First curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1946-1952. Byrnes studied to be an artist at various New York city schools including the National Academy of Design, 1936-1938, the American Artists School, 1938-1940 and the Art Students League, 1941-1942. After World War II he was hired at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be its first Curator of Modern and Contemporary art in 1946. He taught as a visiting professor at the University of Southern California before attending the University of Perugia and Istituto Meschini, Rome, the latter, 1951-1952. In 1954 he relinquished his position at Los Angeles to become the Director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. He was appointed associate director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, under Wilhelm Rheinhold Otto Valentiner. At Valentiner's death in 1958 he became director. In 1960 Byrnes was named director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 1972 he returned to California to direct the Newport Harbor Museum in Newport Beach, CA. He concluded his tenure there in 1975 and in 1978 founded an art consulting firm. He was named an emeritus director of the New Orleans Museum in 1989. In 2003 Byrnes was featured on a panel sponsored by the Getty Research Institute on art of the 1940s in Los Angeles.
- James Byrnes papers, [ca.1940 -2000], (bulk 1960-1990), Archives of American Art. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/james-byrnes-papers-11105.