Dan Leers is coming home, and with him, he is bringing a global perspective on photography.
Newly hired as the curator of photography for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Leers, 34, is thrilled to return to his former stomping grounds, with the museum’s offices only minutes away from his childhood neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.
“I had hoped to someday come back [to Pittsburgh],” said Leers, who graduated high school from St. Edmunds. “[Working through the Carnegie] was the perfect chance to do it.”
As a youngster, Leers said he wasn’t particularly attentive to Jewish culture in the city; however, he played in the JCC gym and pool and was influenced by the range of religious and ethnic background of Pittsburghers. His wife and son are Jewish, and they are raising their son in the Jewish community.
Leaving Pittsburgh after commencement, Leers received his B.A. from Lawrence University in Wisconsin, and his master’s degree in modern art and curatorial studies from Columbia University.
Starting with his own artistic take on the medium, Leers took up photography in high school but found himself more interested in the critiquing and the research of the art.
“I feel fortunate to have chosen the medium,” he said of photography. “It’s an incredible technology that is the most ubiquitous.”
The omnipresent sentiment is everywhere, Leers said; in broad visual strokes, people are entrenched in ads, print and television and in the photos they take on their smartphones. When people leave their homes or swipe to the right on their phones, images are all around them and serving as an influence, he said.
“We are always seeing images when we step out of the door,” Leers said. “There’s power in that ubiquitousness; [it’s] a language we can all understand.”
As the second curator of photography at the Carnegie — Leers is replacing Linda Benedict-Jones, who recently retired — he will be responsible for shaping the collection through strategic acquisitions, organizing exhibitions and serving as the museum’s internal agent for the next cycle of the innovative Hillman Photography Initiative. His curatorial goals include slowing down the medium.
“Slow it down [and] digest the images to see what’s behind them,” he said about the desire to focus on what he says visually stimulates us as viewers. And then further, getting viewers to pay attention to their environment and to be more mindful of others overall.
And while Leers’ official start on April 27 will begin with reviewing and implementing photography exhibits and programs already on the docket, he looks forward to sharing his global interest in photography, particularly because of his experience with Pittsburgh as a melting pot.
“[There are] unique cultures in the city,” Leers said, pointing specifically to the steel industry’s history — a timeline that brought varying identities to the region for work. “There are a number of entry points in the curatorial process and programming [based on this melting pot].”
In particular, Leers’ personal affinity for African arts will bring new texture to the city’s exposure. He worked on the 2013 Venice Biennial, serving as the curator of African arts, which took him to Senegal and Nigeria, adding stamps to his already African-filled passport as a former visiting student in Mali and Togo.
Bringing contemporary African art to the mainstream is right on track with what major cities are presenting, he said, adding that the contemporary art scene speaks to religious and ethnic identities in addition to faith and gender politics. Leers also plans to highlight the burgeoning Middle East art scene.
“[The Carnegie is] trying to position itself to an international movement,” Leers said. “It’s part of a larger trend — the understanding that we need to accurately portray the space we are in.”
The only way to achieve this, Leers said, “is to represent the spectrum.”
Bee Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.