Left in the dark
Ryan Summerlin January 21, 2013
Editor’s note: The following letter was addressed to Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland.
If free soup can build community spirit, so too can late summer nights, paint buckets, sandpaper and friends who agree to be paid in pizza and beer.
That was my experience in opening Nugget Gallery (above Finbarr’s Irish Pub), a unique – if unexpected – space for art that promotes only work by Aspen artists. Nugget Gallery was created from a previously neglected hallway in a downtown office building, reimagined and repainted by volunteers during an economic recession that left many neighboring storefronts empty. With a little track lighting, a dash of creativity and a lot of sweat equity, we wanted to open a gallery – not a can of worms.
A quick history: I applied for and received a temporary business permit in December 2010, with no guarantees of permanence. I accepted that premise, ultimately received enthusiastic council support and was offered assurances that code changes would be considered if the trial proved successful. Since that approval, I’ve been given no feedback by the council or by the Community Development Department as to why any part of that trial wasn’t an absolute success. And yet, on Jan. 14, the same council voted to terminate Nugget Gallery, effective July 15 of this year, without explanation to me or the community.
If it is truly impossible to write city code that would permit this type of business in this type of space, an explanation has yet to be given. However, if creating that code is possible but difficult, well then, let’s get to work. I’m open to reasonable stipulations: Nights only? Already doing it. Limited days per week? Let’s talk. Give Anderson Ranch an Aspen presence in the shoulder season? Sounds good. Re-establish the kids’ show that was dropped by the Aspen Art Museum? Absolutely. Impromptu late-night music performances in a funky setting? You bet. Continued collaborations with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation and other local nonprofits? That, too. Let’s design a plan together. But let’s start now.
From the beginning, all I’ve asked for is a discussion and a bit of brainstorming, yet City Council has refused and directed me to Community Development, and Community Development has refused and directed me to the City Council – a two-year game of bureaucratic hot potato. In the meantime, the City Council has determined that ice
bars, atrium sandwich shops, a new art museum and Hawaiian slushies are good for the town and worthy of a little special treatment. It would seem that a gallery that offers valuable exposure to serious Aspen artists in the heart of downtown while keeping prices within reach of a local with a Christmas list is worthy of consideration, too.
Approval for Nugget Gallery boils down to affordable-housing mitigation, and this is where it gets interesting. I own a small one-bedroom unit in Hunter Creek, and Nugget Gallery is my best effort to have a meaningful existence in Aspen while paying my home mortgage. Yet, as of the Jan. 14 meeting, my effort has been squashed by the city in the name of assuring affordable housing for locals. Does that make sense?
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of the situation, and I’m about out of gas in terms of fighting for the right to provide the “messy vitality” that this town has desired and embraced. But I’m still willing to get my hands dirty and give it a try. I hope that your office and the Aspen City Council are, too.