Carnegie International curator Dan Byers has art at heart


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Art captivated Dan Byers as a boy, and that adolescent romance blossomed into a love affair.

"Art was the thing I did as a kid and a teenager. I made a lot of art. I was the art editor of my art and literary magazine in high school," said the Massachusetts native, who grew up in suburban Newton, seven miles west of Boston.

Every week, he rode public transit to visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or Harvard's natural history museum, where he drew sculptures, paintings or people.

"I'm sure those weekly visits to museums had a lot to do with what I do today," Mr. Byers said. "Some of my happiest moments at work are walking through the galleries and seeing children intently looking at art, and drawing what they see. It's the kind of attention -- both introspection and observation -- that we so rarely allow ourselves."

One of three curators who organized the 56th Carnegie International, he is calm, bearded and bespectacled. The 32-year-old Polish Hill resident possesses an earnest, thoughtful manner that radiates from his dark brown eyes.

The International, which opened earlier this month, began in 1896 and is the oldest survey of contemporary art in North America. This particular show runs through March 16.

Mr. Byers' family influenced him, too.

"My father used to collect Asian ceramics -- lots of looking and sleuthing on a small budget. There was much care taken in their display around the house, and in handling them, and thinking about their making, hundreds or thousands of years ago," the curator said, adding that his mother is a social worker and his father is a psychologist.

When he arrived here in May 2009 to be associate curator of contemporary art, several key pieces were missing from the museum's management chess board. Richard Armstrong, the longtime director, had departed in November 2008 to run the Guggenheim Museum and the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation in New York. His successor, Lynn Zelevansky, had not yet arrived.

Douglas Fogle, who curated the 2008 Carnegie International, called "Life on Mars," was the resident expert on contemporary art but left in February 2009 to be chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. (Two seasoned veterans -- deputy director Maureen Rolla and curator Louise "LuLu" Lippincott -- provided interim leadership.)

"These gaps in leadership turned out to be opportunities," Mr. Byers said.

Truly. One of the early plums was traveling so often that he owns two passports packed with colorful stamps and visas. To select artists for the Carnegie International and two other shows, Mr. Byers visited Basel, Beijing, Belgium, Berlin, Budapest, Glasgow, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Kassel, London, Milan, Paris, Ramallah, Reykavik, Rome, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Vancouver, Yokohama and Zagreb.

The journey, he said, "was insane but also hugely memorable." After the last trip, he slept for what seemed like a week.

Last May, the museum's leaders and board members paid him the ultimate compliment by naming him the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Besides the promotion, Mr. Byers was thrilled when he received a handwritten note of congratulations from Mr. Armstrong, one of 500 out-of-town guests who attended the exhibition's gala opening.

David Norr, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, traveled with Mr. Byers for 10 days in Japan in 2011. The Japan Foundation organized the trip for a group of American curators of contemporary art.

Mr. Norr said his colleague is "empathetic not only to artworks but to audience. He also cares about the history of art and the legacy of institutions. I hope he is part of a generation of curators who have a broader view of art that stretches into how artworks connect specifically with cultures."

Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, Mr. Byers has met and befriended local artists, including three women who make up a Braddock-based group called Transformazium. With his ardent backing, Transformazium established an art lending program for one year at the Carnegie Library in Braddock. Patrons can borrow works made by artists in the Carnegie International as well as from the library's own collection.

Obtaining funding for the art lending library, Mr. Byers said, "was a bit of a nail-biter. All along I thought it would work out."

A $30,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments arrived in mid-August. An additional $30,000 came from the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

Transformazium founder Ruthie Stringer said Mr. Byers' support of the art lending library was crucial.

"He had faith that we could pull this off. He talked with us about what parts were essential. Dan worked with all the artists in the International to contribute artwork to the lending library," Ms. Stringer said.

Early in his art apprenticeship, Mr. Byers gleaned practical experience at Skidmore College in New York. During his sophomore year, the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery opened on the school's Saratoga Springs campus, and he worked at the museum, which focuses on contemporary art and objects.

"I was writing labels, working with artists, installing art. My college experience was defined by that museum experience," he said.

After college, he lived in Philadelphia between 2003 and 2006, where he worked at The Fabric Shop, which he called "a museum built around artists."

He loved visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art, especially its important modern collection with works by Isamu Noguchi and Marcel Duchamp. By 2007, he was in a master's degree program at Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies in the town of Annandale-on-Hudson.

A few days before he began working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he watched a performance there by Trisha Brown, a post modern choreographer whose works often defy gravity.

"Her dancers were performing in the sculpture garden and then on rafts in a pond next to the museum. Another dance involved walking down the side of a building," Mr. Byers said.

More recently, his memories of the International's opening weekend include the skepticism many visitors expressed about taking a bus to have brunch at the Carnegie Library in Braddock.

"There were a lot of very cynical, jaded art people in attendance and that day made them into idealists and optimists," Mr. Byers said.

Once visitors saw the art lending library, he said, "It just affirmed the connections that people have with art objects."

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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