Monday, November 12, 2007

Tom Sherman

An open letter asking for answers

November 11, 2007

The corporate takeover of art at Syracuse University

On September 28, 2007, Astria Suparak was dismissed as Director and Curator of Syracuse University’s Warehouse Gallery. Suparak was given no reason for the termination of her contract—Chancellor Nancy Cantor told the press and a broad constituency supporting Suparak that this dismissal was a personnel issue, not a decision to censor Suparak based on the content of her shows. Hundreds of SU faculty, students and a national and international art scene continue to believe otherwise and the story has traveled far and wide (New York Times, Artforum, Flash Art, Art Info, Buffalo News, Syracuse Post-Standard, etc.). This unexplained dismissal of a well-known and respected curator, in tune with her community and on the ascent, is a huge embarrassment for Chancellor Cantor, Syracuse University and the city of Syracuse.

Although all evidence pointed toward censorship (Suparak’s last exhibition was “Come On: desire under the female gaze,” a show Chancellor Cantor and members of her cabinet tried to hide from incoming freshmen), Jeffrey Hoone, the Executive Director of the Coalition of Museums and Art Centers at Syracuse University (CMAC) stated publicly that he dismissed Suparak because he was ‘restructuring’ the Warehouse Gallery. Between SU’s administration hiding behind a shield of “confidential personnel issues” and Hoone’s vague restructuring explanation, the story exploded nationally and internationally, severely damaging the reputation of the arts at Syracuse University and the city of Syracuse.

Throughout the month of October 2007, Chancellor Cantor and Vice-Chancellor Eric Spina continued to support Hoone’s decision to dismiss Suparak, while behind the scenes this same administration encouraged the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) to work out a deal to hire Suparak as a Curator-in-Residence. Ann Clarke, Associate Dean of VPA, asked Suparak to submit a proposal for such a position and Clarke began meeting with the faculties of the Department of Transmedia and the School of Art and Design to involve the University community in the formation of this Curator-in-Residence position. The Administration (Cantor and Spina), asked Eleanor Ware, SU’s Senior Vice-President for Human Services and Government Relations to work with VPA’s Ann Clark and Astria Suparak to strike a deal. The idea was that the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor would put up the money, the College of Visual and Performing Arts would be the administrative home of this new position, and this new initiative would allow Suparak to continue her innovative curatorial work minus a permanent space (SU’s Administration refused to reverse their decision that the Warehouse Gallery would be transformed into an extension of CMAC’s SU Art Gallery with Jeff Hoone as Interim Curator).

On Friday morning, November 2, 2007, lawyers representing Syracuse University and Astria Suparak exchanged a draft contract for this Curator-in-Residence position in VPA. VPA Dean Carole Brzozowski and Ann Clarke had met earlier, on Monday of that week, with Suparak and SU faculty members, Tom Sherman and Joanna Spitzner. All agreed this was a chance to invent something exciting, a new kind of position that could put a charge into a stagnant, somewhat dusty visual arts component of the College. Many were hopeful a deal was about to be struck a little over a month after Suparak’s last day at the Warehouse Gallery. But on November 2nd, late in the afternoon on that same Friday, Astria Suparak received word from her lawyer that SU’s lawyer had called to say the University had withdrawn the offer. Ann Clarke later sent an e-mail to Suparak confirming that the University’s offer for the Curator-in-Residence position had been withdrawn by VPA’s administration, Carole Brzozowski and Ann Clarke. Clarke said the offer was withdrawn because of a lack of trust (their decision was apparently based on their perception of a lack of ‘chemistry’ between them and Suparak), and because VPA is in too poor a shape to take the University’s money for the Curator-in-Residence position!!??.

Since the money for this new position was coming exclusively from the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor’s offices, did Brzozowski and Clarke consult with Cantor and Spina before pulling the plug? To date Brzozowski and Clarke have made no attempt to communicate with the public on the reasons for their withdrawal of this offer.

Let’s reflect on the events of this autumn and where we might go from here. Jeffrey Hoone dismissed Suparak, during the ascent of her growing success at the Warehouse Gallery, without giving cause. The Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor stood by this decision, supporting Hoone, stating that SU’s Human Resources policies had been followed and implying that there was cause, while hundreds of letters and thousands of e-mails from University, city, national and international artists, curators, educators, business leaders, city officials and concerned individuals were demanding Suparak’s reinstatement at the Warehouse Gallery. Everyone wanted to know why Suparak was fired and how this could be supported by the University. Toward the end of October, Suparak was permitted to check her file at SU’s Office of Human Resources. There was no statement of cause for dismissal in this file. There was no evidence of a performance review. No review ever occurred. No complaint or citation about her performance was ever filed. In fact, her file was completely clean.

Meanwhile, CMAC remains intact with Hoone as its Executive Director, and a chill has been cast over CMAC’s once independent galleries and spaces. The faculties of the Department of Transmedia and the School of Art and Design have boycotted and effectively cancelled SU’s 2007 Faculty Show. These faculties were not only protesting Suparak’s dismissal but the total disconnect between the creative academic mission of these Departments and the University-imposed CMAC ‘coalition.’ VPA’s visual and media arts faculty and students find themselves literally without exhibition space for their own work. The Warehouse Gallery that they were investing in financially and pedagogically (the Yes Men show and Suparak’s other unrealized exhibitions) has been snatched away to serve Cantor, Spina and Hoone’s vision of the arts at SU. What expertise do they employ when making their decisions? Has the College of Visual and Performing Arts ever been weaker?

Trust between the administration and faculty, students and alumni has been shattered. The University and city have been hurt badly. Young people were actually moving to and staying in Syracuse because the scene was showing signs of life. If the arts are indeed part of Syracuse ’s rebirth, then we have all suffered quite a setback. The reputations of many of the key players have been tarnished. We should all be deeply embarrassed. The global arts scene is wired and communicative and has a long memory. From Syracuse to Brooklyn to San Francisco to Paris to Beijing —if you are in the arts you would have to be under a rock to have missed this story. Our first international arts story since a Yoko Ono retrospective brought Ono and John Lennon to the Everson Museum in 1971, and it is this stinker! This CMAC/Warehouse Gallery fiasco will cost the city in the long run and will hurt the University in its efforts to recruit and retain good faculty, staff and students.

This whole mess could have been avoided, had it not been for the excesses of an uptight corporate university culture and a group of decision-makers sharing a basic disrespect for artists and creative, open-minded people in general. Silencing a respected curator profoundly in-tune with her community and on the ascent is a blatant act of censorship. Spin it anyway you like—the direction, timing and nature of the hostility toward Suparak and the community that supported her speaks for itself. Take a look around this city and University. You will see a demoralized, disenfranchised, angry creative sector. You will see an art scene wounded by a corporate University fearful of and hell-bent on oppressing the energy, inventiveness and joyful noise of its creative community.

Where do we go from here? The first thing we ask is for an explanation of why the University’s offer of the Curator-in-Residence position was withdrawn. Astria Suparak was negotiating in good faith with the University, and many people within the community had worked very hard to make something positive happen in the aftermath of the CMAC/Warehouse Gallery debacle. While the best solution would have been to simply reinstate Suparak at the Warehouse Gallery, the Curator-in-Residence alternative made a lot of sense. Why was the University’s offer to fund and facilitate this new position withdrawn and who withdrew it?

The other question is what is the University going to do to address the critical need for space for faculty and students in the Departments of the School of Art and Design and Transmedia to exhibit their work and interact with the public? Drama and music have dedicated theatre and concert spaces; engineering, biology and chemistry have their labs. Exhibition spaces for the visual and media arts are the equivalent of laboratories in other disciplines. After years of being criticized for low visibility, now in this climate of scholarship in action we find the University’s art galleries and spaces serving other interests. Why does the University choose to ignore the pedagogical and social needs of the faculties and students of its degree programs in visual and media arts?

This community deserves answers to these questions. Awaiting public statements on these issues from the University administration and the College of Visual and Performing Arts,

I remain,


Tom Sherman


Tara Hogan said...

I am so thankful for this letter. As an alumni of VPA I am outraged and hope that we as a community can heal on our own without SU.

Harrison said...

what he said


Syracuse has lost one its greatest assets. Astria Suparak, Inaugural Director of The Warehouse Gallery of Syracuse University, was removed from her position as of Sept. 30th, 2007, despite widespread support from community members, students, faculty, and the international art community. This decision was made unilaterally by Jeffrey Hoone, Executive Director of the Coalition of Museum and Art Centers (CMAC).

At the time of Suparak's dismissal, Hoone also canceled her forthcoming exhibitions, including "Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men," due to open in November 2007.