Aspen Times Weekly: The Artists are Present |

Aspen Times Weekly: The Artists are Present

Theaster Gates photographed on the Aspen Institute campus during the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Lynn Goldsmith/The Aspen Times |

The Aspen Institute had lost its way, the late Sidney Harman told his fellow trustees in a board meeting little more than a decade ago. He said that the think tank that was founded in 1949 with a conference on Goethe had forgotten how vital the arts are to its roots and its mission.

Harman proposed integrating the arts back into the Institute’s policy work, beginning with an artist-in-residence program.

“Sidney made this impassioned speech, he read poetry, he did all this stuff and I got carried away in the moment and I said, ‘I’m in for half,” Michael Eisner, the Institute trustee and former Disney CEO, recalled in late June at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “It wasn’t so bad because the idea was so valid.”

The idea became the Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence, which began in 2006 with actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith in residency with the Institute. It’s continued annually for 10 years with artists across media — from Julie Taymor to Yo-Yo Ma and the photographer JR to the dancer Lil Buck. This year’s residents are artist Theaster Gates and singer Renée Fleming.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is to make the connection between the audience who sobs and stands every time a 13-year-old gets up and sings an aria, but would never go to their local opera company. There’s a huge disconnect there.”Renee Flemming

Their job is to bring their perspective to the Institute’s policy work and public programs at the Ideas Fest and Institute events in New York, Washington, D.C., and beyond. Officially, the post lasts one year. But, most often, it’s ended up being the beginning of a long-term relationship. Smith, for example, has returned here often over the past 10 years and embraced the role Institute officials refer to as “citizen artist.” A decade after her residency, Smith addressed an audience at the Institute’s Spotlight Health conference in June and performed her one-woman play-in-progress “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education” at Ideas Fest.

Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and 2008 Institute artist-in-residence, is now director of the Institute’s Arts Program.

“Once you’re in, it’s forever,” Woetzel said during an event with Fleming.


Theaster Gates is not a community builder, the artist declared in one of his first official events as an artist-in-residence — an Ideas Fest conversation with Studio Museum director Thelma Golden titled “The Community Builder.”

“There’s a way in which when a black artist does things in black space, that can only be called community building,” Gates, who is black, told the Ideas crowd. “But as soon as [Swiss artist] Thomas Hirschhorn does something in the Bronx, it’s like, ‘Oh my God! The world has exploded!’ … Then it’s honorable.”

Gates, 42, talked about his projects, the most famous of which have reimagined and invigorated sections of South Side Chicago into thriving cultural neighborhoods, as land art — as the kind of large-scale, site-specific sculpture projects associated with natural materials and open spaces.

“There should be land art that looks at the hood,” Gates said.

Since he began buying buildings in 2006, Gates and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation have shaped whole neighborhoods: his Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative includes affordable housing units and cultural space; his Stony Island Arts Bank houses some 14,000 books for the public, his Listening House some 8,000 records. He’s created them all in buildings that had been abandoned and/or set to be torn down, all filled with artifacts collected from around the neighborhood.

As Golden put it it, Gates looked at troubling city trends involving poverty, deprivation, violence, and “as an artist decided to address these issues and call it art.”

Books, records, empty buildings — these were the raw materials Gates used in his groundbreaking approach. He worked with them the same way he worked with clay in his early days as a potter.

“If the raw material is paint or clay or metal, we understand those things as conventional raw materials or a palate for an artist,” he said. “I was finding that the world was producing all of this other raw material as a kind of waste and I became the receiver of those raw materials, redeploying them.”

The Dorchester project began with him buying a building to live in, make art in, and to show his artwork in (“No museums were interested in my work”). But as he looked around, he wished there was more around him – a club, a bar, a communal square, creative space, spiritual space. So he began working toward creating those things around him.

“’How much right do I have in my neighborhood to even be pissed that the thing ain’t there, and go downtown, or make the thing?’” he recalled thinking. “So I decided simply that I would conjure the things that I want in my neighborhood.”

Making conceptual art with practical byproducts goes back to the beginning for Gates. In his early days as a working artist, he recalled, he made clay bowls and tableware, then created a character named Yamaguchi. He paid an actor to play Yamaguchi, got someone to underwrite a meal that would host the famed (but fake) artist, then would hold a meal during which his pottery would be used as patrons met the great Yamaguchi. At the end of the meal, diners could take the bowls and plates home, but the art was in this larger concept. Today, the bricks and mortar of Dorchester and elsewhere are like the bowls, the revitalized communities the conceptual work.

Gates is the youngest of nine children. The son of a roofing contractor and a teacher, he became the music director of his church at age 13. He discussed his young self at the Aspen Ideas Festival Young Adult Forum — where an under-21 crowd of about 250 included participants from Institute youth programs around the U.S. and local kids from Aspen to Rifle. The kids were less interested in the nitty-gritty details of Gates’ career and art, more interested in his insight about who and what and how they should be when they grow up. He fed off of their enthusiasm.

“You guys are dope,” he told the crowd, later breaking into a dance when a young woman introduced herself as a fellow Chicagoan.

In telling them his story of high school and then college at Iowa State University, he illustrated what can happen when you feed your passions.

“I remember in high school feeling like, man, I really like fashion, but I’m in this gospel choir and I’m also really good at math,” he recalled. “In college I bumped around and I studied urban planning and I had this minor in sculpture and this minor in religious studies. At the time it just seemed like the random things that I was super interested in.”

He kept up with those interests after school – working day jobs, helping his dad on contracting but still making pots and music, studying urban planning theory and history. All those things made it possible for him to make a new art form and to remake Chicago.

“There was never a day where I said, ‘I’m going to be a this.’ It was an accumulation of understanding who I was in relation to these things that were happening in front of me,” he said. “So, oh, they’re going to tear that building down. I don’t want them to tear that building down. What do I know is inside of me that can keep them from tearing that building down? I had to use whatever was inside of me to try and solve it.”


Before she conquered the music world, became known as “the people’s diva” and as the premier soprano of her generation, Renée Fleming was honing her chops at the Aspen Music Festival and School, performing in productions of “Transformations” and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1982 and 1983.

“I remember when I was invited to sing here, that was an incredibly big deal for me,” she recalled at an Ideas Fest talk with philanthropist David Rubenstein.

Aspen led to Juilliard and performances as the Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro” around the world, which led to a monumental career on the largest opera stages in the world, crossovers into pop, a Super Bowl gig, a Grammy, and a National Medal of Arts.

Three decades later, her term as an Institute artist-in-residence is another turning point. Her run in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” next spring at the Metropolitan Opera, she announced, will be her final opera role. After that, she’ll focus on being a musical ambassador, widening the reach of opera and harnessing the power of music for social good. (She’ll still tour and give concerts, like the triumphant sold-out performance with the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the Benedict Music Tent on its opening weekend earlier this month.)

Six years ago, when Fleming became a creative consultant with the Chicago Lyric Opera, she told the company’s leaders she wanted to focus on audience development — to help opera reach a younger, more diverse crowd.

“They think you have to put on a tuxedo,” she said. “They don’t know how to act.”

She’s already made some headway in breaking down that perceived air of pretension — of monocles and ascots and Adam Sandler’s “Opera Man” on “Saturday Night Live” — surrounding opera. Fleming has sung the Top 10 List for David Letterman and brought a democratic spirit to her concerts that earned her that “people’s diva” nickname. In her Aspen Music Fest performance, along with singing arias in three languages and bringing down the house with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” she led the audience in a silly whistle-along to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”

For her audience development mission with the Lyric Opera, she found an unlikely partner in Chicago’s improvisational comedy troupe Second City. She recalled going to Second City’s theater for a show (where her handbag stuck to the beer-caked table) and being surprised to hear her own recording of a Handl aria play during an opera parody sketch. She headed backstage after the show to meet the troupe’s music director.

“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Renée Fleming,’ and he immediately tried to run away,” she recalled with a laugh.

That meeting led to the development of “The Second City Guide to Opera,” which premiered in 2013 and, maybe, has converted some comedy club denizens into opera fans.

Early this year, through the Lyric Opera, she also launched “Chicago Voices,” a continuation of the “American Voices” initiative she spearheaded with the Kennedy Center in Washington. It has invited a cross-section of Chicago residents to share stories from their own communities, and to sing them using the storytelling tradition of opera. Winners will perform at a series of events next year. Fleming said she is hopeful the program can help bind together the violence-plagued city.

Though opera audiences are largely white-haired, Fleming said, most people do like opera — whether they know it or not. As evidence, she pointed to the 13-year-old opera singer Laura Bretan, whose “America’s Got Talent” performance has become a viral sensation in recent weeks.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is to make the connection between the audience who sobs and stands every time a 13-year-old gets up and sings an aria, but would never go to their local opera company,” she said. “There’s a huge disconnect there.”

Fleming, 57, is also in the early stages of working with the Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health on programs exploring the connection between music and health — its use in educating special needs children, for example, and helping Alzheimer’s patients to communicate. People who sing in choruses, she noted, are found to live longer than average. She wants to help lead the medical movement to understand why that is, and how music can make people healthier around the globe. The collaboration began this spring with a Kennedy Center Arts Summit, which was co-presented by the Aspen Institute Arts Program and which Fleming co-hosted with former Institute artist-in-residence Yo-Yo Ma.

As she nears the end of her opera career, Fleming is thinking about next steps off-stage and about her legacy on-stage.

“I think my legacy will be as an American singer,” she said, “because I’ve broadened so much what it means to be an opera singer. I’m not an opera singer. I am a classically trained singer, but I do so many different kinds of singing.”

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