It’s not everywhere that skiers can find virgin powder, untrammeled backcountry, 5300 acres of terrain and world-class art. Fresh-off-the-slope visitors to Colorado’s iconic ski mecca can also see some of the best contemporary international and US art at the Aspen Art Museum.
Art is nothing new for Aspen, The once old silver mining town that is now a packed playground for billionaires with their private jets and private art collections has had a sterling (pardon the pun) reputation for respect for the arts since the mid-1940s. It was then that Chicago business honcho, Walter Paepcke, arrived in the sleepy mountain town, set up the Aspen Skiing Company and then lured the likes of Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus movement) to draw up a plan for a new Aspen. That was followed by invitations to Bauhaus architects Herbert Bayer and Eero Saarinen to design some of the town’s buildings and subsequently the Aspen Institute, Ideas Festival, and Aspen Music Festival.
Today the town of roughly 7,000 hosts literary, music, art and design events and is home to a couple of dozen art galleries and studios, some of them as posh as the international visitors and vacation homeowners that the luxury ski capital attracts. It is also home to the AAM, a small but not insignificant regional art museum that has recently been making a global name for itself.
The Aspen Art Museum is not new. In the late 1970s, a version of today’s museum was considered one of Aspen’s most interesting art venues. At that time it was a small art space discreetly located in an old hydroelectric station outside the main downtown area. The funky, cool venue for both local art and highly prized American contemporary art was first known as the Aspen Center for the Visual Arts and later rechristened The Aspen Art Museum. In 2005 a new director and CEO, Heidi Zuckerman, got on board and upped the ante with adventurous ideas for shows and most significantly, a proposal to build a new home for the old museum. Ambitious to be recognized beyond Aspen, Zuckerman and her team looked for new ways to serve a growing audience. That meant finding just the right location and just the right architect. It was a bold idea and not without its detractors.
Undaunted, the museum embarked on a plan for an entirely new building right in the heart of Aspen and made what was considered an unusual choice for an architect, Shigeru Ban. Ban, from Japan and the 2014 Pritzker Prizewinner, had never designed a museum before. He was, instead, known for his work in developing countries with post-disaster temporary housing. That seemingly unlikely resume for the design of an art museum suited Heidi Zuckerman perfectly. “Our museum is a values-based institution,” she says. “Being of service is the highest possible good. In Shigero we found a kindred spirit.”
The AAM team also was struck by Shigeru Ban’s “simple elegant aesthetic”, Zuckerman continues. That aesthetic can be seen in his use of some of the same pedestrian materials—sheets of plastic, cardboard tubing and plywood—that he used in his post-disaster structures. The Aspen Art Museum opened in 2014 as a wood-lattice-clad glass cube that at 33,000 sq ft was three times larger than the former space. It holds six white galleries and is topped off with a roof café and sculpture garden.
Not everyone in the town was thrilled with the location or choice of architect. Some had concerns that the building was not in touch with its surroundings. Ray Mark Rinaldi, the culture critic-at-large for the Denver Post and editor of One Good Eye, a blog centered around Colorado visual arts, disagrees. He thinks the location of the building with its rooftop view of mountain peaks integrates Aspen’s natural beauty with the art museum, saying: “The rooftop deck has the best view of Aspen Mountain of anywhere in the entire town!”
The Aspen Art Museum has, in just a few years, breathed new energy into the resort town’s cultural life. It is not a collecting institution but rather a venue for carefully curated exhibitions. This concept, called, a kunsthalle, the German word for art hall, is part of the trend toward boutique-like museums. The museum is relatively small, but Zuckerman’s vision is big for a small town. She says she wanted to showcase both emerging and established US and international contemporary artists as well as art that looks at contemporary cultural, social, or political subjects. And, she says, “We wanted a space that was perfect for the presentation of art.” For art aficionados like critic Ray Mark Rinaldi, Zuckerman has met her goal. He says the museum is a highlight of Colorado’s art scene and that under Zuckerman’s watch, the museum much more than just a regional outpost for art. In fact, it has helped boost the city’s cultural weight or as Rinaldi says, “The Aspen Art Museum punches above its weight class and has a strong confident sense of itself.”
Rebecca Hart, the Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Denver’s anchor art institution, Denver Art Museum agrees. For her, the regional AAM is an important piece of Colorado’s vibrant contemporary art scene and as she puts it, is a “bright surprise” for Coloradans and international visitors. “The surprise is that artists you’d see in New York or Art Basel in Miami or Europe are showing at the same time in Aspen.” Hart points to current exhibitions of Art Basel star, sculptor Ugo Rondinone, and artist and conceptual artist, Danh Võ, whose work was a highlight of the Venice Biennale. “Heidi Zuckerman,” says Hart, “has an uncanny sensibility about choosing artists just at the moment their careers are launching in new or larger direction.”
With the opening of a cluster of new prestigious galleries and the attention of a new crop of visitor/clients from Asia and Latin America, it seems as if the AAM has also been an engine for increasing growth in the arts community of this snowy mountain town.
It’s looking more and more as if Aspen (where now even the ski lift tickets feature images of works of art) is becoming not just a destination for skiers who might also like art, but also a destination for art lovers who just might try skiing while they are in Aspen. And, though Aspen may be a town of billionaires, expensive restaurants, and chalet chic, as art critic Ray Mark Rinaldi notes, “The Aspen Art Museum is absolutely free!”