Creeping elitism in a Dorian Gray town
I was going to do something on Jazz Aspen, but everyone else in the Roaring Fork Valley beat me to it. Instead, I’m going to write about fluffy bunnies hopping around in beautiful fields of clover. OK, I’m lying about the bunnies. If they happened to be hopping around Jazz Aspen I might write something about them, but they’re not, so I’m not. To hell with the bunnies.I started thinking about doing a piece on JAS a couple of years ago. Kindly take note of how far ahead of the bashing curve that would have put me. It was the day before the music was to start that weekend. A high school kid was pumping my gas in Basalt. We were chatting and I asked him if he was going to any of the concerts. He said “$70? No way I can afford that.” Too bad, I thought.The first time I attended a Jazz Aspen concert, it was held in Snowmass. There was VIP stuff, a hospitality tent, the first few rows of folding chairs were reserved; back then it was mostly a sit-in-a-chair kind of show. The female VIPs were issued feather boas that gained them entrance; I don’t remember exactly what the men got, faux leopard-skin thongs worn on the outside of their trousers, maybe. Whatever – I wasn’t offended by any of it. This is Aspen, after all; the wealthy must have their perks. It was a couple of years later that the kid was pumping my gas and the concert had moved temporarily to Buttermilk. I arrived and found the VIP profile to be much higher, probably what people are complaining about today. My response to this escalating elitism was to start looking into things. JAS is a nonprofit organization. I assume this means that the rent it pays for its offices at the Red Brick is something well below the going commercial rate. I assume that rehabilitation of the Cozy Point property that JAS uses for parking, along with other public properties damaged as a result of the concerts, is absorbed by the city and county. And the cost of additional security is absorbed by the city and county. Who knows what else? I was also informed by reliable sources that the head guy at Jazz Aspen pays himself $300,000 a year while the next guy down earns $100,000.A musician friend gave me a Pollstar magazine, a trade rag that focuses on touring groups and concerts. Pollstar listed more than 200 concerts that were being held that summer, the capacity of the venue, the price of a ticket, the percentage of tickets sold, and other information of interest to people in the business. Of the 200-plus concerts listed, you could count the ones with higher ticket prices than Jazz Aspen on your fingers and you wouldn’t need all of them. You could see Santana at Virginia Beach for $8 and Dave Matthews at Saratoga for $31.50. It occurred to me that the vast majority of these other concerts were trying to turn a profit and most of them probably were. I began to get suspicious. I was working up a good head of steam when I started hearing about the other side of Jazz Aspen. JAS in Schools has a professional residency pro-gram and a summer camp; JAS Snap provides music lessons for students; JAS Academy Summer Sessions has a full scholarship residency program for student artists; Stuff for Students provides instruments, and there’s the Tickets for Teachers program. I concluded that all of these programs outweighed the issues of salary and ticket prices, and canned the column. I think I wrote about bunnies in fields of clover instead. Over the next couple of weeks, people I had spoken to about the JAS column asked me what happened to it. I told them essentially what I related above. The usual response was disappointment, and that I shouldn’t let a few good deeds get in the way of a promising hatchet job. I was surprised at the level of resentment and think people should be aware of it.Far more egregious (in my opinion), but much lower profile, are the changes that the Aspen Art Museum has undergone in the past 25 years. When Laura Thorne, Diane Lewy and Dick Carter were inventing that facility, some elected officials who were resisting the idea were making statements like “Why should public funds be used for a place for the Red Mountain crowd to have cocktail parties?” That wasn’t a bad question, but the truth was that the people who founded the museum felt the same way.From the start, they did things like call it The Aspen Center For Visual Arts because, among other reasons, Aspen Museum of Art sounded too pretentious. There were many debates over how it would best serve the community, the community as a whole. Ultimately the founders, the original board, Phillip Yenawine, the original director, and several directors who succeeded him bent over backward to do whatever they could think of to make sure everyone felt welcome there. There were the Art Cart derbies, so popular they emptied the saloons, the parks and the malls for two days in a row, every summer they were held. They made national news. There was the guest bartender program, in which the museum would borrow a bartender from Little Annie’s or one of the other working-class bars. He’d work an opening. For the days, or weeks leading up to it, he’d encourage his regulars to show up for “free drinks.” The idea was to do our best to get everyone in town in there just once and make them know they were welcome; if they came back or not was their call. The quality and level of sophistication of the shows was never lowered to pander to anyone.The current board does absolutely nothing to reach a broader audience than its own members. They continue with the Roaring Fork Annual and the Valley Kids show, but these have been grandfathered in for a long time. There are some art courses given. When Laura Thorne, Dick Carter and Phillip Yenawine were recently in town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Aspen Art Museum, there was a panel discussion at Paepcke Auditorium. The museum’s idea of promoting it was to e-mail its own board and members. That’s it.Every year Aspen’s population seems to get a little grayer; it also seems to be getting more exclusive, more elitist.Years ago, when I started reading my old buddy Mary Hayes’ column, it was a parody of big-city newspaper society pages. After a while it became what it beheld. This is where you find the VIPs from Jazz Aspen and the members of the board. Now it seems like a gallery of botched face-lifts in some medical journal. Oscar Wilde would have loved it. Aspen’s decaying soul is beginning to show. Dorian Gray’s in there somewhere.
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