A Museum, A Mirror: The Aspen Art Museum at 40
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘The Whole Celebration’
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Saturday, Aug. 10, 5 p.m. through Sunday, Aug. 11, 6 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: The 24-hour party celebrates the museum’s five years in its downtown museum, 15 years of ArtCrush and 40 years as an institution; aspenartmuseum.org
When an angry mob of Aspenites destroyed the artist Donald Lipski’s “Beacon Interrogator” art installation on Aspen Mountain, in the middle of a June night in 1988, the act wasn’t really about the art at all.
The Aspen Times, in fact, dedicated its editorial pages the following week to the incident and used it as a sort of case study for a town in turmoil and divided against itself over — as always — growth, development and economic inequality, specifying the “large commercial buildings, giant houses, traffic, air pollution, lack of housing, high living costs and all the other drawbacks of runaway growth even though the city has the most stringent land-use and growth controls in the nation.”
Chastising the vandals who destroyed the work and scolding the many locals who had threatened the Aspen Art Museum for installing Lipski’s massive Mylar sheets on Ajax, the Times used the occasion to diagnose a new and bitter character in Aspenites: “Residents take themselves and the issues, even the smallest, too seriously. They are less tolerant of those who may be different or have different ideas.”
I researched the incident this spring as I was working on a book-length essay about the history of the Aspen Art Museum, for a book to be released Aug. 10 as the museum celebrates its 40th anniversary with a 24-hour party. With full access to the museum’s archives, I read through reams of papers, internal correspondence, donor letters, annual reports, oral histories and studied slides of every exhibition the museum has hosted since 1979. I tracked the museum’s astonishing journey from its beginnings as a wildly ambitious rag-tag artists’ start-up into arguably the best non-collecting art museum in the world.
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Through the lens of the museum, I also saw the history of Aspen’s past four decades and the town’s tumultuous trajectory since the final days of its drop-out hippie era. The museum’s moments of controversy, like the “Beacon Interrogrator” incident, I found, were rarely about art. They were instead flashpoints and battles in the age-old, ongoing “sell Aspen or save it” war, where a nonprofit art museum was scapegoated or caught in the crossfire.
Some examples from the past decade:
The local electorate’s rejection of the museum’s proposed move to Galena Plaza in 2009, in retrospect, wasn’t about a community rejecting art or not wanting a free, privately funded art museum. It was about mistrust of city officials in the wake of the local government overpaying for property in land deals during its “land-banking” initiative of the pre-recession years and the much-derided $18 million BMC West purchase.
When the museum’s detractors vociferously protested the City Council’s approval of the new downtown museum in 2010, it wasn’t about the art inside. It was about angst over new development, it was about the “infill” legislation then reshaping downtown, the loss of the Wienerstube restaurant, it was about the Hecht family’s perceived callousness toward mountain town character and it was exacerbated by the demolition of the Given Institute in 2011 to make way for a massive private home.
Even the outrage over Cai Guo-Qiang’s use of live tortoises in a 2014 installation as the new museum opened, I’d argue, wasn’t about the artwork. The citizen petition that circulated in the days before the museum’s opening — and made “Tortoise-Gate” an international news story — came before installation was complete and before the public had seen the artwork (or even pictures of it). Looking back on that bizarre public battle, it’s fair to conclude it was fueled more by fury over the big new building downtown than by the often-problematic use of live animals in contemporary art.
But the 24-hour party and festivities in 2014 as the new museum opened, conversely, were about art and did forge community bonds.
The scene at Cai’s “Black Lightning” daytime firework over Aspen Mountain — where the billionaire and the ski bum marveled side-by-side — was a collective experience with the sublime. Late night mobs, this time, made their way through the monumental Yves Klein-David Hammonds joint exhibition and marveled, they filled the free concert and dance party in a cathartic throw-down for a community tired of fighting.
This year’s 24-hour party and 40th anniversary bash — including art-making, dancing, open galleries, the return of architect Shigeru Ban and of artist Richard Tuttle — promises again to bring Aspen together for a few days that are all about the art.
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