New Directions: Nora Burnett Abrams on Taking the Helm at MCA Denver

Nora Burnett Abrams is the new director of the MCA Denver.
From the Hip Photo
Nora Burnett Abrams is the new director of the MCA Denver.
Nora Burnett Abrams plotted out her future at a young age. She knew she wanted to be an art curator, a museum leader and a scholar, and she's done all that. One thing she did not predict: living in Colorado.

From childhood, Abrams's life was all about New York City. She grew up there, she earned her master's degree at Columbia University and her Ph.D. at New York University, worked at the Museum of Modern Art under legendary museum director Glenn Lowry and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art under rigorous and loving curator Nan Rosenthal. Where better to achieve her dream than the art capital of the United States?

But a decade ago, when her husband — a hedge fund manager from Denver who had moved to New York City to live with her — wanted her to make good on a glib promise she'd made to move back with him to Colorado, she was dumbfounded. She couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to stay in New York City. Still, she kept her word.

Looking for opportunities in Colorado, she connected with quirky, community-minded curator Adam Lerner, who had just taken on a job as head of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. They hit it off, and he hired her as an adjunct curator while she was still living in New York.

When Abrams arrived in Colorado, she couldn't drive. At night, in the 8,000-square-foot mansion she and her husband were housesitting in Cherry Hills for family friends, she was frightened by the noises of geese and coyotes. "I was like, 'What is that? We're in rural America,'" she recalls. She was particularly unnerved when she spied a coyote licking its lips: "It had just eaten Thumper."

Eventually, she adjusted, falling in love with the creative possibilities at the MCA and working her way up the ranks for nearly a decade to become the museum's Ellen Bruss Curator and Director of Planning, where she honed her administrative chops and curatorial voice.

"I like to say that I have professionally come of age here," she says.

In her time as a curator at MCA Denver, Abrams has shown herself to be a smart and committed arts leader, as passionate about the fate of local artists and Denver's cultural life as she is about global contemporary art. She has also been the driving force behind blockbuster shows, including the studied yet populist Basquiat Before Basquiat, a stunning 2018 Tara Donovan retrospective and the upcoming exhibition Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation.

"What's so exciting to me is to understand how art can reflect on and refract back to us the issues of the day, whether that's today or 1,500 years ago," Abrams says. "All the artists I'm interested in and who I've worked with, their work engages with the most relevant and compelling issues of the day."

When Lerner announced late last year that he was leaving his post as the Mark G. Falcone Director of the MCA Denver, she applied for the job. After months of interviews and an international search, the museum's board decided to replace him with Abrams, signaling the institution’s commitment to Lerner’s legacy and her vision.

Westword caught up with Abrams to learn more about her thoughts on Lerner’s leadership, how the museum can improve and how this new position fits within her long-term goals. As she tells it — at 41, as one of the youngest leaders of a major museum — she’s just getting started.

Westword: Talk about Adam Lerner’s leadership.

Nora Burnett Abrams: I think what Adam did was establish and grow an identity for the organization; it's one that's this both-and idea, that it's both serious and rigorous and produces well-researched exhibitions, but it's also whimsical, quirky, a little weird. This museum equally values both. That was his vision, and the board certainly rallied behind it, and I think the community and the field have really rallied behind it.

If you take a large encyclopedic museum, maybe like the Denver Art Museum, it arrives in a limousine. It's grand. It makes a big statement. It's impressive. We are on a motorcycle. We can speed up, slow down. We can round corners. We're just a little harder to capture. We're not trying to be like other museums. We're really proud of being who we are, and we know who we are.

In the board's selection of me as the next leader, they're giving us a vote of confidence in that. They want that continuity. They don't want to take a sharp turn. I'm not the candidate who was advocating for that. I was really recognizing how special this place is for being distinct. I know that because I've been here for so long, and I've lived and breathed that for so many years, and I think that's what makes it so special.

What do you think isn't working about the museum?

I think we can be better about expanding beyond our four walls. I think that there are so many opportunities for us to partner with other organizations in the city. I have a lot of ambitious ideas for our exhibitions program. I want to push that even further. I think we have started to do so much, and I really see this next chapter as all about amplifications. I think we can also continue to be as welcoming as possible for the artists in this city. We were founded by a group of artists; that's the soul of who we are. The more opportunities we can come up with to support artists living and working here — for whom it is increasingly harder to live and work here — the better.

What’s your assessment of the city’s art scene?

I think there are a number of really strong older-generation artists. Obviously, Clark Richert, whose work occupies our building right now. People like Phil Bender and Margaret Neumann — kind of an old guard. But there are also all of these amazing younger artists who are working here. They're occupying studio space throughout the city. But it's harder for them to find that, and it's harder for them to thrive. It's just a more expensive city.

Every city has an ecosystem of its art world. There's the museums, there's the galleries, there are obviously the artists, the collectors, the art schools, there's the press and the critics. The one area that everyone in this city — everyone that's a part of the art world here — recognizes could be strengthened is the opportunity for critical discussion. I really see MCA as being able to occupy that role more fully, and there are many ways we can go about that. But artists are hungry for it.

click to enlarge Nora Burnett Abrams - FROM THE HIP PHOTO
Nora Burnett Abrams
From the Hip Photo
Do you think the artists here and the galleries here — as hungry as they may be for critical discourse — are engaged in a critical enough practice to sustain that kind of conversation?

Definitely. You see someone like Derrick Velasquez. A recent body of work that he made was looking at property lines in the city and looking at the border between a gentrified house or a new home and an old one and pulling out — calling out — the contrast, and calling out the rapidity with which things are changing in certain neighborhoods. Or Laura Shill, who's engaged in a very rigorous feminist critique of the entertainment industry or our online habits. I think she's among the smartest artists I've ever worked with. I don't see anything slowing her down.

Chris Oatey just did this work he made for the Octopus Initiative [the MCA's art lending library], which was based on a book of maps from surveyors who went in the nineteenth century to the Texas-Mexico border and were basically drawing the border. They had all these drawings around the maps of flora and fauna. It goes to the central issue of today that these borders are completely fraudulent and fraught and invented.

To me, these are artists who are wrestling in a critically engaged way with the issues that are so timely and that we're all reckoning with right now.

The MCA has consistently represented social-political art in town. I'm curious how that might continue.

We have an exhibition that's in development now that will be timed for the fall of 2020 that's exploring the idea of art as an act of citizenship. It's going to show work that's politically relevant, though non-partisan. It's going to be wrestling with all these issues around what it means to be a citizen of this country these past four years. That's going to be curated by Zoe Larkins, who is our assistant curator. I think we are eager to step more fully into that subject matter.

We're going to show the work of Nari Ward, who is a Jamaican-born American artist. It's an exhibition that originated at the New Museum this year. We're showing it next year. All of his work is essentially culled from the neighborhood in Harlem where he has lived and worked for decades now. In working with all of this found material, his work has this connection to daily life.

There's a work of his that I'm thinking of in particular called "Amazing Grace," which is hundreds of baby strollers that he found abandoned throughout the streets of Harlem in 1993. He started collecting them, and eventually he had over 300 of them. He arranges them in this space, so it's kind of in the shape of a womb. There are two sections, and in between the two sections, there are rows of fire hose, because at the time and even still today, he was occupying an abandoned fire station as his studio. You walk into the room. It's somewhat dimly lit, and you have the fire hose and hundreds of baby strollers. “Amazing Grace” is on the soundtrack in the space. I dare you to try not to cry as you walk in. It is one of the most moving works of art I've ever encountered in my life, and it's an honor to bring it to Denver. That's the kind of work that I think is so important to show.

Will you hire another curator?

Yes, we are going to hire another curator. I am very interested in working with people who complement me. If I'm going to do a Tara Donovan exhibition, I want someone on board who's thinking more about performance and experimental film — a variety of things that are maybe not on my personal radar but that are exciting and awesome and would look amazing here. I would be grateful for someone to provide that kind of balance to the programming.

How long do you plan to be here?

I'm 41. I mean, when do people retire? 65? I don't know: My parents are in their seventies, and they're still working full time. I'm here. I have a lot of ideas, and I want to get them under way, and I want to realize them. And I mostly want to work with this incredible team that we have, from our warm and welcoming front desk staff who always have smiles on their faces to our senior management team. The strength that is contained in this building is immense, and the magnitude of what we can do is pretty huge, and I am ready to unleash it.

Update August 27, 2019: The story has been updated to clarify Abrams' thoughts on Nari Ward's work.