Eric Shiner is the man behind Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. He’s also this year’s Armory Focus curator, turning the Armory Show spotlight — now in its 100th year — to US-based artists of the now. As a curator, he has a very strong voice — he’s commissioned an on-site tower of Brillo boxes in tribute to Warhol by Charles Lutz, and light sculpture by Peter Liversidge — and he’s also orchestrating an installation and performance at Ace Hotel New York we’ll tell you about soon… Another distinguishing facet: if you Google Image search him, you find a lot of guys named Eric with black eyes. We recently talked with Mr. Shiner a little bit about the centennial and these last hundred years of art.
Is the centennial of the first Armory Show an inspiration or a long shadow that it’s hard to get out from under? If the lead-up to WWI was the catalyst for the revolutions that were going on then in art, should we just be happy our own malaise are tame by comparison? Does art benefit from adversity and how much adversity is enough/too much?
I can safely say that the first Armory Show is just one of the countless change agents that have occurred in the art world over the past 100 years, although it is certainly an important one. For me, it was simply a point of reference for the Focus Section of The Armory Show, and I am including one installation that makes a direct reference on Marcel Duchamp, whose work at the 1913 Armory certainly ruffled many feathers. War and political upheaval do indeed act as a major influencer on the art being made in that period, but it’s important to note that the Armory was in 1913, with World War I starting a year later in 1914, so there is no connection to that specific war, but more broadly to the cataclysmic social change that was unfolding on a number of fronts in Europe at the time. Art always benefits from adversity, and so too does art present a fair amount of necessary adversity to its audiences. I think that great art should always make the viewer somewhat uncomfortable, challenging them to think in new ways. So, in the end, too much is never enough.
As curator of the Focus section, the country you got handed was the United States of America. That’s a big, rich country. How do you even start to narrow it down?
Yes, indeed. America is a very big thing, both in terms of geography and in more importantly in terms of its psychographic presence in the world, both within and without its borders. It’s true that it is a big, rich country… for some that’s very true, but I think it is critically important to always remember that for many, it is a very poor country with millions of people facing actual need on a daily basis. America is nothing more than a continual series of juxtapositions, from Big to Small, Rich to Poor, Liberal to Conservative. One might even say it is a series of never-ending internal strife and conflict — something that keeps it alive, if nothing else. This being the case, I didn’t narrow anything down at all. I simply addressed some of the juxtapositions that make up this nation, and selected artists who make a career out of always questioning the powers that be, in one form or another.
Ever since the crisis and the bailouts of 2008, there’s been some talk about Big Art as more and more defined by, consumed by, a smaller group of collectors. Is art in America becoming more or less democratic?
I would say that art is more democratic than ever. Of course, there are always going to be mega-collectors who fuel the commercial segment of the art world. That group is in a constant state of flux as fortunes grow and shrink in economies all over the world. Quite literally, as one enters recession, another explodes, so the poles of so-called influence are constantly shifting, as do the gallery’s foci shift in synch. That being said, museums and nonprofit art institutions all over the nation take as our prime focus sharing our art collections and our knowledge with our communities to ensure that art is always a part of people’s lives.
There is however a huge misconception present across this country that many people think is true, and that is the common statement that museums are only for the rich. I can guarantee that this is definitely not the case, and most museums do everything in their power to make sure that people that are facing struggles in their lives from a number of fronts have the time and the access to our collections, programs and educational outreach efforts so that they can get some creative energy and a small boost through their interaction with the arts.
<pc«I say this as a staunch supporter of making the arts truly accessible, and not just as a ‘feel good’ mouth piece gesture once or twice a year, but more as a way of life for what we do in the museum business. Like Andy Warhol, we at The Andy Warhol Museum always want to help give voice to those that don’t have it through our educational programs and exhibitions, and ultimately we strive to make that which is the anomaly in society quite simply the paradigm. We think the idea of art for the wealthy is absurd, and we do everything we can to make Warhol available to all. It’s a basic commitment to society, and I encourage all museums to start to do the same so that art is truly democratic and open to all.
Polaroid of Eric with art writer Glenn O’Brien by our friend Jeremy Kost