From modest roots, gallery grows into an Aspen institution | AspenTimes.com

From modest roots, gallery grows into an Aspen institution

Chad Abraham

Connie Madsen, a founder of the Aspen Chapel Gallery, holds a piece of her work that will be included in the gallery's latest exhibit, "Founders," which opens Wednesday. Mark Fox/The Aspen Times

An unused basement never looked so good.When Tom Ward and Connie Madsen first looked at the simple storage space below the multifaith Aspen Chapel 20 years ago, it held little more than some pianos, old sofas and a few dingy pictures on the walls.Now, as one of Aspen’s artistic gems, the Aspen Chapel Gallery is celebrating two decades of shows and exhibits with a watercolor exposition that opens Wednesday. It will be the 99th consecutive exhibit at the gallery.The coordinator of the “Founders” show, which will run through Sept. 25, is Madsen. The longtime Aspenite had the idea in July 1985 to use the basement space for an art display. She approached Ward, then the chapel’s administrative director.It was a match made in nondenominational heaven, or at least just below it. Ward had owned an Aspen gallery called The Gargoyle before he began at the chapel and was interested in Madsen’s idea.

That first show, also a watercolor exhibit, hung in the new Aspen Chapel Gallery for the rest of the summer. Then a winter exhibit was displayed. Soon, artists in other mediums began approaching Ward and wondering if their art could be shown.From these humble roots grew an institution. How in demand is the gallery? Ward, the gallery’s director, on Monday was glancing at a schedule of events for January 2009.And through its 20 years, one thing has remained unchanged about the space: It is meant for locals. It is, in fact, “the only established locals’ gallery in Aspen,” said Madsen, who will also display her work in the “Founders” exhibit.She said it is humbling to think that her idea has grown into something so large. Helping to start the gallery and keep it running is “really one of the major things I’ve ever done in my life.”The Aspen Chapel Gallery’s success is forcing it to shorten the run of exhibits, though. Shows currently are on display for two months. That will be reduced to five-and-a-half or six weeks, Ward said, allowing for three extra shows a year. On average, about 10 artists are shown during an exhibit. The exception is the gallery’s annual high school show, in which “we show a million kids,” he said.

The Aspen Chapel’s liberal, philosophical approach to religion is a perfect fit with the gallery and the valley’s artists, said the Rev. Gregg Anderson.”Any expressions of creativity we think is part of, I dare say, the Creator’s intent,” he said.Ward said the gallery has been positive for the chapel. The opening shows are some of the biggest of any gallery in the valley, drawing 200 to 300 people in just a couple of hours.”We sell quite a bit,” Anderson said.The artist gets 80 percent of each sale, with the rest going to the chapel, which uses its portion to operate the gallery and for other administrative costs. Little, if any profits, are made by the chapel.

With a waiting list of years, hundreds attending openings and the pure aesthetic enjoyment of 20 years of local art, the Aspen Chapel Gallery has never been stronger.”We never thought about how long it would go,” Ward recalled. “We just wanted to do something with that space.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com