Shigeru Ban wants you inside the new Aspen Art Museum. Whether or not you like art, whether or not you’re willing to look at art, the acclaimed Tokyo-based architect says, the museum is for you.
“We wanted to make a building for the community, not only for the people who love art,” Ban said before the new museum’s ribbon-cutting. “We want to invite the people who have never been to a museum, even if they are not so interested in contemporary art.”
Ban said he designed the museum — his first in the U.S. — with ordinary Aspenites and tourists in mind.
“We wanted to make a space, not only for art lovers, but also for the community to spend time,” he said.
Unlike most museums, he noted, it has no grand foyer. Instead, it has a rooftop deck, with views of Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass, with a glass elevator and grand staircase leading to the street.
“You can step down, one by one, and can enjoy the art,” said Ban, who earlier this year won the Pritzker Prize, the field of architecture’s highest honor.
A glimpse of what Ban was talking about — what his hope for a museum that welcomes all of Aspen might look like — was on display Saturday afternoon at gondola plaza, where artist Cai Guo-Qiang was scheduled to set off his “Black Lightning” explosion event over Aspen Mountain, celebrating the new museum before its members’ preview.
In the moments before “Black Lightning,” mountain bikers made their way down the hill toward the finish line of the Power of Four endurance race. A unicyclist also pedaled down the mountain. Locals gathered with tourists, spandex-clad bikers, families, artists and Aspen Art Museum board members, alongside the crowds eating and drinking on the patios at Zeno and Ajax Tavern. All looked skyward.
“I hope this work will connect the sky, the earth and the museum,” Guo-Qiang, of China, said through an interpreter before the display.
It began with a loud crack, followed by a succession of black explosions in the sky, forming the shape of a lighting bolt above the mountain. The crowd cheered. The smoke moved toward Independence Pass, then it went off again, and the crowd cheered again. As the smoke dissipated, Guo-Qiang high-fived Phil Grucci, president of the Long Island-based fireworks company that engineered and manufactured “Black Lightning” to Guo-Qiang’s specifications.
Moments later, as Ban and Guo-Qiang shared a private conversation, Aspen ski bum par excellence “Benny the Blade” sat steps away atop the plaza railing, his rollerblade-clad feet folded over one another, looking up expressionlessly at the clearing smoke.
Should a similar crowd end up inside Ban’s new museum, which opens to the public Aug. 9 with 24 hours of events, his vision for it as a transcendent gathering place would be realized.
‘Time to move forward’
As the museum opens its doors, four years after the new building was approved by the Aspen City Council, heated local debate over it and criticism of it — mostly of its size — continues to play out around town, in the local opinion pages and on social media.
“We fight over everything in Aspen, but this is one of the most emotional fights I’ve seen,” said Erik Skarvan, a local resident since 1982, host of “The Local’s Show” on GrassRoots TV and a vocal critic of the museum’s building.
“It’s up there with Boogie’s and the St. Regis,” he added, referring to heated local debates of decades yore over Boogie’s Diner’s glass atrium and the slopeside luxury hotel.
“It set me off and it set off so many locals,” he said. “It’s a symptom of a larger issue, which is the escalating urbanization of Aspen.”
Like those earlier development battles, and the vociferous criticism of the now-iconic downtown pedestrian malls in the 1970s, the clamor will likely eventually die down. Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron is encouraging locals to look ahead now and embrace the museum.
“It’s here, and it’s time to move forward,” Skadron said.
Skadron, as a city councilman in 2010, was the lone dissenting vote against the museum’s building when it was approved by the Aspen City Council.
He said locals upset with the new building continue to sound off on him.
“In terms of general conversations, I hear less positive things about it and more angst,” Skadron said.
The mayor added that criticism of the building is often laced with misinformation about the city process approving the building. The process began with an unrelated development application for the site, from local developer Nikos Hecht, which the council rejected in 2008. Hecht sued the city over that decision. The council’s decision was upheld in district court, but was appealed to a higher jurisdiction. As that case was pending, Hecht offered a plan for a new art museum and an adjacent building as part of a settlement offer to the City Council. The council approved that application in a 4-1 vote.
“My hope is that it’s eventually embraced as a positive community asset,” the mayor said. “My personal feeling is that it contributes to Aspen’s exceptionalism and it helps sustain and continue ‘the Aspen Idea,’” referring to Aspen visionary Walter Paepcke’s concept of Aspen as a sanctuary for mind, body and spirit.
Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley put it more bluntly: “I don’t think the town knows how lucky it is.”
The $45 million building, completely funded with private money, has become a lightning rod, Skadron argued, for larger local fears about the trajectory of Aspen.
“There’s a feeling that money and power trump local values,” he said, adding that he hopes the museum will help turn the tide against that feeling among locals by becoming a gathering place and center of community activity.
The rooftop deck and café, Skadron and others noted, is the most likely conduit through which the museum can bring local doubters into the fold. The restaurant, named So, offers dishes using seasonal and regional ingredients, but nothing cooked on site, as to keep flames out of the museum. It has a weekly changing menu, inspired by the museum’s noncollecting philosophy. Its preview week menu included croissants for $3, beer for $5 and tapas for $12. Along with the café, the rooftop deck has a projection system and will host monthly movie nights beginning Aug. 31.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, at the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, touted the museum as a force to reshape Aspen as a cultural destination.
“The brand or identity of Aspen is pretty set in most people’s minds,” he said. “That’s going to change, and this museum is going to play a role in that beyond probably what most of us can imagine right now. That is a remarkable thing, and changing the brand of Aspen is also going to change the brand of Colorado — a good thing from my vantage point.”
Richard Carter, a founder of the Aspen Art Museum and an artist who has lived in the valley since 1971, notes that controversy over contemporary art in Aspen is nothing new for the town.
“I sympathize with what the museum staff has to go through with the negativity,” he said, drawing a parallel between the current debate and the founding of the museum in 1979, when it was known as the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art.
“It was not a popular idea, or an easy idea, to get the museum started in the first place. There was a lot of political indifference and outright opposition. It was an astounding accomplishment.”
Carter said he assumed back then that the museum, in time, would grow more conservative and less avant-garde, and that another movement would develop to rebel against it. Somehow, that never happened and the museum has continued progressing and reflecting the contemporary art of its time over the past 35 years.
The museum carried on an avant-garde tradition that extends to the birth of modern Aspen after World War II, beginning with Paepcke’s late-1940s exhibitions of experimental photographs by Ferenc Berko and graphic design, sculpture and photographs by Herbert Bayer, whose works and Bauhaus architectural designs still cover the Aspen Institute campus (and to whom Carter was an assistant in the ’70s). The International Design Conference and the Center for the Eye brought leading artists, architects, graphic designers and photographers. Institute trustee John Powers’ “Museum Without Walls” brought masters like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichenstein, Donald Judd, Robert Indiana, Christo and Ana Mendieta.
“They were the avant-garde of their time and as good as it gets really,” said Carter. “Aspen has attracted artists of their time.”
In 1967, Lichtenstein painted the walls of the Brand Building in his signature comic book-inspired style, and it housed new work by emerging artists, including Claes Oldenburg and Indiana, who would go on to create the iconic ’70s “LOVE” block prints.
The two biggest milestones for the museum since 1979, in Carter’s view, are this week’s opening and Philip Yenawine coming to town from the Museum of Contemporary Art to serve as the local museum’s founding director.
“He really engaged the community and embarked on a really high-level curatorial program,” Carter said.
In the context of Aspen’s art history, Carter argued, it makes perfect sense for contemporary art to have a prominent home downtown.
“There’s been a lot of negativity around it, that the building is too big, and I think that’s short-sighted,” he said. “I think that contemporary art should be part of Aspen and we don’t want to stay in the 19th century.”
Perhaps the biggest local kerfuffle over art, before Ban’s museum, came in 1988, when installation artist Donald Lipski rolled Mylar scrolls down the front of Aspen Mountain for a summer-long exhibition. As recounted in former Aspen Art Museum director Dean Sobel’s book, “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen,” museum officials agreed to take it down early, but Aspenites took matters into their own hands and tore down the scrolls before they could be removed.
The new museum, opening with six world-class shows by leading contemporary artists in 17,500 square feet of gallery, keeps Aspen on contemporary art’s cutting edge, Carter said.
“What you’re seeing in the Aspen Art Museum reflects what’s happening in the art world at large,” he said. “I can’t imagine there’s a better museum between the coasts.”
As Ban was designing the building, he and museum director and CEO Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson traveled the country, studying other museums. In Denver, they visited the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Clyfford Still Museum; in Minneapolis, they went to the Walker Art Center; and in New York, they went to the New Museum, among others.
Ban eventually settled on a design aimed at complementing the local landscape and mimicking movement on the ski mountains — the grand staircase, for instance, bisected by a glass curtain, includes stairs for upward traffic and one for downward traffic, going simultaneously, much like the gondola on Aspen mountain.
The building includes five signature elements: its handmade wooden trusses; its glass elevator; its walkable skylights throughout the building; its grand staircase and its woven screen, made from a material called Prodema, with a wood veneer surface filled with resin and paper (“Shigeru likes to say the building is made of paper,” joked Zuckerman Jacobson). Viewed from the inside, the screen breaks up the local landscape into small, framed sections.
“Everywhere you are in the building, you know that you’re in Aspen,” Zuckerman Jacobson said. “The building is really sensitive, I think, to the environment and the community and its siting and its placement.”
Originally, the museum’s leadership called for no natural light in the galleries. Ban rejected that idea, eventually using natural light in all but two of the gallery spaces, using concrete floors and an all-white color scheme inside them.
“The one thing he rejected in our program was the idea of no natural light,” Zuckerman Jacobson said. “And he was right. The art looks incredible.”
Ban also, at first, wanted to direct people to take the elevator to the top and work their way down. Eventually, he and museum staff opted to allow people to move freely in different directions from gallery to gallery.
“So as people familiarize themselves with the building, there are different paths you can take through it,” said Zuckerman Jacobson, “and because it’s free you can come time and time again.”
Admission to the museum is free, and is endowed to remain so in perpetuity.
Earlier this summer at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel on contemporary art museums, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan argued that dropping admission is not, in itself, a solution to engaging the public. Unimposing design and community engagement, he said, are more important.
“Free admission is great, but that’s not the fundamental barrier when people don’t know what’s inside,” he said.
On a recent tour of the museum, Zuckerman Jacobson pointed to the glass faces of the building, behind the woven Prodema screen, as a tool for welcoming the public inside from the street.
“Contemporary art can be intimidating to people,” she said. “The idea is that you can stand on the street and orient yourself with what you’re going to see before you go inside.”
The lead show inside is a joint exhibition of French post-war master Yves Klein and postmodern American artist David Hammons. It fills the two gallery spaces on the ground floor. A walk around the Klein/Hammons show is a tour of a curated conversation between the two on topics like race, religion and art itself. The wide-ranging show includes Klein’s signature works in blue and Hammons’ signature use of American flags and human hair. Klein’s “Untitled Shroud Anthropometry” is positioned beside Hammons’ “Pray for America,” featuring a man literally shrouded in an American flag with hands in prayer.
Zuckerman Jacobson said she has been working on Hammons and on the Klein estate for 15 years to put the joint show together.
“I’ve wanted to do this show my entire career,” Zuckerman Jacobson said. “It’s basically an undoable show. … I really think this show only could have happened right here, right now, for the opening.”
Ban’s work also fills the largest gallery space in the museum. He has rebuilt the groundbreaking structures he’s designed for people in disaster zones in a 4,000-square-foot gallery on the second floor.
Ban has been designing shelters for the United Nations since 1995. They often make use of paper tubes, much like the tubes peppered throughout the museum. Visitors can walk into Ban’s paper tube and tarp emergency shelter, built for refugees in Rwanda in 1999. His use of paper emerged out of necessity. So much wood had been used for shelters in Rwanda that erosion issues worsened, and when the UN provided shelters with aluminum piping, refugees often sold off the materials. Photos in the gallery show similar structures in use in 2010 in Haiti after an earthquake and in Sri Lanka in 2008 during civil war.
Visitors can also step into his “Paper Log House,” made last year for survivors of the tsunami in the Philippines, and into the paper partition system he devised to give refugees privacy in disaster relief shelters after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, and into a nursery school made out of a paper tube frame that was used after the 2013 Lushan earthquake in China.
A Tomma Abts exhibition, titled “Mostly Drawings,” fills the museum’s two basement galleries. It marks the first show to survey Abts’ drawing practice and includes 38 of them, along with two casts and one painting. A Rosemary Trockel exhibition, titled “Less Sauvage Than Others,” displays ceramic sculptures. The shows, like most planned for the museum, do not have panels beside artists’ work displaying titles, materials, and years of production, as is customary for galleries and museums.
Instead, printed gallery guides are available at the entrances. The galleries do, however, have the names of donors who funded them on one wall in each — though the names are placed near the ceiling, above the sightline of the art.
Ban wanted the focus in the galleries to remain on the art, without distraction, so he shied away from panels and built at the same ceiling height, 14 feet, so that viewers don’t have to reorient themselves as they move from room to room.
“There’s a consistency and integrity to the design that, I think, allows the visitor to feel really comfortable,” Zuckerman Jacobson said.
In an effort to stave off “viewer fatigue,” the museum includes benches — fashioned by Ban from paper tubes, a material used throughout the building — and areas to go outside on each floor.
Most of the gallery guides provide basic information about the exhibitions, but one worth adding to your bookshelf covers the “Colorado Mineralogy” show in the corridor on the museum’s second floor. The show exhibits minerals like basalt, galena and quartz — on loan from the Aspen Historical Society and the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum — in a long glass case. Its guide includes a spirited essay by locally based journalist Mark Seal (“This is not mere rock! This is Art, worthy of any museum.”) and a rock-by-rock narrative that includes scientific and historical fun facts about the Colorado minerals.
A sidewalk installation by Jim Hodges, which hadn’t been installed at press time, is titled “And Justice For All” and will run around “the commons” in front of the museum on Spring Street and Hyman Avenue.
The rooftop sculpture garden, until October, hosts Guo-Qiang’s “Moving Ghost Town,” featuring three live African Sulcata Tortoises, named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer, with iPads attached to their backs, displaying footage the turtles shot — under the supervision of the Turtle Conservancy — of a ghost town near Buena Vista. A look down at the screens shows views of grass fields, crumbling ghost town buildings and, occasionally, the other turtles wandering the terrain.
The opening exhibitions — including ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, environmental installation and that big explosion over Aspen Mountain — are aimed to showcase the breadth and variety of what the museum can do. The museum doesn’t have a collection of its own, and doesn’t intend to begin one. Instead, Zuckerman Jacobson said, it aims to grow relationships with artists. As she put it, “We don’t collect objects, but we collect artists.”