The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA) is not your typical, downtown building with historical landscaping and a handful of traditional, white, four-walled rooms with paintings and sculptures. No, in fact, they are rather an antithesis of this, and that is what they are best known for: creating a space for art to live, thrive, and connect community with an accessible appreciation for the modern movement.
If you’ve ever attended the MCA, you are well aware of how they curate unique showcases, exemplary exhibits, and provide a space for community events that create conversation, impress emotion, and combine artists interested in social causes. They regularly host events like FemFest, B-Side rooftop concerts, museum tours with comedians, series Sh!t Talk tours, and hold panels and workshops for the community to gather and discuss topics from intersectionality and feminism to art and its cultural impact.
“We have a unique approach to even contemporary culture at large, which is a ‘both/and’ approach,” said MCA director Nora Burnett Abrams. “Meaning, we show, produce, and develop very rigorous exhibitions that have a lot of research and pull out something new from an artist’s body of work, perhaps presenting a new chapter in their narrative. We also produce very original, unusual, quirky, and a little bit weird programming that speaks to aspects of our culture that are maybe not as visual or performance arts-based, but that are fascinating and pique people’s curiosity in different ways.
“Because we are so fully committed and invested in that both/and model, that really does distinguish us from some of our peers in the field,” Burnett Abrams said.
Now, they are embracing the turning of the seasons with a fall opening of three brand-new exhibits today, September 20. This series will highlight the work of three, unique women artists of different mediums and inspirations with one common connection: Colorado.
Featuring the creative coming-of-age of photographer Francesca Woodman, Portrait of a Reputation will present never-before-seen works of the Boulder-raised artist during the years 1975-79. Featuring over 50 unique, vintage prints, as well as notes, letters, postcards, and other ephemera, the exhibition is drawn from the personal collection of George Lange, a long-time friend and classmate of Woodman’s at R.I.S.D.
Also featured is Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s Flora, based on the artists’ discoveries about an unknown American artist, Flora Mayo, with whom the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti had a love affair in Paris in the 1920s. The film installation, sculpture, and archive unearth an important story about social conventions, prescribed roles of motherhood, and the sacrifices women artists faced in that era.
The third exhibit will feature Boulder-based filmmaker Stacey Steers’
Edge of Alchemy, which depicts silent film-era stars Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor as magicians of sorts working in a laboratory to produce life. This is the third film in a series directed by Steers, who is considered to be one of Colorado’s most accomplished filmmakers and artists, and has been the recipient of various grants in addition to showcasing work at film festivals such as Sundance and Telluride.
“Stacey’s work is about female creativity scientific creativity, and the film tells the story of two female characters who live in this surreal environment in which they can procreate without men, which is a radical message,” assistant curator Zoe Larkins said. Larkins has been lead in the assembly and formation of the Edge of Alchemy exhibit and felt that it was a great fit for the trio of women artists to be featured this season.
“Interestingly, the narrative is futuristic, but it brings the past into the present, or in this case, even a little bit into the future. The setting of the film is much more historical; Stacey uses a lot of Victorian prints and drawings, reverse material that she collages together. Although the ‘actors’ are two silent film-era stars, Janet Gaynor and Mary Pickford, she excerpts their likenesses from stills of the films that they were originally in and then collages those into what are basically film stills. Rather than taking photographs or using claymation, she makes collages that she then animates together.”
The art from each exhibit is so unique to the other, just as the artists’ histories and muses themselves are so unique. Often times, it’s the thread of something outside of the art itself that ties it all together. And for this particular trio of collections, it’s that Colorado connection.
In establishing relationships with the owners of the original pieces of the collections, collecting the pieces and working on the back-end portion of contracts and load agreements, and connecting the dots to tie in a theme and reshape the interior of MCA, are all in a days work for Larkins and Burnett Abrams. One thing was clear while speaking with them; their world is one of constant change and chase.
“We have 20 people building walls,” laughed Burnett Abrams amid the banging and clanging of construction work being done overhead, above their very own workspace. However, they are all used to it, as museum exhibits come and go, and they get to play around with the layout and spacing quite often. “I love when we have an opportunity to reorient people within the building. We only show temporary exhibitions; we don’t have a permanent collection, so every time we rotate exhibitions, it’s an opportunity to play with the face of it. We’ve really kind of taken that to the next level on this rotation.”
When you catch this visual and exploratory journey of art, either on opening night or at one of their various events and community gatherings, a day at MCA is an experience. With accessibility of extreme importance to the museum, most of the events they host are all-ages, and the variety of programs and discount days make this something that everyone can have access to appreciate.
“I like to remind people often that we were founded by artists in the late 90s who were eager to create more space for the presentation of art of our time,” Burnett Abrams said of MCA. “We are free for anyone under the age of 18, and we were one of the first museums to do that. It’s incredible how our youth audience has grown over the years since we’ve made that investment in teens to provide them with a safe yet experimental and cool place to be. That has been a great source of pride for the institution.”