On exposure to art at a young age, making art accessible to the general public, and the madness in everyday life with Dan Byers, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
“I’m first interested in why I’m provoked by an artist’s work, and then how that work is important to a discussion of art, ideas, and peoples’ lives,” says Dan Byers, associate curator of contemporary art at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “And from there I work with all my colleagues at the museum, from publications to PR, on how to talk about the exhibition with the public beyond it’s physical presence in the galleries.” Byers, who holds a Master’s degree from Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, and was a curatorial fellow at Walker Art Center, has been at the Carnegie since May of 2009. Most recently, Byers organized the exhibition Ordinary Madness, closing this month at the Carnegie. He now turns his attention to Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s first U.S. solo exhibition, opening in March.
What first attracted you to the idea of becoming a curator?
I’ve been thinking about art since as long as I can remember. It was an early interest as a child, encouraged by my family. My father put together a really interesting, small collection of Asian art—ceramics and scrolls—on a shoestring budget, so there was art, on display, in my house while growing up. I made a lot of art in high school, and was a studio art major in college, concentrating on painting and some textile art. In college I was required to have a work-study job as part of my financial aid, and after freshman year, when everyone was required to work in the dinning hall, I managed to get an interview with a staff member of the yet-unopened contemporary art museum on campus, The Tang Museum. I ended up working for the curator for three years, all while making my own art. Slowly, I found myself making less of my own paintings, and spending more time talking with my fellow students about their work. I started reading more theory and art history, and I made some terrible paintings that tried to incorporate this new knowledge. I realized that art was not the way to work through these ideas (for me), and I spent more time at the museum, working closely with the curator, Ian Berry, doing research for catalogs and helping with installations.
I was lucky to have a curatorial mentor when I was so young, 19, to then spend three years developing ideas and skills, and meeting many artists who just blew my young mind. I saw that a curator could be deeply involved with an artist and their work, and could advocate for certain kinds of work by giving it visibility. And I realized it was a job that depended on conversation, collaboration, and had a really nourishing sense of the social. And, come to think about it, the presence of a curatorial mentor was only half the equation. Equally important was the presence of a sort of utopic institution, a museum—an actual place—that was committed to experimental culture and interdisciplinary thinking. I wanted to go to work everyday at a place that nourished this atmosphere.
Last September, it was announced that a three-person curatorial team would be tasked with organizing the 2013 Carnegie International. Having multiple curators is a first in the history of the long-running, distinguished exhibition. How has the collaborative process influenced the way you’re organizing the exhibition?
While the International has been organized by teams of two, this is indeed the first team of three. Official work on the show begins in January, but the three of us went to the Frieze art fair together a few months ago, and recently spent a week in Pittsburgh meeting. It’s probably too early to say, in detail, how the collaboration will influence the exhibition. But while there is a large area of shared knowledge and interest, we each bring our own idiosyncrasies to the project. We recently made the decision that we would only work with artists that all three of us felt good about. This is really important I think for a sense of shared investment. A hypothetical danger is that the show is watered down—curating by consensus—but I can hardly imagine this happening given our shared excitement about some really interesting art and strategies for display and organization. I’m very happy to be learning about new art and artists from both curators. Ideally, an exhibition of this kind could reflect both long-standing, deep knowledge of an artist as well as an engagement with art that comes from a fresh encounter. I know we’ll have a ton of conversation, and hopefully the exhibition will reflect the dynamics of a lively conversation in the best sense.
For Ordinary Madness, the exhibition currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA), you were able to pull from the museum’s extensive collection and feature works from modern art luminaries such as Peter Saul, Richard Serra, and Barry Le Va, among others—all in a show themed around the notion that the ordinary is not always as it seems. What initially inspired the exhibition, and how did it come to fruition?
Upon my arrival at the museum about a year and half ago, I was given the task of organizing a show from our collection that would differ from the “permanent” display of works in the Scaife galleries, which are essentially chronological, working through art historical styles with some sense of progressive movement. I spent a long time learning the collection, and looking at works that hadn’t been on display for a long time.
For some reason Frank O’Hara’s book “Lunch Poems” was knocking around my head. It’s one of my favorite books of poetry. O’Hara was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1960s. He would often write during his lunch break, in the bustle of Midtown, surrounded by the texture of the city, but also with art and museums echoing in the background. That beautiful tension between the world of art, enclosed by museum walls, and the stuff of a city, a lunch break, and all the small details of ordinary life, struck me as a productive and fun way to access the collection. I realized though that I couldn’t call the show “Lunch Poems,” because that most people would be completely confused. I began to think about notions of the ordinary, especially how recently politicians have been claiming to speak for “ordinary Americans,” as if there is some essentially genuine, monolithic culture in this country. And at some point the phrase “ordinary madness” slipped into my head. I of course Googled it, thinking I must not be original for an exhibition title. While I didn’t find another exhibition by that name, it turns out it is the title of a collection of Charles Bukowski poetry, published after his death. I took some amount of small pleasure from the fact that Bukowski is hardly the most hip contemporary art reference. In the end, I wanted this very, very broad thematic—madness in the everyday, or the unsettling things about ordinary life that we somehow repress or synthesize—to allow a wide range of works to be included. I organized the exhibition as a group of small groupings, very much like poems, in a way, so that each cluster of comparisons rhymes with the next. It’s an incredible collection to work with, and I had a lot of fun organizing the exhibition.
Another subtext to the exhibition has to do with broadening the meanings we ascribe to art works, and bringing them into conversation with ideas outside of art historical development. Even though the Carnegie has this August history with presenting experimental contemporary art—at least in the past 20 years or so—there are still many people who visit the museum and feel alienated by contemporary art. I wanted to make the case that there is always something familiar—and meaningful—in work that appears reticent. I wanted people to trust their recognition of whatever element was known to them—a material, a shape, or whatever—and work from that thing to get at the work. I’m constantly surprised by what little trust otherwise confident people have in their own apprehension of the visual world. I hope this show renews some of that trust by accessing knowledge of the familiar to enjoy the destabilizing potential of art work.
What do you find challenging about the working relationship between an artist and curator? And, in contrast, what is rewarding about this relationship?
I’m most happy and effective when I’ve made enough time—weeks, months, or years—to really get to know an artist, and their work. It’s my responsibility to navigate the complexities of the institution to make an exhibition of an artist’s work. In doing so, there are always issues of translation and communication. Bad scenarios can come from these situations. But it’s mostly completely rewarding when there is mutual respect and understanding what both parties are bringing to the project, and how the curator can serve the artwork, and also make it bigger or more impactful for the artist and audiences. These relationships can result in the most generative collaborations and good vibes, which is why I’m in this line of work.
All museums want to connect with audiences—not only to bring in new audiences, but challenge and fascinate longtime patrons. How important is it, in your job, to assemble exhibitions that make art accessible to a wide audience while still maintaining a progressive aesthetic?
Inherent in the position of a contemporary art curator is making artwork public. That is to say, exhibitions are the places in which art most often leaves an artists studio, and is contextualized within a discourses such as art history, contemporary culture, politics, intellectual history, and personal experience. And since artwork is made to be experienced by a public outside the artist’s studio, it is fundamentally addressed to the heterogeneous public of an art museum (although sometimes art is made with more specific audiences in mind… but an active viewer and conscientious museum would articulate the nature of this specific address). Museums are eager to connect with audiences the same way, I hope, audiences are eager to connect with museums and art works. Ideally there is sort of a sweet spot where the institution’s desires for artists’ works to be experienced by the public is met by the public’s interest in art as a way to experience their world and other worlds. In other words, to get to your question, it shouldn’t be a trade off between a “challenging” exhibition and one that welcomes the public. While there are many ways within the architecture and mediation of the exhibition gallery to ennoble artworks and viewers, one must remember that an exhibition is surrounded by a whole structure of public spaces experienced before the show itself. At the effective museums, the bookstores, lobby, visitor services staff, guards, cafe, coat check, etc. all express ideals of openness, generosity, seriousness, playfulness, helpfulness, pursuit of intellectual and sensual pleasure, respect for knowledge, inquiry, democracy, and a place to sit and take a load off. And probably lots of other things. When I’m conceiving of exhibitions, I do not begin with that formula of audience accessibility vs. complexity of content. Rather, I’m first interested in why I’m provoked by an artist’s work, and then how that work is important to a discussion of art, ideas, and peoples’ lives. And from there I work with all my colleagues at the museum, from publications to PR, on how to talk about the exhibition with the public beyond it’s physical presence in the galleries. A good museum program consists of a group of exhibitions that allow both artists and audiences varied ways to gain access to the institution and its resources.
Originally appeared as part of Computerlove’s “Let’s Talk” interview series in January of 2011.