It is only through the benefit of hindsight that local arts connoisseurs and nonprofit organizations truly can appreciate just how close the community was to losing the Red Brick — a true hub of creativity and good works in Aspen.
Constructed in the 1940s to house the entire Aspen School District — from kindergarten to high school — the Red Brick building by the late ’80s was vacant and in disrepair after the school district built new facilities.
It often takes a group of hardworking, dedicated people to save an endangered space, especially in Aspen of that era, when the excesses of the real estate boom were starting to show their teeth. The Red Brick Center for the Arts is what it is because its board — then known as the Aspen-Snowmass Council for the Arts — felt the need for a central space for arts and a burgeoning nonprofit community, and saw the opportunity to turn a beloved building into exactly that.
After pitching the idea of purchasing the space and converting it into an arts center, the city put the concept to a vote. The board knew the risks: Lose the vote, and the space likely would be sold off for development by the Aspen School District.
But in the 1992 ballot that decided the fate of the Red Brick, preservationists won by a mere three votes. While the vote was cheered far and wide by proponents of the proposed arts center, the narrow margin of victory dictated that the parties involved on both sides of the vote work together to form a collaborative, visionary concept for the Red Brick.
When asked to imagine an Aspen without the Red Brick, its executive director, Angie Callen, briefly allowed a frown to cross her otherwise perpetually smiling face.
“(The local arts scene) just wouldn’t be the same,” she said.
In the 21 years since its opening, the Red Brick has blossomed into a shining example of vision and the impact of the arts, and to Callen, it’s more than just a building: It is a central hive of creative activity in a town that prides itself on forward-thinking culture.
“I call it the hub of local art,” she said while proudly surveying its long main hall through the open doors of her artfully decorated office.
The Red Brick houses 11 working local artists in its dedicated studios as well as nine “tent pole” nonprofit organizations, all key movers of the local arts community, such as the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Jazz Aspen-Snowmass, Aspen Film and Theatre Aspen. There are also several nonprofit media outlets, including Aspen Public Radio and GrassRoots Television, a community TV station that is widely considered to be the very first such entity in America. The Buddy Program, the Aspen Community Foundation, Aspen Parks and Recreation Department and the Red Brick organization itself round out the long-term nonprofit tenants.
The Red Brick nonprofit manages the building. That relationship was established soon after the 1992 election, when the city sought someone to manage its new asset. The Aspen-Snowmass Council for the Arts changed its name to the Red Brick Council for the Arts and assumed the daunting task of rehabilitating the old building and managing its new tenants. Recently, the organization dropped the second part of its name for simplification purposes.
“The community was never really clear on the difference between the building and the nonprofit,” Callen said.
Callen grew up in Pittsburgh and was trained as an engineer. She was working in one of those big Eastern cities that many Aspenites similarly have left when she had an epiphany: She was tired of living in the big city, and she loved snowboarding so much that she wanted to be nearer to the mountains that would allow her to pursue her passion. She moved to Breckenridge for an engineering job and better snow. There, she met her now-husband, Jim, a local sommelier and a fellow “hard boot” snowboarding enthusiast, and the two relocated to the Aspen area. They now live in a quaint, quiet ranching neighborhood in Emma above a flock of chickens, several goats and a few fuzzy rabbits.
Callen has used her engineering background to make sure that the Red Brick operated as efficiently as possible once she was brought on as the new director almost a year ago. By installing a new boiler and installing new lighting fixtures, the building has saved 12 percent in energy costs, or the equivalent of the yearly power needs of six households.
Callen estimates that half of her job is managing the building and helping its tenants realize their individual missions, while the other half is managing the Red Brick nonprofit, which has its own self-sustaining programs.
From 5 to 7 p.m. today, the Red Brick will host an open house.
“It will be an opportunity for the community to come in and tour the facility and to connect with the artists and nonprofits, explore our new kitchen and art factory, and to highlight some of the energy innovations that we’ve been working on,” Callen said.
Part of the open house will be to celebrate several new spaces that have been carved out for the benefit of the building tenants — a central kitchen facility and a brand-new workshop space that Callen is calling the “art factory,” which will house Red Brick programs on a regular basis.
“The kitchen is now a common area for all of the tenants, so rather than have five separate, inefficient mini-fridges operating throughout the building, we now have one larger, new, efficient model, which CORE (the Community Office for Resource Efficiency) loves,” Callen said.
The new workshop space was carved out when several long-term artists moved on to start their own studios elsewhere. Rather than rent out the spaces to new artists, the Red Brick board combined the two and turned them into a larger workshop studio, assuming the costs of renting the space itself.
Starting April 15, the Red Brick will offer “Masterpiece Mine” events twice per week in the workshop space, open to the public and private bookings alike. The concept is to have an arts teacher guide attendees through their own acrylic paintings of a masterpiece work of art while enjoying the buoyant artistic properties of fermented grapes.
“It was an idea that I had when I was first interviewed for the job, but the challenge was we didn’t have the space,” Callen said. “Then an artist (Loraine Davis) came to me with the same idea at exactly the time that the pieces were coming together for the nonprofit to assume these spaces. It’s a good excuse to get together and go out and have some fun making art.”