Hundreds of people were out walking Thursday evening on West Fayette Street. They stopped at the Delavan Art Gallery. They moved in and out of a jammed house at The Warehouse Gallery. They crossed the street to see an exhibit at the Redhouse.
Once they got there, they could not miss the big message that Redhouse managing director Natalia Mount wrote in chalk on the facade:
“Fight 4 creative freedom! Down with censorship!”
Mount said she wrote those words on general principle, and to demonstrate some new innovations at the Redhouse, where the staff wants to find a way to use chalk for spontaneous public art.
But Mount said she also wrote that message as a tribute to Astria Suparak, director and curator of Syracuse University’s nearby Warehouse Gallery, who learned this month that she is losing her job.
“I cannot imagine, for Astria, how this must feel,” Mount said. Jeffrey Hoone, who fired Suparak, says censorship was not the issue. He said the decision was based on personnel matters that are impossible to publicly discuss.
The appeal of The Warehouse, he predicted, will only grow stronger. “We’re really looking to the future with this gallery,” said Hoone, executive director of SU’s Coalition of Museums and Art Centers. The jagged feelings over Suparak’s release, he said, are “something we need to get through in order to build that space.”
The decision has brought the arts community to a boil, and incited open rebellion by some members of the SU faculty. Many maintain the firing is related to Suparak’s willingness to go out on the edge in such shows as "Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze,” which includes male genitalia and homosexual intimacy.
Yet Courtney Rile, marketing and public relations director at the Delavan, said Suparak also has a “poignant” touch, and that her shows often focus on communal themes.
“She did one (show) called ‘Embracing Winter,’ and it had a 17-foot mitten,” Rile said. “Come on. Everyone in Syracuse can embrace that, and knows what it means.”
As for Suparak, 29, who mingled Thursday with supporters, she said she was “treated horribly” by Hoone, and that he told her that her work did not meet his standards.
What was lost on no one, on either side of the divide, was the way Thursday’s outpouring rose toward meeting the original vision for The Warehouse. When SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor proposed turning an old downtown furniture warehouse into classroom and gallery space, she spoke of a bond between the campus and the city that would bring life to dormant downtown streets.
That vibrancy was evident Thursday. Rile, of the Delavan, rode along as a guide on an “art bus” that brought dozens of art lovers from Rochester to Syracuse for a gallery tour, a new connection scheduled to routinely link galleries in the two cities. At the packed Warehouse Gallery, many locals in the crowd said they came in support of Suparak.
The real question is what happens on West Fayette Street, once she’s gone.
Kate Clark, who chairs the public arts task force of the community group known as 40 Below, said Suparak’s commitment to the city extended beyond SU. Clark said Suparak was a regular at city-coordinated Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today meetings for downtown, and that she provided hands-on advice for the “totem” project that turned old parking meter holders into totem poles.
“For me,” Clark said, “Astria has been a huge leader in the public arts in Syracuse.”
Mount and Marianne Dalton, gallery director at the Redhouse, spoke with regret of how Suparak’s departure will cost Syracuse a visit from the Yes Men, a group that identifies its members as “imposters” who run carefully orchestrated spoofs that lacerate international corporate policies.
The Yes Men, Mount said, could have drawn a curious mainstream crowd to the gallery district. They announced this week they will not come if Suparak is gone.
“It’s unbelievable, as a curator, to think about having your vision severed like that,” Dalton said. She said that Suparak “put us on the map.”
Many visitors said the university, if it had substantial grounds for the firing, should offer a detailed public explanation. Both Hoone and an SU spokesman said they can’t do it. But they said the debate proves how much the community has grown to care about The Warehouse, energy that Hoone contends will not leave with Suparak.
“In an odd way,” he said, “what this shows us is that we’re right on target to fill the need.”
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Suparak: Stay or go? The campaign to save Astria Suparak’s job at The Warehouse Gallery has gathered many messages of support at syracuse-warehouse.blogspot.com. Columnist Sean Kirst would like to know your feelings on the decision. Contact him by visiting his blog and forum at www.syracuse.com/kirst, by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by writing to him in care of The Post-Standard, Clinton Square, Syracuse 13221.