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MCA’s New Director Continues the Tradition of Telling Untold Stories

Nora Burnett Abrams brings her curatorial vision into her new role as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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When Nora Burnett Abrams met George Lange for the first time in his Boulder studio, she was blown away. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Lange had been a classmate and good friend of Francesca Woodman, a prolific photographer known for her black-and-white photos exploring sexuality. He’d kept piles of notes and letters that she had written to him, as well as a trove of her prints. He was showing them to Abrams for the first time because he was ready to share them with the world.

“I think every time I see George I ask him, ‘Why did you wait so long?’” Abrams says. She feels privileged that he decided to share them with her—and with the city of Denver through the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) newest exhibition. 

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The show is titled Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, and it fills the first floor of the museum where Abrams was recently promoted to director. The show aims to humanize Woodman, whose work is often interpreted under the shadow of her suicide at age 22. The entire exhibit—as well as a separate one on the second floor, a film work called Flora about a woman artist who was born and raised in Denver at the turn of the last century—stands as an example of what Abrams and MCA are known for: uncovering artists’ stories that haven’t been told and redefining what a museum can be.

Abrams has been working at MCA in a curatorial capacity since 2010, and over that time, she’s seen the museum grow more ambitious and successful with its out-of-the-box approaches, from this year’s Amanda Wachob: Tattoo This exhibit to a Fred Sandback exhibition back in 2011, which took over MCA’s space with Sandback’s minimalist string installations.

Abrams was born and raised in New York City. “I grew up going to museums with my family because they were literally in our backyard,” she says. 

Her senior year of high school, when she took an art history class and realized many of the works she was learning about were part of the museums she knew so well, the pieces clicked together and she decided to pursue a career in the art world.

She studied art history at Stanford University, interned for a year, and then worked full-time at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). She left MOMA to pursue a master’s program in modern art and critical studies at Columbia University, before working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and earning her PhD in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

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Along the way, Abrams kept an eye on Denver. Her husband is from here and, though she had never imagined living anywhere other than New York, he wanted to give Denver a shot. In 2009, Abrams connected with MCA’s former director Adam Lerner, who exited the role in June, and shortly after, she started curating for the museum remotely.

“I came on when Adam was just establishing his vision for the museum, and our approaches to working with artists and working with art objects were very much in sync,” she says.

Abrams and her husband moved to Denver at the end of 2009, and Abrams brought her professional passion into MCA’s nearly three-year-old building, in what felt to her like a barren part of town. “When I first got here, I joked that I could run into the street and scream at the top of my lungs and…no one would have heard,” she says. 

As the city has grown, MCA has grown as well. In the most recent fiscal year, the museum welcomed nearly 120,000 visitors, compared to 40,000 in 2014. MCA exhibitions have traveled to almost 30 other venues, nationally and internationally, over the last eight years. Abrams, who likes to say that she came of age professionally at MCA, has borne witness to it all.

Moving into the director role, Abrams plans to build on the foundation set by Lerner and keep doing what MCA does best: pushing boundaries, showing unique exhibitions, redefining what an art museum is and can be. She wants MCA to reach into the community, beyond its location on 15th and Delgany streets, and embed more deeply into the city.

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MCA’s newest exhibitions build on Abrams’ past work retelling artists’ stories and honoring them in unique ways. She was connected with Lange during a 2017 exhibition called Basquiat Before Basquiat, which shed light on the early creative development of Jean-Michel Basquiat through material collected by a woman who had been close friends with him.

“It’s not an exact one-to-one, but there was something about the way that I had honored their relationship that George [Lange], I think, felt that I would not…take the project in a direction that he felt uncomfortable with,” Abrams says. “He wanted [Francesca Woodman] to be seen as a person who was lovable and loving and fun and funny…and I think he felt I would honor that.”

The exhibition opens with a large vinyl photograph of the studio where Woodman worked in college. As visitors pass through the rest of the exhibit, they see prints of her work, as well as letters she wrote to Lange, all aiming to paint a picture, weave a narrative, of a young artist who was more than her final moment.

If you go: MCA’s Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, as well as two other new exhibits, opens on September 20 and runs through April 5, 2020. 

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