Questions for an Uncertain Year Ahead on Aspen’s Arts Beat

Vaccines are here and, gradually, we’ll all get them in 2021. This means there will be a day – sooner or later – when the novel coronavirus pandemic will be behind us. When that happens and when we can gather again – see live music and theater again, go to the movies together again – what will Aspen’s arts and culture landscape look like? It’ll be different. But how permanently different and in what ways?

It appears, so far, that local arts presenters and nonprofits are faring better here than they are in many other places. We saw countless cancellations on the arts calendar in 2020, of course, along with some furloughs, lay-offs and budget cuts. But we have not yet heard announcements of permanent closures or discontinued festivals. So there is reason for hope in 2021 and we know Aspen’s arts sector is resilient. These are some of the most pressing questions for the year ahead.

When will Belly Up reopen?

Ask Aspenites what they miss most from local nightlife and they’re most likely to say Belly Up. This gem of a small room famously books the biggest pop music acts in the world and has been cherished since its opening in 2005. If you ever did take it for granted, you won’t any more. When Belly Up opens its doors again, it’ll be among the great signals that life here is returning to something like normal and that the live music industry is reawakening nationally.

When that will be remains an open question.

The club has “paused operations” since mid-March 2020 when the spring quarantine began here. It booked a pair of Deadmau5 shows earlier this month, but canceled as COVID numbers spiked and rescheduled for March 19 and 20, 2021, which now appears to be the most optimistic possibility for a reopening.

Where will Academy Screenings land?

It was long a Christmas-New Year’s Eve tradition to gather for Aspen FIlm’s Academy Screenings and see all the Oscar titles, with locals and Academy voters and Hollywood Aspenites like Jack Nicholson and William H. Macy side by side. Streaming and home theaters began changing that tradition years before the pandemic. Last year the series moved to January out of the event-glutted end of December. This year, with the Oscars delayed to late April, Aspen Film hasn’t announced plans but has indicated that a COVID-modified Academy Screenings will land in the spring sometime. It’s anybody’s guess what the future of the screenings will be from there.

The Music Fest is hosting an in-person summer season. But for how many persons?

The Aspen Music Festival and School has announced it will hold an in-person season in 2021, including both student instruction and public concerts. We can assume it will be downsized significantly to accommodate public health restrictions. What’ll that look like? Odds are that programming will be much like it would have if the Music Fest had gone through with the scaled-down pandemic lineup it announced but then scrapped in 2020: far less than the usual 400 events, fewer students, combined orchestras and shorter concerts without intermissions. In any event, the first time we’re back on the lawn on a Sunday afternoon will be a joyous day in Aspen.

What will the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Experiences look like?

We know who will be on-stage, as Jazz Aspen moved its 2020 lineups for both festivals to 2021. But what about in the audience? The small club experiences of the June festival might translate well to distanced events, something like the summer 2020 JAS Cafe shows. But what about Labor Day? Will we be able to have 10,000 fans out in the crowd to see Stevie Nicks and Kings of Leon? Will we still be distanced and masked? It’ll depend on the vaccine rollout and how much public health restrictions can scale down by then.

How will the arts calendar permanently change?

The long-established rhythms of the summer culture season are in for a shakeup. For decades, tentpole festivals and events have planted flags on the weekends from the Food & Wine Classic in mid-June to the Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day. By 2019 it seemed set in stone, some might argue it was calcified. Now, who knows? Ideas Fest is staying virtual in 2021, Food & Wine is moving to September and some local arts organizations are eyeing splashy new midsummer festivals in a play for post-pandemic supremacy. This year will definitely be different — and maybe we’re in for some permanent changes that could shift the tourism calendar, winter and summer arts happenings, the spring and fall offseasons and the future of Aspen.

Can the Wheeler Opera House recover?

While arts organizations and individuals with far less resources found ways to continue their missions during the pandemic, the Wheeler – publicly owned and tax-funded – shirked its duty. We saw scrappy groups like 5Point Film and Aspen Film take their festivals virtual and bring great joy to the local audience in so doing, while the Wheeler simply canceled its Aspen Mountain Film Festival and Shining Mountain Film Festival outright. Innovative organizations like Jazz Aspen and Theatre Aspen found ways to safely host concerts distanced and outdoors and online, while the Wheeler simply wiped its slate clean. The Art Base, the Pitkin County Library, the Aspen Historical Society and many others found ways to enrich the lives of local children through art kits, virtual events and distanced activities, while the Wheeler – normally the hub of wintertime family-friendly entertainment in Aspen – produced nothing virtually or in-person. Other government entities found ways to serve – the Red Brick, for instance, was among the first galleries to stage a virtual exhibition.

The combination of the pandemic and the departure of ambitious director Gena Buhler shortly before COVID-19 struck led to these disappointing results for the historic city-run theater. City officials have openly flirted with repurposing the $32 million in tax collections the Wheeler is sitting on. The Wheeler board will have to quickly find a way to be relevant and impactful in the post-pandemic landscape. If it cannot, the powers that be and Aspen voters will find a way to give that money to someone who can.

Will new art galleries stick around?

It seems like a boom time for galleries. With everybody cooped up at home so much in 2020, filling walls with art seemed more essential than ever. While browsing in naturally social-distanced art galleries proved pandemic-proof. Many of Aspen’s contemporary galleries have talked of the big years they had in 2020, while the ecosystem of commercial art grew considerably with the addition of Eden Gallery as a centerpiece of downtown in the former Boogie’s Diner building and popular newcomers like Patrick Guyton Gallery, Galeria Mascota and Honor Fraser.

Are drive-ins here to stay?

One lesson of the pandemic that we wish our grandparents had taught us earlier: drive-in movies are rad. The Buttermilk and Snowmass screenings were among the most popular and most fun events of 2020. Imagine if we’d been allowed to walk around, carhop. visit friends and tailgate without masks and social distnace. Might they continue into a post-pandemic future for Aspen?

Aspen Times Weekly

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