Aspen Art Museum wall climbers winding through city court system
October 2, 2014
What's the price for climbing the wooden-basket facade of the 47-foot-tall Aspen Art Museum?
As three people without criminal records have learned, it's a $150 probation fee, 10 hours of useful community service and a one-year deferred judgment on a municipal trespassing charge.
And they'll get one more thing: a warning from Aspen Municipal Court Judge Brooke Peterson to stay out of trouble. If any of the perpetrators should get arrested again over the course of the next 12 months, they might find themselves back in Peterson's courtroom — a meeting room in the basement of Aspen City Hall — facing a fine of as much as $2,600 or jail time.
Peterson handed down the latest deferred judgment to Aspen resident William Johnson, 29, on Wednesday morning. Johnson didn't say much in court but told Peterson he had three or four beers before committing the infraction, which a police summons says occurred just after midnight on Sept. 9.
Johnson said he didn't see the "No Climbing" sign on the side of the new $45 million museum, which has been a source of controversy since even before it won City Council approval in August 2010. Critics have claimed the 33,000-square-foot structure is too big and its design is completely out of character for downtown Aspen. Some have contended that the process leading to its approval was rushed and conducted under the threat of litigation.
In court, Johnson didn't voice any concerns about the politics behind the museum. He said he is a restaurant owner in Aspen Highlands.
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"Has anyone ever tried to climb your building?" Peterson asked, failing to get much of a reply.
City Attorney Jim True commented that of all the people who have been cited for climbing the museum, Johnson was among the more successful — although he never reached the top.
"I think he got a little higher than most," True said.
Aspen natives Cooper Means, 22, and Lauren Twohig, 20, both college students in Prescott, Arizona, only got a couple of feet off the ground on the evening of Aug. 10 — the day after the museum opened — before a museum security guard confronted them.
Means said he and his friend weren't trying to scale the building but were merely posing for a photograph. After the security guard tried to detain them, they walked away, toward City Market. The guard and an Aspen policeman tracked them down inside the grocery store.
They settled the matter with the court before returning to college in late August.
"We didn't climb it," Means said Wednesday. "The point was to take a photograph. We only got 15 inches off the ground before we were immediately confronted by a museum security guard who thought we were going to climb it."
Means, a design student, said he is no fan of the museum. He grew up in Aspen and doesn't see the building's exterior or interior as things that belong here.
"It's the worst thing to happen to Aspen since I was born there," he said. "The old art museum was a great place to go with local artists and fun people to talk with. Now the museum is part of the 'art industry.' You go up Aspen or Shadow or Smuggler Mountain, and it stands out. It wasn't designed as a part of the town."
The facade that is attracting climbers is made of a material called Prodema, a composite of wood and paper pulp reinforced by resin and encased in a wood veneer.
"It's sturdy. It's definitely climbable," Means said.
Controversial Aspen artist Lee Mulcahy — who is barred from the museum because of an incident in November 2011 in which museum officials alleged that he placed "For Sale" signs around the future site — is offering $500 to anyone who climbs at least three-quarters of the way up the building.
To claim what he calls the "$500 Wild West Bounty," a person has to provide photographic evidence and post it on Twitter. While the dare may seem dangerous, Mulcahy said it's much riskier to scale cliff walls on the mountainsides up Independence Pass.
Why the bounty? Mulcahy, a Libertarian candidate for the upcoming Senate District 5 race, said it's because of the sculpture that the museum placed outside the building in large, capital letters: "WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL."
"Liberty and justice for all, except for artists and others banned for disagreeing with the museum's policies," he said.
Jeff Murcko, communications director for the museum, said that security guards will continue to monitor the facade and alert police of any suspicious activity.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for climbing the wall," he said.