The dismal economy and concomitant lifestyle shifts have dominated discussions of American cultural trends of late. A sleeper story, which looks to be both more redemptive and enduring, is the coming of age of progressive 1960s social attitudes, embodied prominently in the ideology and persona of President-elect Barack Obama, but evident within the programming and staff of a wide range of social, cultural and political institutions.
The Andy Warhol Museum has appointed as the first Milton Fine Curator of Art an individual who epitomizes 21st-century global ideals but also has a keen appreciation, both intellectual and emotional, of Pittsburgh past and present.
Eric C. Shiner is a New Castle native (his grandparents owned Sotus Candies) who returned to southwestern Pennsylvania via the East Coast and the Far East.
A graduate of Union Area High School, Shiner, who turned 37 on New Year's Eve, was a Pennsylvania Governor's Schools of Excellence awardee during the summer of 1989. The focus happened to be on Japan, and he fell in love.
"I was always, as a kid, reading publications like National Geographic, and I knew I wanted to travel," Shiner says. "I saw a centuries-old traditional culture that navigates contemporary technology with ease and grace."
While at the University of Pittsburgh, he visited Japan for the first time through the Semester at Sea program. He took his junior year abroad at Konan University, Kobe, living with a Japanese family with whom he spoke only Japanese. At 6 feet, 5 inches tall (or 195 centimeters, as he learned to answer in Japan), his second challenge after language was to not bump into the country's relatively low door jambs.
Shiner earned his bachelor's degree through Pitt's Honors College, graduating magna cum laude with a dual major in the History of Art & Architecture and Japanese Language and Literature.
His language skills would be put to the test at Osaka University, where the entrance exam and all coursework were in Japanese. He completed a master's degree there in 2001, focusing on contemporary Japanese art, and was awarded the Japanese Ministry of Education's Monbusho Prize.
Shiner's appreciation for objects and the stories they hold began early. "My family collected on a massive scale -- antiques, memorabilia, tchotchkes." His maternal grandfather, Winnet Andrews, was a head designer for Zippo lighters (battleship and airplane designs you come across are probably his) who was a "weekend artist" at home.
As a child, Shiner went to estate sales and country auctions with his mother, Kristine Russell, who also took him to the Carnegie frequently.
In his senior year at Pitt, he volunteered at Carnegie Museum of Art, where he was tapped for an internship at the newly opened Andy Warhol Museum in 1994. The experience acquainted him not only with Warhol but with the broader field of contemporary art.
Through contacts made in Osaka, Shiner became assistant curator of the first Yokohama Triennale of Contemporary Art held in 2001, an endeavor comparable to the Carnegie International.
After that, he returned to the States to enter the history of art Ph.D. program at Yale University, where he acquired proficiency in Chinese. But after a while he tired of the formalist constrictions of the program and left with a second master's degree.
Since then, he has organized exhibitions in New York City, lectured, been a consultant and translator, and taught at Stony Brook University, Pace University and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, all in New York state.
Warhol director Thomas Sokolowski says the endowment of the curatorial position demonstrates Pittsburgher Milton Fine's "commitment to both contemporary arts and to this institution. [Eric] reflects all the interests and energy that Milt has."
Sokolowski says that not only has Shiner lived overseas and experienced another culture on an intimate basis, but also he has studied within two very different academic systems, which is much less common. Japanese universities are more formal and follow a different methodology than our own, Sokolowski points out. Attending Osaka University and Yale thus gave Shiner opportunity to "look at his material from two different ideological vantage points."
In both daily life and classroom, Shiner was exposed to "a totally different ethos. That kind of experience is indelible."
One concern Sokolowski had when interviewing candidates was their commitment to Pittsburgh. "You're living in a community. Eric was enthusiastic about coming to Pittsburgh, actually relishing it."
Shiner's commitment to community has already been put into practice. He's only been here since October but has two exhibitions opening Feb. 7, one of work by Bridget Berlin, which will bring Warhol's confidant here for a performance and time capsule opening. The other, titled "The End" (inspired by the "tanking economy"), will include among its 32 global artists Pittsburghers Susanne Slavick and Diane Samuels.
"There's a huge pool of talent here. And it's exciting that young university graduates are trying to stay here," says Shiner, who resides in Lawrenceville.
On the horizon is "Factory Direct," Shiner's first big show, which will comprise collaborations between 10 artists and workers in 10 local factories.
"There's such great civic pride in work here, and that was something Andy shared. And I share it, too -- I've done more than my fair share to get where I am," he says.
Shiner, who is a Yale Gay & Lesbian Alumni Association board member, has researched the transformative aspect of the body, and feminist and queer theory (a field of gender studies) are among his academic interests. He came out in his senior year at Pitt and hopes to be a positive role model for younger members of the local gay community.
He will also be involved in growing the museum collection of Warhol artworks and hopes to meet interested donors.
"My main goal is to really engage the Pittsburgh public with what we do here. The role of a museum is to educate, engage and sometimes enrage. This museum has never been afraid of anything. That's very rare in museums around the world and something I respect.
"More than anything I want to get across that a museum is not a place that should be viewed as elitist."
Shiner's goals are certainly in tune with The Warhol's motto -- "more than a museum" -- and ensure that while it may be a monument to the late artist it will never be viewed as a mausoleum.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.