Exhibit on Hunter Thompson’s 1970 sheriff campaign begins tour at Aspen Historical Society
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Freak Power: Hunter Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff’
Where: Aspen Historical Society
When: Opening reception Wednesday, June 20, 4-6 p.m.; exhibition runs through Sept. 29
How much: Opening is free; thereafter $10/adults; $8/seniors
More info: aspenhistory.org
The story of Hunter S. Thompson’s watershed 1970 campaign to become Pitkin County’s top cop is retold in the new Aspen Historical Society exhibition “Freak Power: Hunter Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff.”
The show – opening Wednesday – combines art collector and author Daniel Joseph Watkins’ extensive “Freak Power” collection, which he displayed at the Gonzo Gallery in 2015 and on which he based a book of the same name, with holdings from the Historical Society.
It marks the first time the Historical Society has devoted a show to Thompson, the longtime Woody Creeker and trailblazing writer. And it marks the first tour stop for Watkins’ collection, which will make its way to national museums in the years to come.
In all, the show collects more 125 pieces including campaign materials, the iconic “Aspen Wall Poster” series by Thompson and artist Tom Benton, photographs from David Hiser and Bob Krueger, along with newsletters, newspaper clippings and Gonzo ephemera.
Watkins’ collection is supplemented by artifacts from the Historical Society archives like the notorious “No Hippies Allowed” sign from Guido’s restaurant and conservative Mayor Eve Homeyer’s gavel. Interpretive panels guide visitors through the exhibition and provide context about the heated culture clash of the late 1960s in Aspen.
“It’s the story of a point in time in our history, but it was a real sea change,” curator Lisa Hancock said on a recent walk through the show. “Things changed after that.”
The exhibition chronicles Aspen from the hippie incursion of the 1960s, attorney Joe Edwards’ court battle to protect hippies from police harrassment and his losing 1969 bid for mayor, through Thompson’s run against Pitkin Sheriff Carrol Whitmire – detailing the circus-like debates, the undercover DEA agent who attempted to infiltrate Thompson’s camp, the international media attention the campaign drew – and its transformative effect on politics and government in Aspen.
Thompson’s campaign platform of limiting development, legalizing drugs, disarming law enforcement and protecting open space later went mainstream here.
Echoes of Thompson’s platform reverberated through the tenures of progressive sheriffs Dick Kienast, Bob Braudis and Joe DiSalvo and influential county commissioners like Joe Edwards, Michael Kinsley and Dwight Shellman.
Hancock said the museum wasn’t able to mount a Thompson exhibit before this 2018 show because its Thompson-related holdings are scant. A recent initiative to develop photograph negatives from it collection revealed new photos of the campaign.
“And we don’t have any actual objects – a gun, a cigarette holder,” Hancock said. “That holds you back. So doing this with [Watkins] works because he put it all together.”
Watkins worked closely with Historical Society archivists while researching his Thompson campaign book and a previous one about Tom Benton. He’s proud for the Historical Society to be the first tour stop for “Freak Power.”
“It’s always been nice to work with them and they provide such a great resource for the community,” Watkins said in a recent phone interview from Paris. “It’s a natural fit.”
The exhibit will be up through September.
In the spring, Watkins will open “Freak Power” at the Frazier History Museum in Thompson’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Watkins is booking stops at several more museums for the campaign’s 50th anniversary in 2020.
The story of the campaign has been told and retold frequently since 1970 — in Thompson’s hand in Rolling Stone and in the letters collection “Fear and Loathing in America,” by associates in books such as the oral history “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson” and in movies like Alex Gibney’s documentary of the same name.
And there’s more to come.
Robert F. Kennedy III is developing a feature film, titled “Freak Power,” about Thompson’s campaign.
And Watkins is in talks with a major documentary filmmaker about adapting his book and this exhibition for the big screen. Watkins said that project would also include never before released campaign footage shot by cinematographer Robert Fulton III.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff in this Fulton footage,” he said, adding that it totals about six hours of material never seen by the public.
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