Pigeons on the Grass Alas: Contemporary Curators Talk About the Field lived on the The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage website as an ongoing series between 2011–13. The culmination of the series is now a publication, which is available through the Center. Below is the text of one our original interviews, conducted with Dan Byers, the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Carnegie Museum of Art, and co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International.
What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to curating?
I’m often surprised that more visual arts curators don’t look to other organizations and publications that regularly compile, mix, juxtapose, and integrate different kinds of content along thematic or historical guidelines. As someone who grew up listening to NPR, that organization’s more experimental programming has always seemed a good example. This American Life, Radiolab, On the Media: these are examples where content is king, and kept intact and clear, and yet it is delivered through a decidedly subjective, educated, and experimental lens. And while radio is specifically suited to producing pathos through listening to stories and voices, I often wish that even our most reticent and contingent exhibitions could delve more honestly and bravely into those emotional realms. In addition to good radio, I think good examples are compilations of short stories, a range of counterculture magazines from the 1960s and 1970s that mixed very different cross-disciplinary offerings, albums that collect and mix rediscovered folk music from around the world (and reissues of classic, lost albums from small labels). All of these things are inspiring and opinionated yet respectful platforms for presenting experimental culture. When I’m thinking about curating our permanent collection, I think about making my way through used bookstores, and the pleasure of that kind of discovery—which, in the art context, makes me want to include things that are not necessarily central to art history, but might strike a chord for other, more associative reasons. Also, top 10 lists are always fun. I think about these less for their promotional or canonizing potential, and more for the form. It’s nice to think about its restrictions and the necessity to animate difference, and make a case, within such a narrow forum. Finally, the way artists collect and organize can be very inspirational.
For whom do you curate?
I curate for a collection of audiences. Honestly. Here are some of them: I curate for me (what shows would I want to see?). I curate for artists and other curators. I curate for curious people. I curate for people who love some other field or subject the same way I love art. I curate for those people who need to be won over, but are willing.
Does the local still exist? How is your local at your organization different from anybody else’s and how does that impact your curatorial decision-making?
Yes, the local absolutely exists. I live in it most days here in Pittsburgh, as do you, wherever you are. There are some incredible artists in Pittsburgh that are making work that is at once very different than other artists, and very much talking to larger ideas. But there are also many artists here (as there are in New York, Philly, etc.) who see only the most immediate community, opportunities, and problems, and respond in kind. Issues of space, cost of living, current events, populations, access to grants, exhibitions, etc. that still very much influence the way people make art, anywhere. Knowledge might be more decentralized and available, but the means, motivations, and material facts of making art in a place still remain.
So that covers artists. In terms of audience and institutional culture, the Carnegie Museum of Art is similar to large, semi-encyclopedic museums in other non-coastal cities. It’s viewed as inspirational and civic-minded on the one hand (Andy Warhol, Mel Bochner, and a ton of artists in between all took art classes here as children). But it’s also seen as elitist, disconnected, and embedded in the city’s elite power structure (class remains a persistent presence in the city that, despite recent developments, still can feel like a factory town). But a few things make us unique. One is the 100-plus-year-old commitment to contemporary art through the Carnegie International, and that exhibition’s place in the city’s popular imagination and history. (Before I am too self-congratulatory, I should say there have been many eras in the history of the International that the institution—and it’s audiences—were quite conservative, and disinterested in the cultural avant-garde. Abstract art wasn’t really shown here until the 1950s, and there are many cartoons from the city’s papers that skewered what today looks very conventional). So growing up in the city, you might remember seeing about three Internationals, which gives a good grounding in comparing artists and curatorial visions. Another thing that makes the museum unique is that we share an enormous building with a library and natural history museum (incredible collection of dinosaurs, taxidermy, 30,000-plus butterfly specimens, gems, ethnographic halls, etc.). A large portion of the museum’s audience is children and families that have no intention or great desire to see an art museum. So they sometimes walk right past our lobby contemporary art project space, or wander by accident into the permanent collection galleries. This presents us with great opportunity to expose people to art…but we don’t always make this easy for them or us. Sometimes it means there is friction between the content of the art and the expectations of the gallery goers. To be honest, I’m still figuring out how these conditions reflect my curatorial choices. Upon reflection, it seems they have less of an effect on my curatorial choices than they do my interpretive strategies. I work very closely with our education department to find ways to connect content to life experiences and social conditions that might provide an analogical way into the work. And we also try to balance to tone of different shows: Ragnar Kjartansson’s show was over the top, performative, funny, extreme. Cathy Wilkes’ show is very quiet, diffuse, obtuse, poetic, and psychologically complex. There are some shows or artists that just wouldn’t work here (as is the case everywhere for various reasons). This is not the best place to show art that is primarily about art. But rather than limiting, this actually helps focus decision-making. In the end, the International really does give us license…but we’re thinking more and more about how to make the place a welcoming museum for experiencing the new. (I think this often has less to do with exhibition content, and more to do with the tone, architecture, design, and amenities offered throughout the museum’s public spaces).
Should we celebrate the achievements of great artists who are bad people?
Yes. Would it be fun or easy to work with them? Probably not. But curators make these calculations all the time, since working with living artists so is much about relationships. Of course we’d have to define “bad people.” I think the recent Calvin Tomkins article on Carl Andre is a good example of the difficulties of untangling an extreme version of this question.
Do curators have ethical responsibilities to address social issues when they approach their work. If so, what are they?
Yes, they do. I always want to situate work within a social, political, or cultural context, because it makes the exhibition more generous to audiences, and it shows art’s connection to the world and its problems, or humans and their problems. This dimension is also present in a lot of work that may seem more formally-driven, and is not explicitly political—but in many ways, decisions about making are analogs for relationships in the world, and being with/among other people, making choices, etc. But beyond this, it is also important to show work that directly addresses social issues in times when this is useful to instigate discussion, and to situate an institution as a civics-engaged place that has a stake in the political—or even just empathetic, compassionate—constellation of a city.