Albert Schweitzer walking arm in arm with Walter Paepcke during the Goethe Bicentennial, 1949.
The past is ever-present for the Aspen Ideas Festival’s legacy of discussion and discourse.
DISCUSSION AND DISCOURSE. TWO THINGS THAT ARE SEEMINGLY LACKING IN OUR SOCIETY.
But each summer, world thought leaders come to the Aspen Meadows campus to present ideas in the pursuit of discussion and discourse at the Aspen Ideas Festival (aspenideas.org). This summer the Festival, often described as an intellectual “summer camp for grown-ups,” will convene for its 19th gathering.
Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Architect Eero Saarinen, and Walter P. Paepcke of the Board of Directors of the Goethe Bicentennial Foundation confer on the drawings for the special bandshell to be erected at the Aspen site of the Goethe Music Festival being held in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The AIF was conceived by the Aspen Institute’s then-CEO Walter Isaacson, whose “big idea” was to bring leaders in business, the arts, government, media, science, and the social sphere together for a week in the Rockies to interact and exchange ideas. Working closely with Elliot Gerson, executive vice president at the Aspen Institute, and Kitty Boone, the AIF’s executive director, Isaacson partnered with The Atlantic magazine to create a weeklong event that would, according to Boone, “open the doors of the Institute to the public.”
The idea was not new. In fact, a touchstone for the AIF was arguably the most momentous cultural event in Aspen’s history. In 1949 Chicago industrialist and founder of the Aspen Institute, Walter Paepcke encouraged the elite of the international intellectual, business, and artistic communities to travel to this small Rocky Mountain mining town to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of a German philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The goal? To introduce Aspen to the world as a place where Mind, Body and Spirit, the Aspen Idea, could flourish. The “Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival,” as it was called, inspired Isaacson’s modern-day vision.
President Joe Biden speaks with Walter Isaacson during the 2016 Aspen Ideas Festival. Opposite: Isaacson and Bill Gates attend “ A Conversation with Bill Gates” on day 4 of Aspen Ideas Festival 2010 on July 8, 2010.
“We all know what a music or an art festival looks like, right? ”Gerson said about some of the early challenges of creating the AIF. “But we really had no template for what a festival about ideas would look like. We didn’t know if we could get speakers to come, or sponsors, or most importantly if the public would care.”
In July of ’05, that first AIF answered all those questions. Over 100 speakers participated, filling the community with goodwill. The eclectic mix of attendees, moderators and speakers included New York Times writer David Brooks, Pastor and lifestyle guru Rick Warren, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham and a young entrepreneur named Jeff Bezos, who, just a decade before, had founded an online bookstore called Amazon. Toni Morrison read from her works in Harris Hall, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company performed “A Midsummers Night’s Dream” at the Aspen District Theatre. The collection of experts, artists and media mirrored Isaacson’s concept perfectly.
Isaacson and Bill Gates attend “ A Conversation with Bill Gates” on day 4 of Aspen Ideas Festival 2010 on July 8, 2010.
“This was before the Doerr-Hosier Building (opened in 2007), so we were scrambling for room,” Boone laughed as she thought about that first year. “We had 500 attendees (the first AIF sold out quickly at $1800 a ticket), so every event was crowded. Colin Powell (former Secretary of State) wanted to see a session, and we scrambled to find him a folding chair just so he wouldn’t have to sit on the ground.”
Concepts that define the Festival to this day were born in the seminal event. “We decided not to have a central theme as we wanted to give speakers and audiences broad areas to create,” Gerson explained. This led to organizing the festival in free-flowing program “tracks” to provide breadth for the participants while bringing continuity to the annual agenda.
Another early innovation was allowing the Festival to spill out into the town of Aspen with a series of nighttime sessions at venues like the Belly Up and the Caribou Club. Dubbed “Evening Exchanges,” these sessions broke down barriers and create opportunities for casual interactions. And the AIF Scholars Program and the Bezos Scholars initiatives brought groups of young, action-oriented leaders and students, respectively. This created diversity among the attendees.
In 2010, Sandra Day O’Connor introduced Ruth Bader Ginsberg who was interviewed by Jeff rey Rosen.
The die was cast. “Aspen,” as it became known to out-of-town guests and the media, became a must-do for the intellectual elite. In 2007 former President Bill Clinton addressed the sold-out AIF, and news outlets ranging from the networks to NPR, Morning Joe to CNBC and PBS’s Charlie Rose program all began to set up summer broadcast studios in nooks and crannies around the Aspen Meadows Campus. What happened here mattered.
What has made the AIF so special? Gerson believes the secret is the interactions between the speaker and the audience. “This is not a “greenroom” event where speakers emerge from the back and give a talk,” he notes. “Our mode is to have interviews and moderated dialogues instead of lectures. And we always have Q&A. Our speakers (all unpaid) become participants, and they love that aspect of the AIF as much as the audience.”
It is common for attendees to find themselves walking along the paths of the Meadows or standing in line at the hot dog carts adjacent to high-profile speakers. A Supreme Court Justice, a best-selling author or an innovative artist may be your tablemate.
“Honestly, I think what distinguishes us from all other conferences and events is the location and the Campus here in Aspen, ” Boone says without equivocation. “People have to get outdoors and walk to the sessions; they have a unique experience in a beautiful place.” Indeed, the best memories for many attendees come from yoga sessions in the shadow of the mountains or runs along the Rio Grande trail that are part of the AIF program.
While Presidents, noted entrepreneurs and famed entertainers have “headlined” the Festival, it often seems that the most impactful moments come from authentic presenters who bring real emotion to the proceedings. “My most memorable moment came when cellist Yo-Yo Ma (2013 Harman-Eisner Artist in Residence) was here ten years ago,” Boone recalled. On stage with Ma was a 21-year-old soldier, Lance Cpl. Timothy Donley, who had lost both legs to an IED attack in Afghanistan. “He had spent time rehabilitating at Walter Reed Hospital, where he learned he had an amazing voice. With Yo-Yo Ma’s cello accompanying him, he sang America the Beautiful. I get goosebumps to this day.”
IDEAS FESTIVAL MILESTONES
Walter Isaacson, Elliot Gerson and Kitty Boone begin plans for the inaugural Aspen Ideas Festival.
The Festival debuts the day after Independence Day with presenters including Jeff Bezos, Colin Powell and conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham.
Following the opening year’s success, the AIF expands to two separate sessions.
Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer “hold court” in the Benedict Music Tent.
Former President Bill Clinton addresses the AIF audience and deflects criticism for his administration’s actions before 9-11. The Doerr- Hosier building opens, welcoming the AIF.
Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, speaks on food and sustainability.
World-renowned architect Frank Gehry and artist Chuck Close (the Harman-Eisner artist in residence) appear at the AIF.
Race in America is featured as a programming “Track.”
Walter Isaacson interviews two of Twitter’s cofounders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, about the future of the internet.
Barbara Streisand gives a closing talk on women’s heart disease and health.
The Initial “Spotlight Health” debuts. “The Five Best Ideas of the Day” launches online on the Aspen Institute website.
Announcer Bob Costas previews NBC’s coverage of the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Journalist Buzz Bissinger interviews Caitlyn Jenner about her transition as a woman.
Vice President Joe Biden addresses the AIF as part of Spotlight Health.
Dan Porterfield assumes the role of president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and speaks at the opening session of the AIF. Katie Couric interviews former FBI Director James Comey about his role in the 2016 election.
The Pandemic forces the cancellation of in-person AIF, and a virtual online session is launched with Dr. Anthony Fauci discussing the state of the pandemic on the opening evening.
The AIF Returns to its slot as a hybrid digital/inperson event
Artist David Byrne joins in conversation with astrophysicist Janna Levin, director of sciences at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, to discuss Mind, Theater, and the Elusive Self. NBCUniversal signs on as a media partner.
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, HOFMANN COLLECTION; PHOTO COURTESY OF ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, SPACHNER COLLECTION; PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ASPEN INSTITUTE; PHOTO BY RICCARDO S. SAVI/WIREIMAGE; PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ASPEN INSTITUTE