The Curator: Erich Shiner at Sotheby’s Cotemporary Fine Art

Interview JUSTIN ROSS
Photography LANCE CHESHIRE

Humble and astute, Eric Shiner is the consummate gentleman for the 21st century. From an early age he developed the eye of a curator, turned on to collecting by a childhood spent roaming antique markets and estate sales. His cultural curiosity awakened, he later studied towards a PhD at Yale focusing on Asian art history, developing a strong intellectual backbone. Drawn to an unfolding phenomenon—the boom in Asian art collecting in New York—Eric’s career took off.
These days Eric has accomplished what few can say they have done: he has seamlessly transitioned between academic, public, and private realms within the art world, from academic pursuits at Yale to a position as director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and most recently his return to New York to lead the dynamic team at Sotheby’s contemporary fine art division. Eric was generous enough to share with us his insights into the art world, his take on celebrity vis-a-vis Andy Warhol, and a few genuine tips on art collecting.

Eric Shiner with L.A.EYEWORKS BOSCO
Eric Shiner with L.A.EYEWORKS Bosco

It has been just over a year since you left the position of director of the Andy Warhol Museum to join Sotheby’s contemporary art division. How did you find the transition, and what are the major differences between public and private sector work in the art world?
It has been a most dynamic year, and certainly making the transition from the realm of the nonprofit art museum into the world of art commerce compelled me to recalibrate my thinking and tactics, albeit still focused on the same basic principles of art history. Luckily, as a museum director, I was always entrepreneurial, and it definitely helped that I was running The Andy Warhol Museum, where, like Andy, I felt that art and business were one. Thus, I was always thinking about new streams of revenue generation, much in the same vein as my work here at Sotheby’s now. Now having been here a year, I realize that I speak about the same objects, with the same audiences, often in the same places as I once did as a curator and museum director, but now I am selling objects instead of ideas. It’s been a fantastic challenge that I savor.

You took a bit of a roundabout route to the art world having previously spent time in East Asia, and studying towards a doctorate in East Asian Studies at Yale, isn’t that right? Did you always know that you wanted to work with art or how did that come about?
To say that my career path has been circuitous is a vast understatement! Yes, I was a PhD student at Yale in the History of Art and Architecture department, focusing on postwar Japanese art. My academic focus in my undergraduate years in the States and my first master’s degree program in Japan was on Japanese art, first medieval architecture and screen painting, and then postwar photography and performance art. After two years in the PhD program, where I also started learning Chinese and writing about Chinese contemporary art, I realized that a huge phenomenon was unfolding in New York City—Asian contemporary art was exploding and I was being contacted by media outlets, galleries, and collectors to write, curate, and advise on a regular basis. I decided that it would make more sense for me to jump on that momentum, so I made the hard decision to leave school, with a master’s degree in hand, and move to New York to be a part of the action. It was the right decision at the time, and what ultimately led me back to The Andy Warhol Museum, first as curator and then soon after as director.
My love and passion for art go back to the very beginning. My parents and grandparents were all active collectors, and as such, I grew up going to estate sales, country auctions, flea markets and antique stores on a regular basis. Without anyone knowing it, I was on a learning curve for becoming a connoisseur and a curator—always trying to find the needle in the haystack, something that I greatly enjoyed doing, and still do.

I want to talk a bit about the relationship between art and celebrity. Clearly this was a major topic of inquiry in Andy Warhol’s work, and not only in his work, but also his life. He was perhaps one of the first living artists to embody celebrity and also to experiment within its boundaries. Today we have seen a proliferation of celebrity artists. What do you attribute this to?
Well, of course, this is nothing new. Warhol actually modeled his own persona and its dispersal on other artists from the past who had successfully become famous icons, especially Marcel Duchamp to a degree, but especially Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. The former was famous as an academic, rebel and game-changer in the rarefied world of art, but the latter were world-famous and became household names, something that Warhol definitely aspired to himself.
Today, I would safely say that mass media, and by extension, social media, are the main vehicles upon which some artists choose to build their persona on the fast track to fame. Yes, we can most decidedly blame Warhol for much of this!

Of course celebrities also can and often do make great collectors of art, and it seems that art fairs across the world, and especially Basel have become increasingly star studded. Is this simply recognition of the importance of celebrities who buy art or is there something larger at play?
I actually wish MORE celebrities bought art, as very few do in the greater scheme of things. At the end of the day, those that have taken the leap are incredibly passionate about their collections from my experience, and they feel that the artwork they live with is a natural extension of their own creativity.

What would you say to people who criticize art with being too disconnected with real world problems?
I would disagree fully. Important artists have always challenged the status quo in either direct or subtle ways in an effort to change things for the better. For me, the most successful art is that which tackles real world problems in an effort to help dissipate them.

Do you think that the overall pace of visual culture, and especially through social media has changed our understanding of what celebrity is?
It has definitely sped up, just as the likelihood and eventuality of that fame quickly fading away so too has accelerated. When Warhol said that, in the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes, he foreshadowed the current state of social media, and yet, fifteen minutes now seems like a very long time!

Do you think that the gallery model or art world is changing? Are Instagram and other online or virtual auction or gallery sites really a threat to the more traditional galleries, museums or auction houses?
Things are definitely changing rapidly, and I feel that a restructuring of the gallery system as we knew it is critical right now. Certainly, Instagram and online auctions have extended the reach of contemporary art into new and potential collectors’ lines of sight, thus, hopefully expanding the business, not contracting it. I think the real challenge facing galleries right now are, amongst other things, soaring rents in major urban centers, combined with the vast number of art fairs around the globe that have in many ways taken over as the main venue for gallery sales. That’s a lot of overhead to keep up with for any gallery.
I would LOVE to see young gallerists through to mid-tier galleries unite to think of new collaborative models that would help to lower the overhead for all, perhaps finding large spaces that can be shared, akin to an art fair, but year round. I also love what the recent Condo project in New York City presented: gallery swaps for international galleries to come to NYC and take over an extant gallery’s space for a month. Thinking in these ways will save the all-important primary gallery system, which is still the lifeblood of the art world.

I want to find out a bit more about your personal taste or preferences when it comes to art. Can you give me some tips on some new or emerging artists you would recommend checking out?
In my own collection, I focus on a few main themes, namely text-based art, Japanese art, landscapes, portraiture and photography, with exceptions, of course. I tend to buy the work of emerging and mid-career artists, and tend to focus on women artists, artists of color and LGBTQ artists. I would recommend that readers visit emerging galleries and art fairs focused on young talent to find intriguing works. I strongly encourage would-be collectors to buy as much emerging art as possible, as this is the time in any artist’s career when financial support, and by extension, belief in their work, is the most critical.

What about some of the top shows gallery/fair/museum that you saw this year?
The Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at the Bayeler Foundation in Basel was by far the best show I saw this year, followed very closely by Adrián Villar Rojas’s installation at the National Observatory of Athens in Greece. Art Basel was especially high quality this year, and I was honored to curate the first Platforms section of The Armory Show in New York City, featuring large-scale sculpture and installation, to help break up the monotony of the art fair, something I greatly enjoyed doing.

I think it is very important that young people also get involved in buying and collecting art. Collecting art is an essential part of giving back to artists for their hard work and contribution to their vision. What would you say to first-time or novice collectors? What advice would you give?
I agree fully! I would suggest that young collectors buy what they can, and stretch when they need to do so. In the words of my dear friend and collector Bob Meltzer who sadly passed away earlier this year, “If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t count.” In that line of thinking, I encourage young collectors to buy what they can, ask for a payment plan (many galleries will happily stretch out payments over three or four months) and do what it takes to get something that they love.

How about your personal style? How would you describe your style and have you always been so impeccably dressed?
I’ve always been a chameleon and have dressed to fit into my environs. I think I’ve had every look in the book, from goth to cyber punk to business man. It keeps things interesting and keeps people guessing. In the end, I buy what I love and what makes me stick out from the crowd. I guess it also helps that I’m 6’5”, so that would be the case regardless, come to think of it.

And what about eyewear? l.a.Eyeworks, one of the eyewear labels you wore during the shoot has always had a connection with artists and really suits you. Do you have any other favorite brands?
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of fun wearing (some would say) “eccentric” eyewear. I love l.a.eyeworks, and have owned frames from small circular black artsy types through geometric colorful shapes, all German of course. While living in Pittsburgh, I was a big fan of Norman Childs’s designs at Eyetique, a fantastic store with lots of fun choices. I also like Persol, Matsuda and Oliver Peoples. In Japan, I had an amazing pair of frames designed by Philippe Starck.

Are there any other artists that you can think of that have had this relationship with eyewear?
Well, Andy was certainly known for his sunglasses. I own a pair that are an exact recreation of his signature shades made by Super that are a limited edition of 200. I get compliments on them all the time. David Hockney is certainly linked to his signature eyewear, just as Yoko Ono is known for her sunglasses. Yayoi Kusama also loves to wear wildly patterned shades mimicking her artwork.

There are a number of brands that have undertaken projects with artist, or artist’s estates such as Keith Haring, or most recently, the Barcelona-based brand Etnia Barcelona rolled out a large-scale collection inpsired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic symbols like the crown. Surely Andy Warhol would have loved it. What do you think?
By all means he would have! I actually know Andy’s optician who made all of his glasses who always tells me how much Andy loved fine eyewear. It’s those little narratives that count!