Director Dismissed: Some call Astria Suparak's Miller Gallery departure a 'mistake'

"That's the sign of a bad situation, when a city doesn't recognize its own resources."

| January 29, 2014

Alien She, the exhibit of riot-grrrl culture at Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery, won't be the first show curated by Astria Suparak to reach beyond campus. A recent "critic's pick" by Artforum magazine, the exhibit will soon visit cities like Philadelphia, Portland and San Francisco — as have other exhibits Suparak has assembled.

This time, though, it's not just the artwork that's leaving campus. Suparak is leaving the Miller as well.

As City Paper first reported online last week, a spokesperson for CMU confirmed the gallery is moving in a "new direction."

In a statement, College of Fine Arts Dean Dan Martin asserted the Miller "will begin ... exhibiting, presenting and exploring work across arts disciplines at the university." Martin said the space will become "a combined gallery, teaching and research space," with programming determined by a "faculty leadership committee" representing departments like art, design, music, and drama.

Suparak declined comment. But in a letter sent to colleagues and obtained by City Paper, she wrote that the gallery was "transform[ing] into an internally focused space for students and faculty that will be programmed by a faculty committee, effectively bringing my tenure to a close."

"I will be taking time to explore possibilities for my next venture ... while continuing to oversee the Alien She exhibition and tour," she added.

Local art professionals, who credit the Miller with raising Pittsburgh's profile in the art world, have expressed shock at the news.

"This is a mistake that will leave a gaping hole in Pittsburgh's cultural sphere," says Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Suparak's exhibits have addressed a range of issues: the fate of abandoned big-box retail stores; the work of anti-corporate pranksters The Yes Men; the phenomenon of Steelers fandom. "To have the Yes Men show in Pittsburgh was such a coup, and the Steelers show was a lot of fun," Shiner says. "I'd always dreamed of doing it myself."

Shiner fears that the Miller will be more "inward-looking," focusing on campus work to the exclusion of exhibits with a broader reach and wider audience. "Having a world-class gallery on campus means students have access to critical thinking," he says, adding that such shows attract art enthusiasts from outside campus, too.

This is not Suparak's first falling-out with academia. She came to Pittsburgh in 2008 after being fired in a dispute with Syracuse University. But her résumé also included acclaimed exhibits in cities like London and Montreal. "She's gonna be an interesting force," CMU assistant professor of art Jon Rubin told CP at the time.

"She's brought in so many perspectives," Rubin says today. "It's an interdisciplinary approach that reflects Carnegie Mellon's own interests."

"There was a job description, and she more than fulfilled it," agrees Ayanah Moor, a CMU associate professor of art. Moor suspects some within the school believe "the space should be serving different interests" — by featuring, say, costume designs from student productions. While Moor says she respects those disciplines, "to see this rich dialogue go away doesn't make sense."

Some say there may have been an omen of Suparak's departure: An advisory committee overseeing the Miller was dissolved more than a year ago. "Looking back, it dawned on me that the advisory committee had not met in a long time," says Dan Byers, a committee member and co-curator of the current Carnegie International.

Byers says he plans on writing a letter of complaint to CMU: While Suparak's departure is "a fait accompli, I feel like there's a lot that needs to be said."

The College of Fine Arts largely declined comment on this story, though it pledges to shed more light on the Miller's future in coming weeks. So far, though, the gallery's fate has received little attention locally.

"It's going to be a bigger deal outside of Pittsburgh than inside it," sighs Byers. "And that's the sign of a bad situation — when a city doesn't recognize its own resources."

Comments (2)

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Well, Astria, it's pretty clear that being fucking awesome and impactful at CMU is not appreciated. This news is a terrible loss for our local community, the arts community, and the cmu community. I can only say that I am so thankful that we got to have you. I think about the shows that you have curated and I actually get a little choked up because I can't think of any art exhibits that have been more relevant, powerful and meaningful. Anywhere.

I'm sure you have a lot of decisions to make but, shit, wherever you go you know you are going to be tremendous. That's pretty fucking awesome Astria. You're a god damn gem.

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Posted by Courtney Ehrlichman on 01/29/2014 at 9:07 PM

Since I haven't enjoyed the offerings at the Miller in the longest time, and also suspect that Pittsburgh's main art venues are more artworld-centric than engaged with the Western PA community, I can't say that this development in itself alarms me. Curators come through and burnish their resumes all the time, and it seems like Ms. Suparak has enjoyed a fairly long stint that will look good on her CV. At any rate, I wish her the best. However, any change can be problematic, and the sounds coming out of CMU are not at all reassuring. Pitt's University Gallery once offered frequent glimpses into the unusual and avant-garde, but has in recent years been forced by budget considerations to make do on a lot less. CMU's stated intentions in this case are even more disconcerting; it seems like they actively want to pull out of the art scene altogether and turn inward, into a campus-only venue. That cannot be a good thing.

Posted by Donald Simpson on 02/05/2014 at 7:04 PM
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