Aspen Institute names Bayer Center‘s inaugural director

James Merle Thomas to spearhead new museum and its programming

James Merle Thomas has been named executive director of the new Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies at the Aspen Institute. He is pictured here with Bayer’s “sgraffito mural” on the Institute campus. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Aspen Institute has appointed art historian and curator James Merle Thomas as the first executive director for the new Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies.

The Institute announced the news Thursday.

Thomas, currently a professor at Temple University, will be moving to Aspen full-time this fall to begin work.

“Coming here to realize the vision of the center is a really exciting opportunity, not just for me personally but at this moment of inflection in the in the Institute and its history and for this community,” Thomas, 44, said last week during a visit to the campus.

Institute supporters Lynda and Stewart Resnick, co-owners of The Wonderful Company, donated $10 million in summer 2019 to establish and build a center devoted to Bayer’s life and work. A second gift of an undisclosed amount this year endowed the executive director position.

Construction is ongoing on the campus’s east side, adjacent to the Boettcher Seminar Building, which was Bayer’s final designed structure added to campus. Most Aspen area residents got a glimpse of the Bayer Center’s progress this spring as public COVID-19 vaccinations were given in the parking lot on the site, shared with the Aspen Music Festival.

The building is expected to be complete this winter, including the installation of a newly fabricated rendition of Bayer’s “Chromatic Gates” serving as an entryway to the property. The first exhibitions and public programming are planned to begin in summer 2022.

Bayer — a Bauhaus master who designed the Institute campus, buildings, sculptures, parks and earthworks — lived and worked in Aspen from 1946 to 1975. A multi-disciplinary artist, he hand-crafted the town’s physical and cultural landscape as it was reborn after World War II, turning Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke’s utopian “Aspen Idea” into a physical reality.

Herbert Bayer at his home on Red Mountain in 1965. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Illustrated News Collection)

Thomas’s academic expertise is in postwar art and media, but his work has been cross-disciplinary in the Bayer tradition, extending beyond academia into the public realm of museums and social spaces. He worked with the influential Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor to curate biennials in Seville and Gwangju and collaborated with artist Walead Beshty to publish the anthology “Picture Industry,” covering art, photography and technical imagery since 1844. In Philadelphia he also serves as curator for the social justice nonprofit Slought and has been a U.S. State Department Artist Envoy to Iceland.

“Bayer was so multi-disciplinary that we knew we wanted someone who could think that way,” said Bernard Jazzar, curator the Resnicks’ private art collection, who was on the search committee who selected Thomas and who will curate the opening exhibition at the center. “We didn’t want to limit ourselves to someone who could look at the paintings and the architecture, which is very narrow. You hear Jim talk about his ideas and it is so exciting.”

Thomas hopes to use his cross-disciplinary experiences to make the center more than a home for the exhibition of Bayer’s artwork.

“One of the things that really excited me from my earliest conversations with everyone across the Institute, is that this isn’t merely a museum, this is not a mausoleum or a shrine to one person,” he said.

Institute president and CEO Dan Porterfield said in the announcement that the center will “be deeply connected to the Aspen community with free access and programming for all.” Thomas, he added, “will become an active partner to both the Institute’s programs and the Roaring Fork Valley region’s dynamic arts and education communities, and translate Bayer’s interdisciplinary vision into an inclusive contemporary program that extends beyond our campus and into the wider world.”

Coming out of the pandemic and launching in the wake of the seismic social movements of our time, a new institution like the Bayer Center, Thomas argued, can help redefine how a museum works and its role in society locally and globally.

“We’re at a moment when we’re asking what a museum can do, what a university can do, what an institute can do,” he said. “It’s really exciting to think about, well, what role does art and design and architecture play right now if it exists in a kind of silo and outside of the public conversation?”

As a new entity, it can be imagined in a new way without the baggage of the old ways, he argued.

“I think the center is uniquely poised to think about these issues, in a way that if it were strictly a museum might be more difficult — museums are really struggling with this, they’ve historically been really closed,” he said. “Thinking about the openness of this model is a really exciting way to do that.”

James Merle Thomas has been named the new executive director of the new Herbert Bayer Center at the Aspen Institution. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

As the center’s first director, Thomas’s vision will shape its yet-undefined mission. It is expected to preserve and promote Bayer’s work, but the content of its collection are still undetermined. In addition to exhibitions, Thomas wants the center to carry on Bayer’s ideas actively and build on the enthusiasm of 2019’s Bauhaus 100 celebrations here and around the world.

“We can start thinking about not just the story of Herbert Bayer, but how this is also a story about Aspen, it’s a story about design, about questions of art, design, architecture – the very interdisciplinary way that these things were coming together here through Bayer,” Thomas said. “The center is positioned to extend that history into a broader conversation, whether it’s at the Ideas Festival, other activities on campus, in dialogue with other kinds of initiatives that are happening in the valley. That ends up being a much more compelling and inclusive and expansive story than just being about some beautiful works of art.”

The playful creativity of Bayer and the Bauhaus — and the sometimes-madcap spirit of the Bauhaus and of Aspen events like the Bauhaus Ball — are key components to success for the new center.

“This is a project that is open, and it is fun, and it is exhilarating,” Thomas said. “The sense of joy and creativity and play that is absolutely apparent in Bayer’s work, we need to carry that forward as we’re envisioning what the center is. If it is too sober and too cloistered, that is not a measure of success.”

As he starts work on the ground here this fall, Thomas wants to meet locals, Institute staff and trustees and anyone with an interest in the new center. He expects to draw on his work organizing the biennial shows as he begins shaping programs for the Bayer Center. Making a biennial, he noted, meant reaching beyond exhibition to stage talks and produce a conference, organize educational and kids programs, film screenings, a beer garden, publish books and a catalog. He hopes for similar productions here but, unlike those globetrotting events, when it’s done his team won’t pack up and go home.

“We are all collectively engaged in a process of long-term building,” he said. “Sure, we’ll have that exciting energy for the first 12 to 18 months at the center. But that doesn’t have to dissipate, we’re actually building something that we can continue to extend.”