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As a child growing up in the area, Dan I. Byers visited the Harvard Art Museums. He has since traveled the world studying contemporary art and worked as a curator for two museums, including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. In June, Byers took the helm at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which houses the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and the Harvard Film Archive, as its John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Director. The Crimson took a walk with Byers through the Carpenter Center to learn about his career before Harvard, his thoughts on working in the Le Corbusier’s famous building, and the power of curatorial work.
The Harvard Crimson: You’ve been a curator at the the Carnegie Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art. What is new for you in this job?
Dan I. Byers: I’m used to working in a much larger context. The ICA has about 60 full time staff; we have a staff of four people here. I’ve been a curator for museums now for almost 15 years in various capacities. This is the first job I’ve had in an academic institution. Here, the shows we do are much smaller and more precise and connect to different aspects of the curriculum in VES. Half of what we do is public programs: artist talks, events, screenings. There’s a real emphasis on activity, having people together in the same space, talking.
THC: Why did you become a curator?
DIB: As an undergraduate, I was an intern for 3 years in the contemporary art museum in college. I was a studio art major and a very mediocre painter. When this contemporary art museum opened on campus, I was able to switch my work-study job from the dining hall to the art museum, which was a big upgrade. The curator kind of took me under his wing. I started talking to my fellow art students about their art more than making my own, and I realized there was this job where you’re helping artists bring their work to the world and figure out the context for it.
THC: You work in a great work of architecture. What are your favorite spaces?
DIB: The ramp is my favorite way to enter the building. You get this sense of ascending up into the trees. Once you’re up here, you’re separate from all the activity on Quincy Street. The terrace is one of my favorite places to have lunch. It’s totally open for the public to use. You have a sense from here of all the different functions of the building: this public space, our bookshop area, and the studios up here. The building was designed to choreograph interplay between display and making. I love seeing the very clean, finished spaces of paintings displayed on the wall across from painting studios and the chaos of creation. This is something you rarely have in one building—the opportunity to understand the creative process and the way in which its product enters into the world, enters into art history and discourse with other disciplines.
THC: What is a piece of art that has influenced you?
DIB: One of my first favorite works of art was the Max Beckmann self-portrait that’s in the Harvard Art Museums. He’s holding a cigarette in one hand and staring straight out at the viewer. It’s one of the first works where I realized the power of thinking about representing one’s self, the ways in which you could fool yourself and fool other people, and the artifice of a self-portrait. But it also has incredibly powerful paint handling, with black and white and minimal gestures that describe a lot. I discovered this painting when I was 12—I grew up around here—and it always is in the back of my mind in a lot of ways.
THC: What makes a good exhibition?
DIB: An exhibition should be something that cannot be a book, that cannot be a movie or a radio show. A good exhibition is an idea or story that can only be expressed through the form of objects and images in space. Exhibitions are similar to theater. There’s an incredible amount of time and effort and expertise that goes into where you build the walls, where visitors enter, what artworks are next to each other. Are the spaces light, are they dark? Do you go from a light space to a dark space—what does that do psychologically or temporally? Ultimately, you want to express the artists’ understanding of their work as well as the way the work has moved through the world.
THC: What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given as a curator?
DIB: The first curator I worked for in college told me you always need to ask what an artist needs. Does an artist need a catalogue to have art historians write about their work and to establish it in art history? Does an artist need a solo show because they’ve never put all their work together in one place? And what do audiences need, what should people see? What are the political issues that are urgent in the day? If you have a platform, if you have public space, if you have a soapbox to stand on, how are you using it? It has to be in a way which is really pushing culture forward… and expanding people’s understanding of the world in some way. So there’s that responsibility as well.
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