Nationally-noted Miler Gallery curator Astria Suparak let go from Carnegie Mellon
Just as Carnegie Mellon isn’t a typical university, over the last six years the Miller Gallery has not been an average university gallery.
The Miller Gallery was founded to be a place to foster experimentation and research in many disciplines through the process of art making. The gallery exemplifies the inherently Carnegie Mellon philosophy of interdisciplinary research, studying how technology, culture, and innovation shape the present and future, through ambitious, creative projects.
During her time at the Miller Gallery, former director Astria Suparak transformed the gallery into an innovation space featuring interdisciplinary, cutting-edge, contemporary art, drawing from both the Carnegie Mellon campus and around the world.
In light of her removal, it seems fitting to look back at highlights from her tenure at the Miller Gallery, to remember the standard that she brought into the gallery with her programming. While Suparak connected Carnegie Mellon with the broader art world, in doing so she influenced and involved many students, professors, and thinkers by bringing contemporary art to them.
Suparak came to the Miller Gallery as an already-established, mid-career curator and artist. She studied drawing and art history at Pratt Institute on a full artistic merit scholarship and, during her time there, worked as the director of a weekly multimedia film series. Suparak began her curating career in her undergraduate years, working with distinguished contemporary art institutions in New York and internationally. By the time she obtained a master’s degree in museum studies at Syracuse University, she had already put together over 20 shows in New York and around the globe.
Suparak focused on exploring the meaning of creating a “forum for engaged conversations about creativity and innovation.” The gallery was successful because it pushed its own limits, expanding the definition of an art gallery into a dynamic space with it’s own ideas and perspectives. A gallery had to not just be a place for conclusive art pieces, but rather for artists to come together for the process of creating.
In one of her first exhibitions at Carnegie Mellon, Suparak transformed the Miller Gallery into a by-the-books city as part of the show Your Town. The exhibition was a reaction to the way in which corporate, mass-produced real estate, design, and commerce has transformed communities. The exhibit was a powerful reflection on the broad issue of losing originality, heritage, and culture in a corporatized world and drew immediate response from the Pittsburgh art and activist community.
Continuing to play with the effects of capitalist culture on society, another exhibition called Keep it Slick highlighted the art-activist work of The Yes Men, a group that fights against the evils of corporate culture through satirical installation work.
Just as Suparak made a fast impression on Pittsburgh, she stretched outside of the traditional art spectrum to create a uniquely Pittsburgh exhibit called Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions. The show was unique — the first major art exhibition to take sports ideology seriously — filling the gallery this time with Steelers-everything, from the expected endless posters, shirts, and blankets, to the absurd poodles dressed fully in Steelers garb and an interactive installation of a Super Bowl. In addition to its popular appeal, the show was a meaningful exploration of what it means to be a fan, recognizing the value in unity through a ritualized cultural obsession.
In 2011, Suparak fully established the Miller Gallery’s place within the Pittsburgh art scene by organizing the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial. Collaborating with many art institutions, including the Carnegie Museums and the Andy Warhol Museum, the exhibition highlighted art organizations connected to Pittsburgh as a way to generate a dynamic understanding of the artistic pursuits within the city. The brilliance of the exhibition was that it simultaneously created an opportunity for the art community in Pittsburgh while bringing recognition to the Miller Gallery and art at Carnegie Mellon.
Suparak‘s work brought together artists, researchers, and intellectuals to explore ideas about social, political, environmental, technological, and cultural tensions within the world today. Large in scale and ambition, many of the exhibitions toured nationally and internationally. The Miller Gallery benefited tremendously from being known as the source of truly world-class exhibits and collaborations that went far beyond the narrow construct of a campus art gallery.
Working alongside the university’s overall goals to become more interdisciplinary, Suparak stretched the work of the Miller Gallery past the humanities and into science and technology. Recently, the gallery put on the show Intimate Science, guest curated by Andrea Grover, that revealed a world of artists whose medium is science and technology.
The work Suparak has done at Carnegie Mellon has not been left unnoticed. Noted press includes The New York Times, Pittsburgh City Paper, The Huffington Post, Art in America, FOX News, and ABC News among many others.
For Carnegie Mellon, the importance of Suparak’s work with the Miller Gallery was not only its role as a respected platform to showcase the innovative research of artists, designers, scientists and thinkers, but also to connect and contextualize the university community within the broader picture. To focus only on the work being done on campus, as remarkable as it is, devalues the gallery’s place in society.
For art students at Carnegie Mellon, the Miller Gallery has been a vital part of the School of Art. Sophomore fine arts major Emily Miller says of the gallery, “Most leading art schools in the country have some kind of gallery that aren’t just for student exhibitions and it brings it outside artists which students can learn from, and it enriches the culture of the community of Pittsburgh... We need to be exposed to professional artwork and artists.” Ironically, while the rationale for the reorganization of the gallery was to provide more opportunities for students and faculty, Miller says that the change would do more harm then good: “The Frame gallery is already a place for students to exhibit their work so there’s no real reason to have the Miller Gallery to serve that role as well.”
Suparak’s time at the Miller Gallery set a new standard of creative collaboration, which future leaders of the gallery must work to live up to for the sake of the university’s reputation as a leader in contemporary art work and interdisciplinary research.