Arguing art: Does Aspen want a new museum?
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Just last week, volunteers circulated at least three separate fliers to encourage Aspen citizens to vote against a proposed sale of city-owned land to the Aspen Art Museum.
One offered a free slice of pizza from Taster’s, a locally-owned restaurant that would likely be displaced by a new museum on the city property.
The “free slice” fliers were distributed by political gadfly Toni Kronberg, with Taster’s blessing, said owner Stacy Forster. But he said he and his children were also distributing a second flier, advertising 20 percent discounts and a “no” vote on the museum proposal.
The Aspen Art Museum responded Thursday with an advertisement in The Aspen Times that stated: “How Cheesy: Free art or free pizza. Vote Yes on 1.”
A call to the phone number on a third leaflet, which argued that a “yes” vote on May 5 would be “premature and possibly reckless,” reached Aspenite Junee Kirk, who called the opposition group a collection of “longtime Aspen locals.” Many originally met each other while fighting the proposed development of two large hotels at the base of Aspen Mountain near Lift 1A, she explained. Now she has formed a separate group to fight the the art museum.
Bill Wiener, who also helped put the Be Informed flier together, said his concern was the board’s decision to move the museum, instead of expanding on the current site.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have an expanded museum. I’m saying it is in the wrong place,” he said. “And it’s being promoted rather than flowing from logic and sense.”
Meanwhile, the museum put out its models of the proposed new building last week, alongside a screen looping a video of the architect, Shigeru Ban, and a tub of blue buttons expressing support for the project.
It also began distributing a brochure that proposes a “free zone” in the core of Aspen, to include Galena Plaza, the Pitkin County Library and the new Aspen Art Museum ” where Zuckerman Jacobson says a recent generous donation has ensured that admission will be free for 10 years after the new building opens.
“We have no problem if people disagree with us. We just want them to disagree with us based on fact,” said Zuckerman Jacobson, of the ongoing debate.
In brief, the issue is this: the Aspen Art Museum, arguing that it has outgrown its present building, wants to buy the site of the former Aspen Youth Center from the city of Aspen, demolish the existing building and build a 30,000 square-foot museum in its place. For the city to sell the property, it needs permission from voters to negotiate a sale price.
But dig just a little, and the issue gets a whole lot more complicated.
Fundamentally, of course, the question is whether Aspenites want an art museum between the Pitkin County Jail and Galena Plaza.
Some detractors contend the museum ought to expand at its current site ” though Zuckerman Jacobson says numerous studies indicate the current site is unworkable because of riparian, water table and historic issues.
Others prefer the current use of the city land ” a Taster’s pizza parlor and community space known as the Rio Grande Room on the upper floors that rents for $25 an hour. City records show the room is rented by non-government entities about once a day, for community events ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to Social Dance Club events.
“To have a space to rehearse and perform is a godsend for our organization,” said Kent Reed, director of the Hudson Reed ensemble, which uses the building for rehearsals and performance. The only other small rehearsal and performance space in town is the Aspen District Theater, he said.
Still others argue the museum would be better served by buying a privately owned parcel of land in town.
But according to Zuckerman Jacobson, the decision to build on the former youth center site was the community’s choice, rather than the museum’s. During the planning process for a major government-driven downtown redesign ” known as the ZG Master Plan ” citizens preferred the former youth center to other nearby options, she said.
(According to records at the city, citizens voted 47 to 30 at the March 2008 meeting to put the museum on the youth center site.)
Further, Zuckerman Jacobson argues that because of the site’s below-ground potential, an art museum ” which must limit the exposure of its works to natural light ” is “the best and highest use” of the property.
No promises have been made about who would be able to use the museum’s space, but Zuckerman Jacobson pointed out that the design includes both meeting space and a small theater.
But a secondary question raised by many concerned about the sale is whether voters have enough information to authorize the sale. A “Be Informed” flier notes that the city has nothing in writing guaranteeing what will be built ” to which Zuckerman Jacobson responds that citizens will have plenty of time to weigh in on the design as it moves through Planning and Zoning and City Council.
Many also say the voters ought to know the land price before voting. Currently, neither the art museum nor the city will release their appraisals, arguing that doing so could hurt their ability to negotiate.
Others question, fundamentally, whether the Aspen Art Museum serves Aspen’s needs.
“[The museum] used to have broad-ranging shows that involved local citizenry,” said Kirk. “Now it’s very contemporary and many people don’t go there anymore.”
“I’m fairly impressed by the building. I think it’s a good building. I think the architect is a really good architect,” said Dick Carter, one of the founders of the original art museum, who said he expected to support the ballot issue.
“I think they’re going to have a hard time getting this ballot passed because they’ve alienated the community,” Carter continued. “I just feel like her [Zuckerman Jacobson’s] programming, being so dedicated to conceptual and installation work, has really rubbed people the wrong way and they’re bored with it.”
In a large city, Carter added, people can visit another museum if they don’t like contemporary art. But that’s not true in Aspen.
“We do present contemporary art. And not everyone likes contemporary art. And that’s okay,” acknowledged Zuckerman Jacobson. But with more space, she argued, the museum will be able to present a much broader selection of contemporary art.
“What I hope for when we show works of art is the same thing I hope for when we share this [building] opportunity with the community,” said Zuckerman Jacobson. “I don’t mind if people disagree with me or don’t like what I like … If I have any frustration, it’s about an inability to have an open mind and open ears.”
Laura “Missie” Thorne, another of the museum’s original founders, pointed out that public criticism of the museum is “not a particularly new story.” Concerned citizens criticized the museum’s vision even at its inception 30 years ago, she said.
“One of the things we all know about Aspen, when you’ve been there for awhile, is that we all have an opinion,” she said.
Thorne also supported the new museum, pointing out that the current building is a tight space with virtually one gallery.
But she hoped that as the process went forward, the museum’s current staff and board would continue to work ” as the original founders did ” to help the community feel part of the museum.
“The building is only a part of it. It all depends on what happens inside and how it projects out to the community,” she said. “And how the people in the community feel welcome to use it.”
***This article was edited on April 14 to clarify that the group fighting the Lift 1A development, Citizens for Smart Growth, is separate from Be Informed, the group fighting the sale of city land to the Aspen Art Museum.
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