Aspen Art Museum director departs with questions unanswered

The Aspen Art Museum photographed in 2018 with Paula Hayes' plant installation in the foreground.
Aspen Times file

Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman’s last day at her post was Monday, ending 14 years as its leader.

Zuckerman’s tenure — longer than any director in the museum’s 40-year history — included unprecedented growth in funding, attendance and global renown for the contemporary art museum. But the end came without explanation.

Neither Zuckerman nor other museum officials and board members have answered question about her departure since it was announced by a New York-based public relations firm on June 28.

Zuckerman carried out her duties through the summer and spoke at events including the early July opening of an exhibition by Rashid Johnson, the 15th annual ArtCrush gala and the 24-hour “Whole Celebration” honoring the museum’s 40th anniversary in August. But she has not spoken publicly or on the record with the media about the circumstances of her contract not being renewed.

It remains unclear what factors led to the decision. No answers have been offered by Zuckerman or the board as to what prompted it, as interview requests on the topic have been denied or unanswered over the past three months.

Museum staff and supporters, including members of its National Council, were unaware her departure was coming before the June 28 announcement and said in recent weeks they had still not been informed as to the reason for it.

Zuckerman’s departure has coincided with changes in the financial leadership of the institution. A new chief financial officer, Tyler Schube, came on board early this year. The museum’s development director, Lisa DeLosso, departed early this summer, shortly before ArtCrush, the institution’s largest development and fundraising event. And Nancy Magoon, among the museum’s most generous donors, placed her Aspen house up for sale in July. Magoon’s gifts included a $2.5 million endowment for the directorship, held by Zuckerman and named for Magoon and her late husband, Bob, in 2012.

The museum has retained executive search firm Phillips Oppenheim to find a new director.

In an interview on May 13, six weeks before the announcement that she would step down, Zuckerman was asked why she had stayed with the museum for 14 years.

“Part of the reason I’ve stayed here so long is that I feel I’m doing something that matters. When I stop feeling like that, then I’ll go and do something else,” she said at the time. “It’s certainly not that I haven’t had other opportunities. I get asked all the time to do other things. But I feel ownership of this place and I just don’t feel like I’m done yet.”

The museum sent an e-mail blast to members on Sept. 24 with a paragraph titled “Honoring AAM Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and Director Heidi Zuckerman.”

It closed: “The AAM Board of Trustees, National Council, and AAM staff all thank (Zuckerman) for her visionary leadership and dedicated service. We are extremely grateful to her efforts during her tenure and wish her tremendous success and happiness in all her future endeavors, just as we look ahead to the next exciting chapter in the future of the amazing institution Heidi has been so vital in helping to shape.”

The museum also posted a photo montage of Zuckerman’s years at the museum on Instagram Monday afternoon with the messages “Thank You Heidi!” and “14 Years of Leadership at the AAM.”

Zuckerman reposted it on her Facebook page under the comment: “Leaving so much better than when I arrived and with so much gratitude!!”