If you have ever been moved by an exhibit at MCA Denver, you have Nora Burnett Abrams to thank. Denver benefits from her craft of selecting profound and unforgettable contemporary art. We are grateful for the opportunity to get to know her better.
In 2009 you were appointed Associate Curator for MCA Denver. Can you give us a glimpse of how this journey began for you?
I studied art history in college and felt that it offered a professional path that enthralled me. As a museum curator, I have the chance both to work with the art object and engage with artists, which is the most interesting opportunity I could imagine. Museums in particular encompass both intellectual research as well as a platform for sharing my own curiosity and excitement about contemporary art with others. Art history seemed to present a thrilling path to me when I was younger and I feel like that choice has played out even better than I could have imagined when I first began this journey.
You are a born and bred New Yorker. You received your undergraduate at Stanford, your Masters from Columbia, and closed out your academic credentials with a Ph.D. from NYU. Was Art always your focus? When did you realize this was the path you wanted to take?
As a New York City native, I spent a lot of time during my childhood visiting the many museums there and enjoying access to art from all over the world and across millennia. But, it wasn’t until I took a high-school class about the history of art that the works in these museums came alive for me. I fell in love with objects for their storytelling capabilities, their utilitarian purpose, and the way that they suggested other modes of both celebrating and wrestling with the issues of the day. So, I really knew early on that this was the field I wanted to pursue professionally.
The great benefit of my graduate program was that it allowed me to hone my critical thinking skills and dig into a meaty project that was bigger than anything I’d ever completed before, which really offered a kind of intellectual adventure. Without question, that academic work has informed my approach to curating and exhibition production, and really just being a human in the world! I also had early exposure to how museums operate when I worked at The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and those too were very formative experiences. I guess you could say that the past decade has been spent really trying to weave together those two strands (academic and museum), creating a balance between the critical ideas and sharing them with a broader audience.
We love how MCA has made art inclusive and interactive. It is a space where the community drops their veil of intimidation, and instead is able to engage with the art through education and events. Can you tell us about your approach to introducing modern art to someone who might feel challenged by the medium?
Contemporary art can be difficult to access and I think providing visitors with tools for engaging with a work is so important for a museum to do – but to do so without dumbing down the art. We actually have a program at MCA Denver called “Art Fitness Training” that encourages visitors to ask questions of the artwork they encounter such as, what am I looking at, how is it making me feel, what does it remind me of, why would the artist use this material, etc. Such questions launch myriad others and allow for visitors to actively engage rather than feel like they passively need to be fed information. As a result, visitors are often reoriented to the work of art—they view it as a proposition, perhaps, for thinking about issues, ideas, or topics that they might not otherwise consider.
I think because MCA Denver has such a robust schedule of programs like this, it helps us stand apart in the field. We’re proud of how we organize original and thought-provoking exhibitions, but we also produce nearly a hundred public events per year that attract a youthful, engaged community, including lectures, performances, and workshops. So, we offer multiple opportunities for enjoying, learning about, and diving deeper into contemporary culture more broadly.
We are excited to see that the amazing work of Stacey Steers will be at MCA in September. What else can we expect from MCA before the end of the year?
Yes! Stacey is a wonderful artist and we are looking forward to presenting her work at the museum this fall. I’m excited about our other upcoming exhibitions too, which include a presentation of never-before-seen photographs by Francesca Woodman and the exhibition Flora by Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler. These shows open on September 20th and each sheds light on different generations of Colorado-based women artists. The Francesca Woodman exhibition presents the artist, who was raised in Boulder, coming into her creative voice and developing her singular approach to photography at a notably young age. Flora tells the story from two perspectives of the artist Flora Mayo, originally from Denver, whose work from the 1920s had been a footnote in art history until Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler began researching her life. And, Boulder-based filmmaker Stacey Steers’ Edge of Alchemy reimagines two silent-film era actors as creative alchemists who toy with Victorian scientific instruments, among other things. These exhibitions offer poignant and humanizing portraits of artists both well-known and under-recognized. I am very excited for our visitors to encounter these riveting stories and the unusual and striking imagery in these three varied and thought-provoking presentations.
Not only are you leading the discourse of contemporary art, but you are also a mother of two. What is your idea of the perfect day when you are not at the museum?
I actually love bringing my kids to the museum! Right now they prefer the large scale video works we show and any time they can spend in our huge elevator, but really, we just want them to grow up feeling comfortable in and excited about being in a space dedicated to art and creative ideas. Of course, we also love being outdoors and often ride our bikes together to Wash Park, have a picnic, and then get ice cream at Bonnie Brae. It’s pretty magical and we feel incredibly fortunate to live in a place that makes all of these kinds of outings possible.
You now call Wash Park your home. What are some of your favorite spots around the neighborhood?
It really is a special neighborhood in which we feel so lucky to have landed. I love that I can walk to get a quick coffee in the morning, and then also feel wrapped in quietude in the evenings. It’s kind of the best of all worlds! We love visiting the park and the playgrounds at Steele, and the food at Homegrown Tap and Dough is definitely a family favorite.
Thank you for giving us a glimpse through your creative lens, Nora! We are so excited for what’s to come at MCA Denver. We can all use more art in our lives, and appreciate your hand in making this possible.