Established in 1979, the Aspen Art Museum is a noncollecting museum that focuses on exhibitions of contemporary visual art. It grew out of a long tradition of contemporary art in Aspen and has displayed the work of modern masters such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. In 2014 the museum provoked controversy with its large new Shigeru Ban–designed building, which critics complained was not in character with the rest of downtown Aspen.
Art in Aspen
Aspen’s reputation as a center for contemporary art started in 1945, when Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke saw the town and decided to make it into a refined cultural retreat. Almost as soon as Paepcke arrived, he was importing contemporary art and artists. Long a supporter of the Bauhaus, the famous Weimar-era German architecture and design school, he got Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to help draw up a master plan for the town. He also convinced Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to move there and design or restore several buildings, including the Hotel Jerome, the Wheeler Opera House, and the Aspen Institute campus. For the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival in 1949, Paepcke hired Eero Saarinen to design an airy canvas amphitheater.
Soon the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival, and the International Design Conference were bringing a steady stream of intellectuals and artists to Aspen. The town developed in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s into a showcase for contemporary art, including the work of Bauhaus, pop, and minimalist artists. The Aspen Institute and the Aspen Center of Contemporary Art (established in 1967 and sometimes called the “museum without walls”) showed work by major American artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Liechtenstein, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd. At the same time, important American art collectors began to vacation or acquire homes in Aspen.
Aspen Center for Visual Arts
Aspen’s visual arts scene became considerably less vibrant in the mid-1970s, after the Aspen Center of Contemporary Art folded and the Aspen Institute began to focus on public policy. In 1975 local artists Dick Carter, Laura Thorne, and Diane Lewy started the Aspen Arts Festival to fill the void. After holding early exhibitions at the Aspen Institute, they came up with the idea of establishing a permanent exhibition space in an old 1885 hydroelectric power plant on North Mill Street that the city of Aspen had recently acquired. In 1977 the Aspen Center for the Visual Arts was incorporated, and in 1979 it held its first exhibitions in the renovated hydroelectric plant. Early shows included exhibitions of medieval art, sound and light art, Japanese baskets, and American portraits. In 1984 the Center for Visual Arts changed its name to the Aspen Art Museum.
Searching for a New Site
In 2005 Heidi Zuckerman became the museum’s new director and chief curator. She focused on turning the museum into “one of the best noncollecting museums in the world,” with an emphasis on making the museum a destination by premiering new artworks there.
As part of this plan Zuckerman increased the museum’s fundraising and actively pursued a new building downtown. After more than twenty-five years at the hydroelectric plant, the museum had begun to feel the need for a larger home. The hydroelectric plant was a local historic landmark, however, so the museum could not tear it down or expand it. In addition, the hydroelectric plant was slightly outside downtown Aspen, greatly reducing the museum’s visibility and visitation.
By 2008 the museum selected the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, best known for using cardboard tubes to construct housing for disaster victims, to design a new $20 million building with 30,000 square feet of space. The museum was eyeing a location behind the Pitkin County Courthouse, on the site of a former youth center. Because that land was owned by the city, its transfer to the Aspen Art Museum had to be approved by a public vote. The measure was defeated in May 2009.
The museum found another potential downtown location the following year at the intersection of East Hyman Avenue and South Spring Street. The site, which was home to the Wienerstube restaurant, had been targeted for redevelopment as a large commercial/residential building until the Aspen city council denied the redevelopment application in 2007. The owner and developer of the site filed a lawsuit, city officials came to a settlement, and the Aspen Art Museum got approval for a new building there in the summer of 2010. Critics worried that the size of the proposed building was out of character with the rest of downtown and that the approval process was rushed by the threat of litigation.
Groundbreaking for the new museum was held on August 16, 2011, but serious construction did not begin until spring 2012. Construction lasted two years and cost $45 million, none of which came from tax money or public funds. Over the course of her tenure Zuckerman has raised more than $100 million in private donations, including twenty-seven gifts of $1 million or more, leaving a large endowment to cover the museum’s operating expenses after construction was complete.
Aspen Art Museum Building
Shigeru Ban was awarded the 2014 Pritzker Prize, one of the highest honors in architecture, leading to heightened interest in his design for the Aspen Art Museum. As Ban’s first permanent museum in the US, it was named one of the fourteen most anticipated buildings of 2014 by Architectural Digest.
In August 2014 the new building was completed and opened to the public. It is a boxy forty-seven-foot-high building with a façade of wood strips woven together like a wicker basket. The strips are made of Prodema, a composite of paper reinforced by resin and sheathed in a wood veneer, and cover three sides of the building. When the museum opened on August 9, people lined up down the street to get in, with 500 coming through the doors in the first fifteen minutes.
Inside, visitors flow through the building as if they were on a ski hill: after entering from the sidewalk, they immediately ascend via stairs or a glass elevator to the rooftop deck, then gradually wind their way back down through three floors of large, well-lit galleries with fourteen-foot ceilings. The rooftop deck features a café and excellent views of Apex Mountain; since admission to the museum is free, the deck functions like a public park and quickly became a valuable summer concert venue.
Down in the galleries, the building has 17,500 square feet of display space, three times that of the museum’s former home. The museum continues to be a noncollecting museum with no permanent collection; instead, it features a rotating series of exhibitions highlighting the work of important contemporary artists and giving priority to new works and artists. Its opening exhibitions included a collection of Ban’s designs, a Rosemarie Trockel installation that featured the premiere of several new pieces, and a pairing of works by the French artist Yves Klein and the American David Hammons.
In its first year the new building hosted more than two dozen exhibitions, including a survey of the career of the painter Agnes Martin, the first museum survey of the photographer Anne Collier, and the first solo US museum exhibition of the British artist Alice Channer. Channer’s “R o c k f a l l,” a newly commissioned sculpture, uses industrial materials such as aluminum, concrete, and steel to create red and gray rocklike objects arranged across the museum’s rooftop deck.
At its new location the Aspen Art Museum received more than 80,000 visitors in the first eight months, more than three times as many as it received annually at its previous home.
Among the recent controversies that the Aspen Art Museum has provoked, one of the loudest involved the opening exhibition on its rooftop deck, an installation by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang featuring living African Sulcata tortoises with iPads attached to their shells. The tortoises had been taken to nearby ghost towns, where their iPads were used to record the scenery, and then placed in a pen on the museum’s deck to roam around and display ghost-town imagery to visitors. A local veterinarian was monitoring the tortoises, but the display still provoked outrage, with an online petition to remove the iPads quickly garnering more than 6,000 supporters. Within three weeks a streak of cool, wet weather resulted in the abrupt removal of the tortoises, which were taken to a warm-weather conservation site.
More important for the museum and for Aspen, the Aspen Art Museum has become a lightning rod for residents concerned about the effects of new development and concentrated wealth on their community. For example, the Aspen Times revealed in November 2014 that museum director Zuckerman makes nearly $900,000 per year, more than the heads of the Denver Art Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This was seen as an extravagant salary for the director of a nonprofit with only $14 million in revenue and $3.9 million in expenses annually. Along with the museum’s huge fundraising drive and its high-class annual fundraising party, called ArtCrush, Zuckerman’s salary helped reinforce the notion that the museum has become a playground for the wealthy residents of Aspen.
Meanwhile, the new museum building has attracted vociferous critics at least since Aspen residents voted down the original location behind the Pitkin County Courthouse in 2009. Some wish the museum had chosen a local architect instead of a big name from abroad. For most, the opposition stems from a sense that the building is too large, too boxy, and too modern for Aspen’s brick-and-mortar Victorian-era downtown. Though the museum did not require any zoning variances, residents who believed the museum building’s height and mass were out of keeping with the character of downtown Aspen reacted by proposing a referendum that would allow Aspen voters to have the final say on whether to allow zoning exceptions for new commercial developments. In May 2015 the measure, known as Referendum 1, passed with about 53 percent of the vote.
Supporters of the building, including several of the museum’s original founders, note that Aspen has been home to important modern art and architecture since the days of Walter Paepcke and that major new works of art, including architecture, always provoke controversy before slowly winning acceptance.