Champions of contemporary American art. Landmark buildings in new locations. A shared community of collectors, philanthropists and board members. The connections between the Aspen Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York are many. “When I began as the director [of AAM], I assembled a list of model museums I admired and wanted to emulate, and the Whitney was very high on that list,” says Heidi Zuckerman, Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and director of AAM.
True, the connected ethos and complementary visions are evident, as are the people. A look at the Whitney’s board of trustees reveals a litany of Aspen luminaries: Leonard Lauder, Bob Hurst, Nancy Crown, Warren Kanders and John Phelan. Yet the connections between the Whitney and Aspen often come back to one legendary philanthropist, Melva Bucksbaum, a longtime Aspen resident, Whitney trustee from 1996-2015 and vice chairwoman from 2003-15, AAM board member, national council member and longtime Aspen art advocate who died in 2015 after a battle with cancer.
According to Bucksbaum’s daughter, Mary Scanlan, also a member of both Aspen and the Whitney’s board of trustees, her mother’s passion for art benefited the organizations where she lived—Des Moines, Iowa; Aspen; and New York. “The reality is that Melva was involved in every level of art in Aspen—with the artists, the institutions and collecting what the galleries represented,” says Adam Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Her connections were not just with one group. She had a pervasive presence in the arts community.”
Her collecting championed female and emerging artists early in their careers such as Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, Tom Sachs and Cindy Sherman, many of whom later exhibited in Aspen at the Baldwin Gallery or AAM. “Her collecting happened naturally, evolved over time,” says Scanlan. “She never purchased work she thought she should have. She purchased work she loved.”
Bucksbaum’s passing left a hole in New York and Aspen contemporary art worlds. Yet she lives on through the Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 prize established at the Whitney in 2000, perhaps the most significant and impactful award for contemporary American visual arts; and through Scanlan, a full-time Woody Creek resident who remains committed to both the Whitney and AAM, as well as to supporting contemporary artists that her mother championed. “She loved all of it,” says Scanlan. “Sharing her love of art with other people, the shows she curated, bringing in others to see her collection, she really wanted to share that love of art with the world.”
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