Eric Shiner is proof that you can go home again—and even like it. After more than 10 years away, the western Pennsylvania native and Pitt graduate recently returned to home turf for his dream job as The Andy Warhol Museum’s new Milton Fine Curator of Art. Unlike the museum’s famous namesake, Shiner never lost his affection for Pittsburgh and has sung its praises all over the world, including his adopted home-away-from-home, Japan.
It was serendipity that placed Shiner in a statewide honors program for high school students in the summer of 1989, when the focus just happened to be Japan. “Something about it really spoke to me,” Shiner recounts, and a few years later, after visiting Japan during a semester at sea while a Pitt student, Shiner was hooked. His undergraduate and graduate studies would all focus on the study of Japanese art and architecture. In between, Shiner made his first stop at The Andy Warhol Museum for a memorable internship spent peering into the boxes—and, consequently, the contemporary-art genius—of the famed pop artist. He professes to have changed a lot as a person during his time at The Warhol and his six years in Japan. One experience opened his eyes to the world; the other gave him a whole new appreciation for the world of contemporary art. He’s applied lessons learned from both in an already eclectic career as a curator and lecturer—a path that, happily, has brought him home again.
By Betsy Momich
When did you develop an interest in art?
My family members were incurable collectors. Mom would drag me to flea markets, local auctions, estate sales, always out looking for treasures. I think that really helped me
Talk about your first time in Japan.
It was during the Semester at Sea program in the spring of 1992, and we traveled to South America, Africa, and Asia. I was 20 years old, and to be able to see the world and be let loose to experience the cultures of the countries we visited was phenomenal. It changed me as a person and changed my world view. It really made me understand how society functions outside of an American context. I decided then and there that I would go back to Japan. Pitt had an exchange program with Konan University in Kobe, so I applied and was accepted, and off I went, back to Japan a few months later. I was there for a year.
Your first degree was in medieval Japanese architecture. When did your focus switch to contemporary art?
My internship at The Warhol completely opened my eyes to contemporary art. I
started a week after the museum opened.
We were working on a fashion exhibition, and one of my first tasks was to go up into the archives and find the boxes marked “fashion.” So I was opening boxes with all sorts of things Andy would see and buy and literally pack away right after he bought them. Sometimes I would find Andy’s clothes, his leather jackets, his boots, wigs, things that you know were once directly a part of him and his look.
I changed a lot as a person during my time there. I came into the museum as a college kid wearing Pitt sweatshirts and jeans. I definitely went from being this preppy kid to all of a sudden learning about how one functions in the contemporary world of fashion and art.
What did you do when you returned to Japan?
I went to graduate school at Osaka University, and during my final year there
I interned at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. The chief curator was working on an amazing exhibition of contemporary Dutch art and he asked me to come work for him. As soon as I graduated, he was named one of the four artistic directors of the first-ever Yokohama Triennial, which is a huge international show of contemporary art. He said to me, okay, you’re moving to Tokyo, you’re going to be my assistant curator and you’re going to be in charge of handling all the artists.
It was one of those things that you can sink your teeth into and have so much fun with: tons of public art, site-specific installations, and things that connected with the community. That’s something that I subscribe to very much—looking at art as a virus that gets into the midst of the organism known as society and sometimes changes it for the better or for the worse. We might be completely ambivalent, we might have a violent reaction against it, or we might love it, but it gets in there and changes the way we think and view society. That’s the kind of art I tend to admire the most.
What brought you back to the U.S.?
That was one of those defining moments in my life. I was offered a job as an associate curator of contemporary art at a museum in Tokyo and I also found out that same week that I got into the Ph.D. program at Yale. I realized that if I didn’t come back to the states at that point I probably never would. So I went to Yale and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the History of Art, focusing on Japanese contemporary. But after about three semesters there, I started to feel a strong urge to curate shows. After two years in the program, I had my fill. Luckily, the phone had already started to ring and people in New York were asking me to come and do shows and write articles for exhibitions. So I left with yet another master’s degree and moved to New York, where I lived for the past four years.
What did you think when you heard about this position?
I was so excited about the possibility of coming back home to Pittsburgh and back to the museum where I started my journey.
I’m very much looking forward to sharing all of these amazing art experiences with local audiences. I’m also going to do a lot of collaborative work with local institutions, with local factories, with all sorts of unorthodox or unthought-of collaborators.
Do you have anything in mind?
I have a few projects up my sleeve that would take a deep look at Pittsburgh, both
historically and contemporaneously, as a true base of innovation and industry in this country and, indeed, the world. Today we have robotics companies, medical technology companies, and tons of amazing things coming out of Carnegie Mellon and Pitt. I really want to look at what that means today in terms of the face of Pittsburgh and how those pockets of creativity can cross over the line into the world of art. Even Andy Warhol had a factory, remember?
So science and art aren’t conflicting?
No, not at all. In fact, I think that when you meld art with science and art with industry, the results are absolutely brilliant, and that’s on both sides of the coin. I don’t think it’s
useful to view art and technology as binaries because, when you think about it, both of those fields are about making and are about creation and innovation.
At The Warhol, I want to develop exhibitions that make people think. It’s so important for people to always remain in motion, to be on a journey, to travel. And that doesn’t have to be a physical journey; it can be a mental one. Even if you can’t go to Japan or India or New York, you can take advantage of all of the Carnegie Museums and have a life-changing experience in your own backyard.