presence. "I want us to be the coolest museum in the world," he says, not just a "radical" museum. "We have lots of tourists and international visitors. I want to open minds, and I want everyone to feel comfortable coming here."