Nora Abrams, Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Our new series CULTURED features tastemakers who are shaping the cultural and social landscape of the city. In this issue, Annie Bloj interviews Nora Abrams, Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ESTHER LEE LEACH // INTERVIEW BY ANNIE BLOJ
LOCATION: MCA DENVER
Annie Bloj: Nora, Let’s start at the beginning- have you always loved Art? Have you always had an affinity for Modern Art in particular?
Nora Abrams: 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. Modern art has indeed been a subject of fascination for me, but I didn’t start focusing on contemporary art (art since 1980) until I was in graduate school.
AB: When did you know that Art was more than a passion and was actually something that you wanted to pursue professionally?
NA: 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 an opportunity to share my own curiosity and excitement about contemporary art with others, so art history seemed to present the best of all worlds to me.
AB: After working towards your undergraduate degree at Stanford University, you went on to receive your Masters Degree from Columbia and then a Ph.D. from NYU. Is this the traditional path towards a career as a curator for a Museum? Did you work in galleries or museums while you were studying?
NA: I think graduate school and PhD programs in particular used to be necessary qualifications for curators. The process of honing one’s critical thinking skills, digging into a project that you conceive of and which is bigger than anything you’ve ever completed before, as well as the intellectual adventure of pouring yourself into research and analysis is tremendously valuable. And, without question, it has informed my approach to curating and exhibition production. That being said, a lot of contemporary art curators doing important and creative work do not have a graduate degree. So, I think you can slice it either way. I had early exposure to how museums operate when I worked at The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and those were also very formative experiences. So, I would say that I’m grateful for the experience I had in graduate school, but it’s not a requirement for developing strong relationships with artists, conceiving unusual exhibition concepts, or sharing such ideas with a general audience. The field is definitely accommodating of a lot of different approaches, and that’s a great thing.
AB: What drew you to Denver from the East Coast and to the MCA in particular?
NA: My husband! He is originally from Colorado and, after spending a few years in New York City with me, he was chomping at the bit to return home. We had no idea we would both become smitten with Denver, but it’s been over 9 years that we’ve been here, and we couldn’t be happier. A lot of that joy and enthusiasm for this city comes from my job and being a part of the MCA family. The museum is an incredibly stimulating environment through which I’ve grown and learned so much. I connected with Adam Lerner, the outgoing Director of the museum, shortly after he started at MCA and in a moment when he was looking for a curator. The stars aligned! It’s been a very rewarding experience to learn from and work with Adam as the museum has grown and seen his vision for it come to life.
AB: Modern art can often feel challenging to visitors that might not understand the context, subject and sometimes even the “why”. What do you like to tell visitors that struggle to understand what they are looking at?
NA: 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.
AB: One of the many aspects of the MCA that I adore is the public outreach that is certainly at the core of its mission. All the amazing events that are scheduled throughout the year really break down the stuffiness that is often associated with a major museum. What have been some of your favorite events and programs organized by the MCA team?
NA: We produced a program in 2012 about food called, “Art Meets Beast”, in which we had a butcher break down a buffalo carcass and then five different chefs in the city prepared a meal with the different parts. It was so creative! It celebrated the artfulness of our daily lives while also being insightful, humorous, and deeply relevant. I also love our exhibition openings, in which members, friends, artists, performers, and all manner of interesting visitors come together to celebrate new projects. There is always so much love and warmth in the building during these events; they’re very special.
AB: Esther and I were completely obsessed with the looks you put together for the photo shoot. Do you have a “uniform” when you are working or do you mix it up?
NA: Well, shoot, thank you! I think I do have a bit of a uniform that is typically heavy on black, white, and grey, and always involves tall shoes. I’m “vertically challenged”, so to speak, so I love a good heel. I’m also often moving around the building or traveling, so I like to keep things comfortable too. There was one day I wore a green dress to work and my colleague asked me if I was Nora’s twin cousin. I guess I really do have a uniform!
AB: Do you have a few designers that you go back often or do you like to try new things?
NA: I like both tailored and also less structured designs, so I move around a bit. I love Jil Sander and Rick Owens, as well as Vince and Maria Cornejo. But, I also love discovering younger designers like Misha Nonoo that feel fresh and chic.
AB: Are there any favorite shops in the Denver area or are you mostly an online shopper?
NA: Online shopping is my vice! But, in Denver, I love Max. I found the store shortly after we moved to Denver and it is my favorite place in the city. I think Max has helped me find a dress for our annual gala over 6 years in a row. The merchandise is high quality and unusual, I always love going there.
AB: What is making you excited about the upcoming year at the MCA? Do you see Denver expanding in terms of culture, fashion, art and food?
NA: I’m excited about our upcoming exhibitions at the museum this fall, especially the presentation of never-before-seen photographs by Francesca Woodman and the exhibition Flora by Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler. The city itself is growing so rapidly and, for the most part, in really exciting ways. I’ve enjoyed seeing the museum rise with the city, reaching more people and connecting more visitors with the art and programs we produce. It doesn’t seem like the growth is going to slow down anytime soon, so I just hope that the momentum that has been building continues to reach and touch more people in positive and meaningful ways. The Union Station neighborhood features so much activity right now, which didn’t exist when I first arrived. There’s more retail and restaurants, but also more art spaces, so, cumulatively, I am thrilled that we’re connected with this new center of gravity in the city.
Cherry Creek Fashion TV’s CULTURED with Nora Abrams