The Aspen Art Museum Proves to Be a Cultural Force on the East End

Andrew Travers | July 10, 2019 | Lifestyle Feature Features

After five years in its new east end home, the Aspen Art Museum is influencing its neighborhood and the town’s art scene entirely.

Shigeru Ban, who designed the Aspen Art Museum, won the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his work in 2014.

In the 40 years since the Aspen Art Museum opened its doors in a modest converted hydropower plant on the banks of the Roaring Fork River, Aspen has become an unlikely center of the contemporary art world. And in the five years since the museum left those tight quarters behind and opened the doors of its new Shigeru Ban-designed downtown home to global fanfare, that status has only grown.

Since 2014, the institution has solidified its place as a third pillar of Aspen cultural life, alongside the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Aspen Institute. A contemporary art gallery scene on the east side of downtown is blooming around the museum. And with widely expanded staff, exhibitions, education and outreach programs, along with resources for local artists and partnerships with other valley arts presenters, the institution has become an accelerator for Aspen’s art and culture.

The David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons exhibition was an unexpected coupling of two significant artists that drew national acclaim.

“It’s not about personal tastes; it’s about contributing to a larger cultural footprint,” says museum director Heidi Zuckerman, who has helmed the museum since 2005 and announced in late June that she will step down this fall. “I think that’s one of the extraordinary things we’ve done here.” The last five years have given full voice to the museum’s ambitious exhibition program, glimpsed but always constrained in the former space.

With as many as 18 shows per year, the museum has regularly identified the next generation of artists through its commitment to host first-time U.S. museum shows; offered new contexts for masters like Chris Ofili and Agnes Martin; elevated work by neglected artists like Cheryl Donegan and Margaret Kilgallen; curated popular group shows like last winter’s Zombies: Pay Attention!; and hosted only-in-Aspen home runs like the 2014 David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons joint exhibition and the 2017 museum takeover by Wade Guyton, Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Artist fellows in 2019: Michael Lorsung, Andrew Roberts-Gray, Shannon Richardson, and Wewer Keohane

This month, the museum opened a hotly anticipated solo exhibition by 2018-19 artist-in-residence Rashid Johnson, who used his time here to shoot an art film called The Hikers, choreograph his first dance-based work and make three collage-based paintings. During ArtCrush last year, he sold a new collage for $725,000. His time as a resident artist coincided with a breakout year for the acclaimed multimedia creator, including his debut feature film, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and then on HBO.

“It’s more direct in its narrative approach than anything I’ve ever made,” he said in a museum talk last summer of making a mainstream film. “But it shares with the rest of my work this idea of not having a specific kind of antagonist… In my story, the antagonist becomes the collective ‘us.'”

The residency program is among the less publicized and more impactful initiatives at the museum. It’s brought the likes of Johnson, Donegan, Gabriel Kuri, Mickalene Thomas and Adam McEwen to make new work in Aspen.

As the museum moved to its downtown building, it ended the long-standing tradition of the Roaring Fork Open, a showcase for locally based artists. The termination raised hackles among local artists. But Zuckerman had concluded that the show itself wasn’t serving artists, although the curatorial and critical feedback of producing it had actually helped artists transform their practice and led to creative breakthroughs. “Their practices evolved so much through that,” she says. “It wasn’t through the exhibition, it was through the exhibition program.”

The 33,000-square-foot museum has transformed the east side of downtown Aspen.

So, in place of the Open, the museum has spearheaded new programs to serve artists, including a regular series of Crit Sessions that offer intensive daylong workshops with a national slate of art critics, academics and curators. In 2018, it launched the Aspen Art Museum Fellowship, tapping an annual class of valley-based artists, funding their projects, working with them over the course of a year and then hosting public presentations from them at the museum. The first class included Wewer Keohane, Michael Lorsung, Shannon Richardson and Andrew Roberts-Gray.

“It really has changed me, my inner confidence and sense of self,” says Keohane. “I am forever grateful for that.”

The museum’s impact is reverberating beyond its walls, most noticeably in the neighborhood surrounding it.

Skyrocketing lease rates for downtown commercial spaces chased most local gallerists and artists out of the core by the early 2010s. But the museum, and the mixed-use building alongside it, has inadvertently helped bring some back. Museum co-founder Richard Carter, for instance, had been without an Aspen gallery representation for several years, until this summer when he opened a pop-up in the building adjacent to the museum (as it waits for a tenant to fill the space more permanently). The building also provided a showroom to Galerie Maximillian and previously served as home to the Gonzo Gallery, which staged a memorable exhibition of photos and ephemera from Hunter Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff in the space in 2015. A few blocks westward at the corner of Cooper and Hunter, the brilliant young curator Skye Weinglass opened her Skye Gallery in 2018, providing a forum for local and national artists and a gathering place for a youthful and creatively inclined segment of Aspen.

Weinglass regularly hosts parties and openings on the same nights as big Aspen Art Museum exhibitions. So does Boesky West—the first gallery outside Manhattan for contemporary art kingmaker Marianne Boesky—which opened soon after the new Aspen Art Museum, two blocks toward Main Street, lured to the East End by its proximity to this new contemporary art hub downtown. This summer, on evenings when the museum opened new shows, the four-block stretch from the Skye Gallery to Boesky transformed into a casual block party for art lovers.

This milieu has also made Aspen a locale for permanent street murals, including Shepard Fairey’s “Ideal Power,” which went up off Hunter Street in an alley in 2018, and Rubin 415’s mural on the Aspen Starwood building across Hyman Avenue from the museum in July.

In 2018, the annual ARTnews list of the top 200 private art collections in the U.S. included an astounding five Aspen collections (few major cities tallied as many, and, by comparison, Denver had none and Chicago had six). Most of them, from Stefan Edlis to Gabriela and Ramiro Garza to Susan and Larry Marx to John and Amy Phelan, are deeply involved with the museum (the Garzas underwrite the artist-in-residence program; the Marxes and Phelans names are on the building; and Amy chairs ).

The museum’s unprecedented growth over the last 15 or so years owes a great deal to these major collectors, who have backed it as patrons and joined its board and national council, lending expertise and global influence. But the museum has also enriched those collectors through the artists they meet and discover through its programs, as well as through hands-on experiences like museum-run international donor trips to art fairs and studio visits with blue-chip artists around the world. The collectors also pick up new pieces at annual ArtCrush auctions.

“About fundraising, my perspective has always been that it should be fun,” Zuckerman says of these globe-trotting enrichment opportunities for museum supporters.



From top: AAM board member Erin Leider-Pariser, director Heidi Zuckerman and board member Paul Pariser; AAM board member Amy Phelan, architect Shigeru Ban and board member John Phelan; Arte en Espanol brings art to diverse communities; artist fellows Andrew Roberts-Gray, Wewer Keohane, Shannon Richardson and Michael Lorsung, and AAM’s Teresa Booth Brown.

Frequent—and always free—artist talks and panel discussions have outgrown the small education room where they were housed in the new building’s early days and now regularly draw standing-room-only crowds to the rooftop space to hear curators, artists and thinkers.

The rooftop cafe—along with becoming a favored lunch spot and hive of laptop-tappers—has grown into a cultural center in its own right, hosting jazz performances for the JAS Café and Jazz Aspen’s June Experience, along with Aspen Music Fest classical recitals.

“We are willing to partner with anyone who wants to work with us,” Zuckerman says of the museum’s stature as a music venue. “A rising tide raises all boats.”

As this lush cultural scene began taking hold in 2015, the National Center for Arts Research ranked the Roaring Fork Valley as the top small town in its inaugural Arts Vibrancy Index.

But the reach of the museum in the last five years has extended far beyond typical museum crowds and art-loving tourists. As it opened downtown, the museum zealously aimed to make itself accessible, partnering with more than 50 Western Slope organizations on education and outreach programs; sending instructors to every elementary school within a 100-mile radius; and implementing innovative new ways to welcome the art-averse, bring in people with autism and disabilities, and deliver art therapy programs to the county jail and the Youth Recovery Center rehabilitation facility—all while partnering with the Aspen Hope Center to use art for suicide prevention. Those efforts, along with the popular Arte en Español program for Spanish speakers, earned the museum the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the country’s highest honor for community service.

The award inspired John Hickenlooper, then governor of Colorado, to laud the museum and declare during a visit: “The building itself has become a symbol around the country. It allows Aspen to be seen in a different light. And when Aspen is seen in a different light, Colorado is seen in a different light.”


Photography by: Aspen Art Museum photos by Michael moran, courtesy of aspen art museum | Artist fellows photo by michael moran/courtesy of aspen art museum | gallery photo by teresa booth brown | event photos by David X Prutting/BFA and daniel bayer