University Art Gallery director wants to take on ‘critical’ issues

Sylvia Rhor


Sylvia Rhor’s academic career has encompassed the topics of art, race, gender and social justice.

It’s “critical” to address these issues today, Rhor said, and an art gallery at a university is just the place to engage them.

Now, she’s hoping to bring those experiences to her new position as the director of the University Art Gallery in the Frick Fine Arts building, where she’s planning to usher in a series of art exhibits focused on gender, freedom of expression, social justice and more.

“This institution needs to learn other modes of looking and being and seeing,” Rhor said. “I think that it's really important to open that dialogue for both sides …, and this is a really great place to do that.”

These topics also influenced Rhor’s work in her most recent position as the founding director of the Carlow University Art Gallery, where she was a tenured professor of Art History, she said.

Education was prized in her family of Ecuadorian immigrants, Rhor said, but “we were not necessarily a museum-going family.”

“It's not that it wasn't appreciated, it just wasn't part of what I grew up (doing),” Rhor said. “Going into art history for me was somewhat difficult as a person of color. And there wasn't a space necessarily in the ranks for people who weren't already museum-going people who weren't already part of that culturally.”

She went on to earn her masters and doctorate from the History of Art and Architecture department at Pitt. She also double majored in art history and studio art at New York University, where she was a Martin Luther King Jr. Minority Scholar.

This school year, there are a variety of exhibits planned for the University Art Gallery. The “Unboxed” exhibit, which featured artwork from alumni from the Studio Arts Department, recently ended on Oct. 12.

Poster for "This Is Not Ideal" exhibit

On Oct. 25, the gallery will feature a student-curated exhibition called “This is Not Ideal: Gender Myths and their Transformation." It’s the result of museum studies classes in the History of Art and Architecture department run by Alexander Taylor, an assistant professor and academic curator.

Using the results of their research from the course, students will be in charge of creating and curating the show as well as handling design, marketing, communication, text and more.

Taylor said this exhibition will provide students with valuable hands-on experiences.

“What it means is we're giving them a much more kind of professional realistic experience of what it is to make an exhibition and how long it takes and how many people it involves,” Taylor said. “Part of my aspiration is for the students to get what this kind of professional experience of curatorial practice looks like.”

The show will bring together artwork from the 17th century and present times to examine “shifting cultural norms of gender,” according to a University Art Gallery press release.

“But what's more interesting, is that the show draws from the University Art Gallery collections primarily, and other collections at the University of Pittsburgh campus, and it looks at the representation of gender and the history of art in the collection,” Rhor said. “But it looks at it to question it, to wonder: Where are the women? Why aren't more women artists represented? What do these depictions of women artists say about gender relations or issues of sexual aggression and other issues?”

The issue is timely, Rhor added, as society continues to grapple with the #MeToo movement. The movement has affected several government officials, Hollywood executives and more.

“We're finding that this issue has been important in the history of art for a long time, but in this particular moment, historical moment, we’re seeing it inflected in really interesting ways,” Rhor said. “So that the faculty members, me as a curator and director, the students are re-thinking these representations and what it means in the context of this #MeToo moment.”

There will be two contemporary LGBT artists from Pittsburgh featured as well, Adam Milner and Katie Ott, who will include their works in the exhibit as they examine gender representation.

Another exhibit coming to the museum around the same time will be “Take Cover: PJ Zimmerlink.” The Andy Warhol Museum’s Jessica Beck is curating the exhibit. The show will be a part of the city’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” It runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 2.

Rhor also has an exhibition slated for the spring semester called “Africans in India,” which displays the culture of people of African descent living in India.

The University Art Gallery, Rhor said, serves as a “training ground” for graduate and undergraduate students to receive experiential learning about curating an art museum

“I think of it as a training ground, but I think of it as a place to create new knowledge too,” Rhor said. “For faculty to test out ideas, to learn new things, to use these collections. Studio artists to practice and create new works. So, it's a creative space, a place to generate this new knowledge, to train museum professionals, but as community dialogue. That's really what I want to see happen as I'm moving forward.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the University Arts Gallery as the Frick Fine Arts Gallery and mentioned a quilt exhibition will appear in the spring. The article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the art gallery and removed reference to the quilt exhibit since it is no longer scheduled to appear.