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Aspen Times Weekly: Art Matters

by Andrew Travers
Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, gave a talk in the "Art Matters" series at the Aspen Art Museum on Friday, Feb. 13.
Courtesy photo |

The number of annual visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has doubled over the past two decades, from 1.6 million in 1995 to 3.2 million last year. To explain this boom, Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, held up his smartphone to a crowd at the Aspen Art Museum, where he recently gave a talk with his local counterpart, Heidi Zuckerman.

Lowry argued that the cultural shift from analog to digital, and from passive media to social networking, has helped create a generation that’s actively engaged with contemporary art. The rise in interest is keeping his museum’s galleries packed, and prompting a new debate among museum directors about how to prevent overcrowding.

“The museums that have been successful have created conversations that people want to be a part of,” he said. “What was a solitary experience when we were growing up has now become a public experience. What was thought of as a bastion of quiet thinking has actually become a social space about participation. That’s why young people are flocking to places like the Museum of Modern Art. They want to be with other young people looking at art, thinking about art, talking about art and oh, yes, maybe picking up a date.”

The standing-room-only crowd at Lowry’s talk, I think, helped illustrate his point.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Zuckerman and Lowry touched on Lowry’s academic background (medieval Islamic art), on his biggest mistakes (getting beat by the Whitney on doing a Jeff Koons retrospective), the role of an art director (“be a catalyst”) and into more far-flung territory like the Charlie Hebdo murders, how art can create social change and inspire tolerance, and why art matters.

At one point in their conversation Zuckerman noted, as she often has, that the Aspen Art Museum is the only accredited art museum on the Western Slope. She also argued that, because of that, Aspenites may have a skewed perspective on museums.

“I think a lot of people in our community don’t actually understand what role a museum plays in a community,” she said. “How it is a civic building, how it is a cultural center, how it should be supported by the local government. One of the things that’s amazing about the Aspen Art Museum is that we are in this building today because 100 percent of it was funded privately. Not a single public dollar went to fund this building. It’s something that we take great pride in, but it’s also problematic for the future of this community if people don’t understand the role of art and culture moving forward.”

The Lowry event itself, to me, indicated that the local community at large is actually investing in, and engaging with, the museum. An overflowing crowd greeted Lowry’s talk, spilling out of the boardroom and into the hallway — this was on a Friday night during President’s Day weekend in Aspen, when there’s no shortage of entertainment options in town. The audience included museum board members and donors, as you’d expect, but I also ran into a local contractor, a city councilman and service industry folks — a cross-section of Aspen and an indication that perhaps, finally, the controversy over the new building is passing as it becomes a gathering place where all of Aspen can go to discuss and learn about art.

Lowry’s talk launched the museum’s new “Art Matters” series, one in an expanding slate of lecture series and residencies at the museum that speak to the kind of new social museum experience Lowry mentioned.

The talks are free and frequent. Some, like Lowry’s, give a local audience perspective on the art world as a whole from its leading figures, while others offer unique insight into the exhibitions at the Aspen Art Museum. Its writer in residence, former Artforum editor and chief curator at The Kitchen, Tim Griffin, in late January offered a talk on the current Nick Relph show at the museum, which I found indispensible in trying to wrap my head around Relph’s challenging — and at first baffling — show at the museum, which runs through March 8.

On Thursday, Feb. 26, Ali Subotnick, curator at the Hammer Museum, will give a talk on a newly opened exhibition by Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi.

Lowry took note of the energy in the Aspen Art Museum and offered some high praise, not only for its exhibitions but for a hard-to-define spirit it exudes.

“One of the things I get to do is travel extensively around the world looking at art museums — small and large, private and public — and you come to very quickly have a sense of the ones that have energy and life,” he said. “And it’s not just a function of clever architecture or a brilliant director or a wonderful staff — its more alchemical than that. And I felt it this summer when [the Aspen Art Museum was] under construction and I feel it profoundly now. There’s something that is really energetic and interesting that’s taking place here. It’s a perfect kind of foil for the energy of the mountain.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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