Anderson Ranch – where art trumps discipline
Jeremy Swanson is talking about New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony, the oldest arts colony in the United States: “They have 200 acres of woods and deep in the woods are these studios. You’re so isolated. The elfish staff delivers lunch to your door – and then runs, so they don’t bother you.” And you know Swanson is about to draw a distinction between MacDowell and Snowmass Village’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center, where he is the director of communications. “This is the very opposite. You are going to have a communal experience.”The first, and maybe most obvious contrast is in the dining experience. Sitting in the tented cafeteria with several other Anderson Ranch hands, Swanson is in the midst of a hive of chatter and activity. The cafeteria is packed; clearly there is no emphasis on isolation and the least of anyone’s concern is that their talk will disturb another’s tranquility.Anderson Ranch has been literally designed to encourage interaction, of all kinds. Aspenite Harry Teague’s architectural design has studios that face each other, with large garage doors that beg to remain open in summertime.”There’s a sense of invitation in the way the studios are open to each other,” said Jim Baker, who has been at Anderson Ranch for 19 years – nine as director of the photography program, and the last 10 as the Ranch’s executive director. “The architecture is so fundamental to what an artists’ community becomes. Here it inclines toward interaction. And that really, really works.”
The design is a reflection of the Ranch personality. The Ranch maintains an open-studio policy, so that the public can drop in and see what it being made by painters, ceramists, woodworkers, photographers and others. The cafeteria’s group tables invite conversation between visiting artists, Ranch staff and their families, workshop participants and even the public. (The cafe serves its wonderful buffet to all, a fact that probably should not be shared too widely.) Artists from different corners of the creative universe are frequently thrown together; a filmmaker and a painter, for example, recently collaborated to lead the Film As Inspiration workshop.And a signature of the Ranch has been leading artists to experiment outside their usual realm. Renowned painter Eric Fischl made a print series in Snowmass a few years ago; last fall, sculptor Nissa Kubly made several pinhole-camera sculptural works, which she then used to make a photographic series. And Kathleen Loe, program director of painting and drawing at the Anderson Ranch, recently became a student, taking a course in which she learned to animate her painting.”Suddenly I got a sense of her work that I hadn’t seen before, as she got other disciplines to explain what her ‘real’ work is. And I think she did too,” said Baker.”Artists naturally have things to share with each other, and the disciplines are secondary. There’s a sense of a return to that notion of an artist being someone who creates, and it can be in any form. The Ranch tries to encourage that sense, that a woodworker and a painter have something in common to talk about that transcends the materials. You don’t just have painters talking to painters.”
Anderson Ranch’s High Art in the Rockies symposium take a typical tack. Titled High Touch/High Tech, the symposium, Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 11-14, brings together artists and curators from what would seem to be opposite ends of the spectrum. On one side are the “touch” people, whose work involves intimate hands-on contact: bead-worker Liza Lou, wood sculptor Martin Puryear. From the “tech” realm comes Mark Tribe, who runs the digital-media program at Brown University. Falling roughly in the middle are performance artist Nick Cave, Barbara Bloemink, curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York (and curator of the current Aspen Art Museum exhibit ArtDesign), and Richard Tuttle, whose design-oriented work is included in ArtDesign, and who has a one-man show of multimedia drawings at the Art Museum this winter.”The center of artists’ concerns right now is the hand and the digital,” said the 54-year-old Baker, who has seen his own work progress from relatively hands-on darkroom photography to digital prints. “Is that yin and yang? Or is it integrated? We’re not even sure they’re ends of a spectrum. I think of them as concurrent conversations, that slide with each other, slipping and abrading.”Digital seems to be leaving handmade in the dust. Baker said he could even pinpoint the death of darkroom photography to this year’s decision by Kodak to discontinue making black-and-white film. But he also notes that teenagers more than anyone are showing a deep interest in darkroom photography. And as the digital arts have inched toward dominance, there has been a backlash embrace of more organic forms.”It’s a conversation between artists about the re-emergence of the hand in art,” said Baker. “Artists are very conscious of the handmade in art, and it’s obvious in how they think about their work, and how they work in the studio.”The symposium is designed not to provide answers about the hand-digital dichotomy, but to explore the divide. “What’s lost? What’s gained?” said Baker “What are the opportunities; what are the different realities now that I print in a different way than I used to? It’s everything from, ‘Am I getting my work to a new level for myself and the people who look at my work?’ to ‘Am I selling my soul?’ And the most adventuresome artists are always on that edge, thinking about failing and succeeding.”
The dialogue between artists and Anderson Ranch itself has a clearer tone. The Ranch has become a stronger magnet in recent years for top artists, and nowhere is the affection more evident than in the Annual Art Auction. Not only do the proceeds, all of which go to the Ranch’s educational programs, increase by leaps each year. But the dedication exhibited by the artists brings Baker to the verge of tears. The auction is not the result of artists and collectors sweeping out the remnants of their warehouses, but actually making work geared toward the auction. Baker estimates that some 75 percent of the 270 pieces in this year’s auction – set for Saturday, Aug. 13 – have been made at the Ranch, or made or selected specifically for the auction. “That is humbling, the way people demonstrate how they feel about the Ranch,” said Baker, “when you see the quality and the value and care rise to a new level each year. People spend a good part of their year thinking about and making what they’re going to give. I’m quite moved by it.”
This year’s live auction features items by Tuttle, Donald Sultan, Gregory Crewdson, Jennifer Bartlett, Tom Sachs, Enrique Martinez Celaya and others.The conversations facilitated by Anderson Ranch are increasingly popular in the arts community. Baker spent last week teaching a new course, Behind the Art: Developing an Arts Center. The workshop was the result of the numerous inquiries Baker has received, mostly from Western resort towns, about how to duplicate the Anderson Ranch model. The course has included a talk by Ranch architect Harry Teague and Baker, discussing details, like programs and developing a board of directors, and bigger issues, like how to make an art colony the center of community dialogue.”It’s about the value of having an arts center in the community, giving the community more of a texture,” said Baker, who is serving as president of the Alliance of Artists’ Communities. “Artists have always been at the center of communities.”We didn’t intend to become a model, but we have become one. Maybe that’s an indication of where this organization has come. Because these people are really interested.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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