Aspen Art Museum open to change
When it comes to what will hang on the Aspen Art Museum’s walls, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson is clear and confident in the choices she makes. She is, after all, an accomplished curator.
But with the biennial Roaring Fork Open, which opened Friday and continues through Nov. 26, the museum’s new director and chief curator was thrown a curve ball.
The Roaring Fork Open historically has been a virtual free-for-all. Within certain size limitations, the Aspen Art Museum accepted whatever artists of the Roaring Fork Valley had to offer. The artists also had to be members of the museum.
To Jacobson, who arrived in Aspen this summer with curating in her blood, it was a practice that sold the local talent short, among other problems.
“For one, it is my philosophy that artists shouldn’t have to pay to have their work shown,” explained Jacobson. “We hope they want to be members, of course, but they shouldn’t have to be.”
Plus, the old Open didn’t allow for any dialogue between the local artists’ community and what, in Jacobson’s view, should be the town’s primary artistic institution ” the art museum.
So Jacobson made a change. For three long days in early October, Jacobson met with scores of artists, each of whom brought with them three works for assessment and selection.
“I saw this as an opportunity to meet the local artists, and to become more a part of the community in which I now live,” she said.
After talking with the artists about their artistic practice, process and philosophy, and keeping in mind the other works being considered for inclusion in the Open, Jacobson made the final selection.
The result is the show remains truly open ” no one was turned down for inclusion (save the artists who were unable to meet with Jacobson, as only so many slots were available in the show). At the same time, there is less repetition of subject matter.
“By selecting one piece from three choices, we were able to get away from having all local landscapes, for example,” she explained, pointing to “Romantic Interlude,” an interpretation of Monet’s gardens at Giverny by Yei Mei, who had also offered a painting of the Fryingpan River for inclusion in the show.
In addition, by hand-selecting the work for the artists, Jacobson believes the overall quality of the show has been improved. Like past years, accomplished local artists like Gene Adcock, Judy Haas and Gino Hollander are part of the Open, but so are emerging artists of all ages and stages of artistic development. Jacobson guesses half the show’s participants are novices.
“People aren’t always the best judges of their work, or they fear stepping outside the box in what they submit,” said Jacobson, noting Ryan Shorney’s surreal digital photograph “Franti Celebration,” which he brought for consideration after fellow artist Greg Lipp told him Jacobson was open to all types of work. “By reviewing different pieces, I think I was able to pick out the strongest works for the show.”
Another benefit to the new selection process is clearly Jacobson’s curatorial imprint. Though an amateur show, the Roaring Fork Open is displayed with a distinct touch of professionalism.
For example, the exhibit this year is loosely grouped by color ” the red and orange, blue and yellow, green and brown rooms are in the Lower Gallery; the black-and-white-room is in the Upper Gallery; works also can be found on the front lawn, in the bookstore and along the staircase.
And while Jacobson could have arranged the myriad paintings, photographs, sculptures and collage by medium, or lined the 120 participating artists up in alphabetical order, she found the only logical way to create a cohesive exhibit was in this manner. It took the experienced eye of a curator to know how pieces would appear once placed on the wall.
“To me, curating is about balance and creating a dialogue between the pieces and the viewers,” Jacobson explained. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which pieces wanted to live together, which ones would make the others rise to the occasion, if you will.”
Still, for all its new parameters, the Roaring Fork Open remains a showcase for the local artists community.
“It’s clear there is a wide range of talent in the valley. But more important, I was really excited by, and impressed with, the level of commitment to their work. Some of the artists I met felt so strongly about their work, it was amazing,” said Jacobson, walking toward “Letting Go,” a deeply emotional painting by Judy Norris, who had recently lost her son. “I really feel as if I got to know many of these artists.”
And the Roaring Fork Open is just the jumping off point for creating a true artists’ community in Aspen, Jacobson said.
For one, the museum will be working with the Aspen Skiing Co. on several projects. As an example of this partnership, Jacobson will jury the Open’s submissions to select artists for inclusion in the Skico’s “Nepsa” event at the Wheeler Opera House; the People’s Choice winner there will be awarded $1,500.
In addition, Jacobson has instituted two “artist breakfasts” during the Roaring Fork Open. On Monday, Oct. 24, artists are invited to bring slides, give 5-minute presentations, meet other artists, and introduce their work to the museum’s curators and staff. On Nov. 7, Jacobson and assistant curator Matthew Thompson will share information they have gathered about interesting artists and artwork during their recent research trips. Both breakfasts are complimentary beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Of course Jacobson is still new to the job, the local arts scene and Aspen. And she recognizes the importance of making her mark in a well-thought-out manner.
“This was the right way to do the Roaring Fork Open this year, but it’s too soon to tell about the future,” she said. “But I’m all about assessing everything, always. I don’t like to make changes just to make them, but I also don’t want to keep things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way.
“We need to stay fresh. We need to be able to answer the question: ‘Why would anyone care?'”
Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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