Director Eric Shiner comes to The Andy Warhol Museum via New Castle and Japan
Eric C. Shiner, recently appointed director of The Andy Warhol Museum, photographed at the museum in May in front of Andy Warhol's "Double $5/Weightlifter" of 1985-86.
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"I've always been much more interested in extant objects than trying to make them on my own. An artist feels compelled to make something new. An art historian feels compelled to describe what's already there."
That's one of many distinctions that would set Eric Shiner on the path to curator and, as of last week's appointment, director of The Andy Warhol Museum.
Growing up an only child in New Castle, Mr. Shiner was an "introspective, intellectually leaning, quiet kid who was constantly mulling over things, trying to figure out how things worked," he said. "I was inquisitive by nature."
When he visited his grandparents, he'd "give them a hug and a kiss and then immediately begin riffling through the drawers. I was always looking for cool stuff, and they had a lot of it -- books and an antique wooden turkey caller. They subscribed to National Geographic. They had a grizzly bear rug and lynx and wolf skins and a barracuda and dolphin on the walls. I was watching "Tarzan" at the time and I just loved it. I'd nap on the bear skin.
[It was] "a New Castle wunderkammer [cabinet of curiosities]."
That thrill of discovery was also nurtured during trips to country auctions, antique shops and garage sales with his mother and her friends.
"We'd go to Michelangelo's Flea Market on Route 422 every weekend. And I'd wake up early on Thursdays to go to the Pulaski [Pa.] flea market with her before school. I was eye-height to the tables. I'm sure I was looking for toys and gems, crystals and geological specimens."
In other ways, Mr. Shiner was just a regular child. He enjoyed the outdoors.
"There was a huge field by our house and woods behind that. I was playing in the creek and the woods all the time, looking for crayfish and frogs. When I was 12 or 13, my Dad bought me a three-wheeler motorbike. I broke my arm shortly after jumping over an old stump."
When he was 8 or 9 years old, he was outside playing when he heard a motor sputtering and watched as a small plane made an emergency landing in a nearby field.
"As soon as it hit the ground, both wings broke off. I ran into the [family's] candy store yelling, 'A plane crashed! A plane crashed!' And they said, 'Eric, don't lie.' and I said 'No -- call the police!'," Mr. Shiner said, amused by his childhood fervor.
The family business -- Sotus Candies -- gave Mr. Shiner experience with business fiscal, personnel and departmental dynamics. He started at the bottom.
"About 15 women worked in the candy factory, all about my grandmother's age. I had tons of surrogate grandmothers and aunts. I had a little sass to me, even as a kid. When I'd give them trouble, the ladies would pick me up and put me in the garbage can. It was empty with a clean bag. Later, I'd say I'm sorry and could then come out."
He began working in earnest after school when he was 9 or 10 and continued through high school, hammering large chocolate blocks into pieces and tossing them into the huge melters, on the assembly line, shrink-wrapping products. "Candy was still being marked by hand. We'd make an "S" for strawberry, a script "C" for chocolate-covered cherry..."
"To this day I don't eat chocolate very much."
Mr. Shiner's home was next to the candy factory, and every day his mother would fix lunch for all of the family including his grandparents. "One day we were sitting at the table and there was a big thud on the house. We all jumped up and saw a buffalo butting the house. There was a buffalo farm down the road, and we called and told them, 'One of your buffaloes is attacking our house.'"
A few years later, Mr. Shiner would be with the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea program docking in South America, Africa and Asia. "I was 20 years old and had a scholarship to travel around the world on a ship. It completely changed everything."
He had been introduced to art history formally at Pitt as an Honors College student when he took a world architecture survey class with Frank Toker, who became his mentor and adviser. Mr. Shiner's junior year abroad was in Japan, where he lived with a Japanese family, immersed in the language and culture.
After graduation, he interned at The Andy Warhol Museum, which had recently opened, and worked as program director for the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania. Awarded a prestigious Japanese government scholarship, Mr. Shiner moved to Japan for graduate school at Osaka University.
To gain admittance, he had to take the same entrance exam that every Japanese student took and to pass a Japanese language proficiency test. In addition to formal classes, he purchased kanji (pictograms) texts used by Japanese children in grades one through six and worked through every one of them. "It helped to get my mind thinking in real Japanese terms."
He succeeded so well that in later years, when studying Mandarin, some said his pronunciation sounded as though he was Japanese.
At age 39, Mr. Shiner has returned to Western Pennsylvania with a global perspective and with his confirmation as director has begun to formulate his vision for The Warhol.
At the top of his list is to encourage the staff to be "proactive, optimistic and forward-thinking. To be fulfilled at what they do and have a good time doing it. To get people fully engaged."
And then asking "How do we get to the next level? What is a museum in the first place? What could and should our role as a museum be in the months and years to come?
"Warhol was consistently innovative and consistently exploring new territory. [He] always blurred lines between art and business, and [because of that heritage] that's something we should be able to do ... what other museums can't do, setting up new business models and collaborations with companies, for example."
Mr. Shiner said he's grateful for the culture the museum has established: "Thinking outside the box, giving voice to people who don't have one and instigating when necessary. I think that is our role."
Not to be provocative on purpose, he noted. But also not to shy away from "things that may at first seem radical and even somehow aggressive, when in reality those are the very types of things society needs to be talking about." He cited as examples past exhibitions "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" and "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," an exploration of eugenics theory organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Historically those types of shows had the most impact."
The museum is on track to continue with challenging and edifying programming, as with the Word of God exhibition series begun by previous director Thomas Sokolowski, in which contemporary artists look at texts of the world's great religions. The initial plan was for two or three artists to show simultaneously. That expanded to five separate exhibitions spread throughout the year as Mr. Shiner brought on additional artists whose work he was familiar with.
The exhibitions are complemented by public programs during which presenters and audience talk about religion, Mr. Shiner said, "and how often does that happen?" To date, the programs have been successful, encouraging dialogue. "They didn't necessarily agree, but they were talking."
"Ultimately that's what we want to do as a museum -- get people to learn and to talk."
First Published July 13, 2011 12:00 am