Aspen Art Museum, Part II
July 30, 2010
ASPEN – A new effort to relocate and enlarge the Aspen Art Museum is different from a 2009 campaign – which was struck down by voters nearly 2-1 – in at least two important ways.
First, the new proposal to move to the current site of the Wienerstube Restaurant depends not on voter approval, as did the earlier attempt, but on the sole discretion of the Aspen City Council to settle a lawsuit between the city and the owner of the Wienerstube property. The approval would allow a redevelopment of the building that will expand it to 37,000 square feet above ground.
If approved, the museum would occupy 20,000 square feet of that space, as well as a 10,000 square-foot basement. The rest would become a separate mixed-use, commercial-residential building. The council could approve that settlement at a public hearing tomorrow night, Aug. 2, at City Hall.
The second difference is the proposed new building’s location, size and look.
Two members of the local arts community have come out in support of the settlement because, they say, the museum has outgrown the hydropower plant and belongs in downtown Aspen. Michael Cleverly and Dick Carter, who were integral in the 1979 creation of the original museum, feel the same way about today’s proposal as they did about the 2009 ballot measure to move the museum into the old Aspen Youth Center space next to the Pitkin County Jail.
For other Aspen community members, however, the process has not been as transparent as it should be. Bill Wiener, a regular at council meetings, appeared at last week’s session to express concern about the deal arising from a series of closed-door meetings between the council and the property owner.
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Mayor Mick Ireland assured him that the museum proposal would go before the public like any other land-use application.
And Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the museum’s director and chief curator, insists that the AAM enjoys widespread public support when the community is educated about what it’s doing.
“I’m just hoping that we have given people more opportunity to familiarize themselves with this project,” she said.
Back in 2007, an application to redevelop the Wienerstube site with 47,000 square feet and three stories of commercial and residential space was denied by the City Council. The owner/developer, 633 Spring Street LLC, replied to that denial last year with a lawsuit, saying the building complied with city zoning rules and that the council had exceeded its authority. A Pitkin County District Court judge first ruled that the council had acted within its rights, but the case is now pending before the Colorado Court of Appeals.
The council announced this month, though, that it has been in discussions with the building owners to settle the appeal by scaling back the square footage and turning much of the former square footage over to the museum.
Mayor Mick Ireland plans to support the redevelopment, saying it is nearly always better to settle because the appeals court could rule against the desires of either party.
“We could end up with a building that we [City Council members] don’t want and a building that they [the developers] don’t want anymore,” Ireland said.
Carter, who admitted he has an inherent bias as a valley artist and one of the creators of the museum, agreed with Ireland.
“I know the city is taking a risk if it deals with this through the court,” Carter said.
Museum officials have hosted “brown bag” lunch meetings to answer questions and take comments from the public. The final decision on the settlement could be made Monday night, after the first formal public hearing on the project.
The 2009 art museum proposal went to the electorate because it involved the sale of public land – the old Youth Center site – to a private entity – the art museum. Zuckerman Jacobson recalled that much of the controversy revolved around that transfer of public land.
The debate also came closely on the heels of several other controversial land acquisitions and land-use decisions by the city, Carter said, including the Burlingame Ranch housing project. In a 2005 brochure, city officials underestimated the cost of Burlingame construction by millions of dollars. When the error came to light in 2008, the ensuing controversy cast doubt on both the city’s competence and the affordable housing program in general. Though generally acknowledged to have been an honest mistake, Carter said, it nonetheless put a bad taste in voters’ mouths.
The art museum is different, though, Zuckerman Jacobson said.
“The people support an art museum in Aspen,” she said.
What the people didn’t support in 2009, Carter said, was the idea that public land would be used for private activity. Zuckerman Jacobson feels that was a misconception, given that the museum would have continued to be free to the public. But she also points out that there’s no loss of public land in the 2010 proposal.
“Now it’s private land, and we’re trying to put a public building on it,” she said.
She has stressed in public meetings that admission to the museum would remain free of charge.
The choice is solely that of the City Council to settle the lawsuit with 633 Spring Street LLC. Should the council approve it, then 633 Spring Street owner Nikos Hecht would be able to subdivide and redevelop the property at the corner of Spring and Hyman Avenue.
Carter hopes the project gets the go-ahead because the museum has outgrown its current location and the settlement will end a feud between the city and a property owner. But most important, Carter said, the deal could enhance Aspen’s image and identity as a cultural center.
In the future, he said, “the biggest economic engine in Aspen will be culture, if it isn’t already.”
Larry Yaw of Cottle Carr Yaw Architects, who is working with the museum, agreed. “It gives a sense of wholeness to the town,” he said.
If the council denies the settlement, the case will stay in the Court of Appeals until the judge makes a ruling, and museum officials will be forced back to the drawing board.
Zuckerman Jacobson said the museum has looked at other potential properties around town, but the Wienerstube location is the most desirable.
Artist Cleverly, who lives in Woody Creek, expressed reservations about the museum’s current leadership, but agreed the museum needs a new building.
“I’m not crazy about the new administration,” he said. “They’re not very populist. But that’s something that comes and goes.”
Last week, as Yaw and Zuckerman Jacobson stepped out of her office after a meeting with The Aspen Times, museum staffers bustled in and out of cubicles in the museum’s tiny administrative space, blocking much of the corridor. The office space is tight, even when everyone is sitting at their desks.
The building’s limited space makes for an interesting mix of daily troubles for the 28-person staff. When the museum hosts elementary school students – there were 2,000 of them last year – the three-toilet bathrooms are full for extended periods of time after the children climb off the bus. Similarly, when moving large works of art into the building, staff members must always get creative, as the front entrance and winding staircase isn’t big enough for many pieces, and the ramp leading to the back door can only hold so much weight. Seminars and presentations are sometimes held on the loading dock on the building’s west end.
“There are a lot of weird little challenges that nobody really realizes,” said Jeff Murcko, the museum’s chief spokesman. “This is not a museum; it’s a converted hydroelectric plant.”
“It’s a very make-do configuration of work and art space,” Yaw said.
The customized new building will act as a less restrictive space for artists to create their pieces and showcase them, museum officials said.
Zuckerman Jacobson likes to say during public talks that the new structure, designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is really an upside-down building.
If approved, the museum will not follow the traditional setup of most Aspen buildings, with the commercial entities on the ground floor.
Patrons will enter the building from Spring Street and immediately be whisked by a 12-by-20-foot elevator – or a Grand Staircase, if they prefer the exercise – to the top floor, where there will be a cafe and bookstore. The space will be dotted with artwork, including the museum’s well-known hippopotamus statue, and will feature views of Aspen Mountain.
In a metaphorical nod to Aspen’s skiing heritage, visitors will then descend through the building to the ground and underground floors, each of which will include art galleries.
From the outside, the three-story museum will have a unique appearance. The building’s clear glass walls will be encased by a wooden “screen,” a transparent facade meant to give the structure an animated feel. As a viewer walks past, the building appears to change. Art will be visible from the exterior.
“For every piece of wood, there is a piece of air,” Zuckerman Jacobson recently told the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
Asked if the new proposal is a compromise from the original 2009 design and location, Zuckerman Jacobson said today’s project is better suited for the community. The new location is in the downtown core and, as Zuckerman Jacobson likes to point out, within walking distance of between 6,000 and 7,000 Aspen beds.
If the Council approves the settlement, the museum plans to begin construction next summer and open in the summer of 2013.