Debra Muzikar at center of Aspen’s Red Brick |

Debra Muzikar at center of Aspen’s Red Brick

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Dave Notor

ASPEN – Some years ago, Debra Muzikar would walk the path behind the red brick building at the edge of Aspen’s West End – years ago it was the Red Brick School, and since the mid-’90s, the Red Brick Center for the Arts – and see a world of possibilities. Muzikar had little connection to the building or the activities that took place inside; she was a waitress and manager at the Cantina, and ran a property management business with her husband, Lou. But Muzikar had a degree in resource management from Penn State, and in the Red Brick she saw a potential major resource.”I had plans for it. I’d walk behind it and say, ‘This is what they should do here,'” Muzikar said. “I thought it could be more than it was. I just knew it was not being utilized as much as it could be.”Poke around the Red Brick – which Muzikar, as executive director of the nonprofit Red Brick Council for the Arts, runs under a contract for the city of Aspen, which owns the building – these days and it’s hard to see how it could be much busier. On Sunday, Oct. 31, the Red Brick hosts the second annual Boo Bash, with a haunted house, costume contest, magic show, apple pie bake-off and more. Last year’s inaugural Boo Bash drew 700 attendees, so Muzikar and the various Red Brick resident organizations, are braced for a big crowd. The focus shifts to more serious stuff next week, when the Red Brick Biennial opens, with a reception on Thursday, Nov. 4. The second biennial, curated by Timothy Standring, curator of painting and sculpture at the Denver Art Museum, features work by 68 artists, including most of those who have studios in the building.The dance studio is busy; resident organizations – including the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Aspen Film, the Buddy Program and others – are busy putting together their winter programs; the lawn features sculptures as part of the Sculpture Garden program. And the resident artists are winding down from The Concealed Revealed, an ambitious group project at the Aspen Art Museum that kicked off, a series of exhibitions by various local arts organizations staged at the museum.Muzikar says the Red Brick has 10 programs, up from three when she took over five years ago. But when she gets around to listing those programs, the actual tally hits 14. (Some of these are done in collaboration with other people and organizations.) They range from the Art Auction and Festival to the art workshops, from the children’s art exhibition Art Start to the Red Brick Artist Tribute, which has honored such high-profile local artists as Betty Weiss and James Surls & Charmaine Locke. The centerpiece program remains the Red Brick Gallery, which houses 12 exhibitions a year, drawing on artists from around the region. But Eco-Fest, a multifaceted event in a variety of locations that marries art with environmental concerns, seems to have a lot of momentum these days, after showing great potential in its debut this past spring.”More and more people come into the Red Brick. And that’s because of what Debra’s done to promote it,” Susan Olsen, a vice president of the Red Brick Council’s board and a former resident artist at the Red Brick, said. “She sees the Red Brick as a real community resource, not just for the visual artists. The Red Brick has changed because of her.” Olsen noted that typical attendance at openings for the gallery shows have jumped from 50 to upwards of 200 since Muzikar took over.”She’s the energizer bunny – nonstop,” added Pat Fallin, who was president of the Red Brick board when Muzikar was hired. “The board had a lot to do with this, too, but she made it a center. As president it was a pleasure to work with her, because it seemed no task was too big.”Perhaps what’s most impressive is that Muzikar, after five years at the job, can seem like she’s only getting started. A year or two ago, I asked about the gallery exhibitions, and whether she was running out of concepts for the shows. Twelve exhibitions a year struck me as a lot. But her face lit up, and she said something like, “I’ve got more ideas than I know what to do with.” (A few months ago, she added a regular film-screening component to the exhibitions.)At the moment, Muzikar – who is quick to share credit for the rise of the Red Brick with the board, tenants, volunteers and assorted groups who have come to her with ideas for how to bring activity to the facility – is in a holding pattern. But it’s not for lack of ideas. Instead, she, the board and a staff of three part-time workers are looking at gathering more resources – funds and employees – to make the present slate of programs bigger and better.••••After leaving Pennsylvania, the Muzikars headed west. They stopped in Aspen, but it was March – the beginning of spring back East, but to the Muzikars it seemed like the dead of winter, and they decided to keep going. They landed in Lake Tahoe, where they managed condominium complexes and where Debra waitressed and volunteered at a Montessori school. But they vacationed several times in Aspen, and moved here in 1990.Muzikar believes it was her background in property management that landed her the Red Brick job. The building has 19 tenants, including Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Aspen Film, the Aspen Community Foundation, Grassroots TV and Aspen Public Radio. That might explain the frequent turnover in the job in years past. People would sing on as executive director of the Red Brick Council for the Arts – a part-time position before Muzikar took over – thinking they would have a deep involvement in the arts. Instead, most of their time was spent managing the building; Muzikar estimates that 30 percent of her time is spent taking care of the building and its tenants.Much of the other 70 percent of her time is devoted to community building, which she sees as a key to the Red Brick’s success. Under her directorship, groups in Aspen have increasingly come to look to the Red Brick as a partner to get things moving.”I think it was just getting the word out,” the 53-year-old said. “What has helped is, when people want to get things done – whether it’s the city, or another arts organization – when they want to get a program going, they say, Go to the Red Brick. Because I can organize it, get it moving forward. Organizing and developing is my big thing. I’ll walk them through the steps, get them on the path.”A prime example is Eco-Fest. Muzikar says Shae Singer came to the Red Brick with an idea for a festival that focused on the environment, and wanted an arts component.”She came to me, trying to figure out how to put it together,” Muzikar said. With the Red Brick’s assistance, last spring’s inaugural Eco-Fest placed exhibitions in various local businesses. The Red Brick recently received a grant of $10,000 for next year’s Eco-Fest, which will bring in art from schools throughout western Colorado. “It’s a big program. I never thought it would get this big,” Muzikar said. She added that another success story is the dance studio, which is booked by numerous groups after being under-utilized for years.Muzikar and others say that another big boost in the Red Brick’s profile was the renovation of the west side of the building. The project – planned before Muzikar was made director, but constructed under her watch – replaced a loading dock with an attractive entrance, additional gallery space and a large conference room. It also gave the building more light and a more expansive feel, which explains in part the enhanced prominence of the Red Brick as a gallery.”Professional galleries are coming in here and saying it’s professionally run,” Muzikar said. “We’ve got lighting; we know how to install. And the art is starting to sell now, which means we’re getting the right kind of people in here.”Recently joining the ranks of the artists was Muzikar herself. With only a history of sketching behind her, Muzikar teamed with local artist Shere Coleman to create a papier-mch piece for the Concealed Revealed exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. The piece – an oversized book, made of newspaper stories, partly open – was an insightful play on the theme of uncovering things that are overlooked.Muzikar says she gets a handful of calls each year from communities seeking advice about how to build their own Red Brick-type arts center. Among the recent inquiries was a caller from Queensland, Australia; the correspondence has been ongoing.When I mentioned that a community closer to Aspen – the Vail corridor – might benefit from a Red Brick of its own, Muzikar came up with another idea for an exhibition.”Maybe we need to get those people in here,” she said. “Maybe there are a lot of people there painting away, saying, Boy, it would be nice to have a place to show this.”

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