Carnegie Mellon University Terminates Curator, Inspires Backlash

by Corinna Kirsch on January 28, 2014 · 0 comments Newswire

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As of last week Carnegie Mellon University effectively has no contemporary art gallery. Astria Suparak, director and curator of the Miller Gallery, the university’s one contemporary art space, was terminated at the close of the winter break. Without a curator and director, the College of Fine Arts plans to transform the gallery into a “combined gallery, teaching and research space,” with programming led by what’s being called a “faculty leadership committee,”  chaired by Franco Sciannameo, Associate Dean for Interdisciplinary Initiatives and Professor of Film Musicology.

When we asked Carnegie Mellon University if this was a cost-saving measure, the institution declined to respond. They did, however, mention that they “anticipate more exhibitions than in the past.” Exactly what type of exhibitions are being planned, or how this could even be achieved without a director and curator remains unclear.

CMU College of Fine Arts Faculty has yet to come forward on this issue, and the CMU school newspaper The Tartan has yet to make a statement either.

Throwing the curator out with the bathwater has, predictably, inspired a backlash from the Pittsburgh arts community. Suparak was unavailable for comment, but Pittsburgh has spoken for her. From Eric Shiner, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, to artists serving on the Miller Gallery advisory committee, nobody sees the advantage in laying off Astria Suparak, a nationally recognized curator who has brought a range of innovative, interdisciplinary programs to the gallery. Over the last week complaints have been numerous: at least one letter has been written to the President, and a flurry of comments have appeared on Facebook.

Since coming on board to the Miller Gallery in 2008, Suparak has quickly become an integral part of Pittsburgh, revered as a lynchpin connecting the University to the rest of the contemporary art world.

Dan Byers of the Carnegie Museum of Art told us over email that Suparak’s dismissal “shows enormous ignorance of what a loss this will be to Carnegie Mellon.” He went on to say that “under Astria’s leadership the Miller has been anything but a ‘conventional gallery’” and that her “programming has been the model of a progressive, interdisciplinary, experimental curatorial approach.”

That sentiment was reiterated by Marc Fischer who sent a letter to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and the President of Carnegie Mellon University. “Why make this change now,” he wonders, “following the landmark feminist exhibit Alien She that has been such a massive success for the gallery? Who is this decision supposed to benefit?” As an artist, Fischer mentions that Suparak “proved herself to be easily one of the most fearlessly intelligent, imaginative, detail-oriented, ethical, and responsible curators we have ever worked with in our fifteen year history.”

I’ve reprinted these comments from Byers and Fischer in full below, because it’s insufficient to merely quote from them. Suparak was an important figure in Pittsburgh and beyond, and without her curatorial direction—or anyone else’s—Carnegie Mellon University’s contemporary art gallery will seemingly cease to exist.

Statement to Art F City, from Dan Byers, 2013 Carnegie International co-curator, was on the Miller Gallery advisory committee:

The irony of CMU’s statement is that under Astria’s leadership the Miller has been anything but a “conventional gallery.” Her programming has been the model of a progressive, interdisciplinary, experimental curatorial approach. Some of the most interesting university galleries  (ICA at UPenn, List at MIT, Renaissance Society at UChicago, etc) would look “conventional” in comparison, given their focus, for the most part, on art that circulates in the art world – even when it comes from overlooked corners.

Astria combined the work of CMU faculty with projects that came from the worlds of architecture, urban planning, rock music, political activism, collectivism, Steelers football fan culture, MFA students, experimental science, and even health care policy with art that came more squarely from the “art world.”

Any city thrives when there is a rich and diverse ecology of contemporary art presenting institutions. Pittsburgh has become less interesting and less relevant as CMU has chosen to turn inward. Astria’s work was nationally recognized, much like that of her CMU peers in computer science or engineering, or theater and the performing arts. The widespread recognition she enjoyed was the same kind desired by those colleagues.

I will miss a colleague who presented a different kind of program than mine, as will the many people who came to her shows. Alien She, Astria’s last show, should make any thinking and feeling CMU administrator think more than twice about their decision: a model of experimental exhibition making, it effortlessly mixes scholarship, politics, archival material, film and video, sculpture, and ephemera with an influential cultural movement. The kind of show any top university – like CMU – would be proud of.

Marc Fischer, artist and member of Temporary Services, CMU alum; will participate in the 2014 Whitney Biennial with Public Collectors

Letter sent to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and the President of Carnegie Mellon University:

As an alumnus of the College of Fine Arts (BFA 1993) and an artist who has worked with Astria Suparak, I was deeply shocked and saddened to learn of the extraordinarily misguided decision to eliminate the position of Director of the Miller Gallery. Forcing the dismissal of Astria Suparak, precisely at the moment that her profoundly intelligent and critical curatorial work is receiving the greatest attention and acclaim on an international scale, shows enormous ignorance of what a loss this will be to Carnegie Mellon, its students, to the city of Pittsburgh, and to the many that observe Suparak’s work with great interest from afar. Why make this change now following the landmark feminist exhibit “Alien She” that has been such a massive success for the gallery? Who is this decision supposed to benefit?

Five years after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, I co-formed the collaborative art group Temporary Services. We have had the good fortune to work with Astria Suparak on two exhibitions at the Miller Gallery: an exhibit devoted to our project and newspaper “Art Work”, and the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial. In both instances, Suparak proved herself to be easily one of the most fearlessly intelligent, imaginative, detail-oriented, ethical, and responsible curators we have ever worked with in our fifteen year history. We show images from both of these exhibitions in nearly every lecture we give because of the beautiful and expert installation of these shows that happened under her leadership.

I find it particularly unsettling that there is nothing on CFA’s Facebook page or on the page of the Miller Gallery about Suparak’s removal. Please know that as people learn of this decision, there will be an outcry, and quite possibly a strong backlash against Carnegie Mellon University, the School of Art, and the College of Fine Arts. Astria Suparak is a well-loved curator whose outstanding body of work is meaningful to thousands beyond Pittsburgh. The cancellation of her job, and her subsequent dismissal will not be taken lightly or forgotten quickly.

I would urge you to avert what is sure to be a very negative reaction to your decision, and reinstate Astria Suparak in her position immediately. Her work is the primary reason I continue to pay attention to Carnegie Mellon as an alumnus, and her departure will leave a terrible void for the students and community that have benefited from her passionate and memorable work at the school.

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