Gram Slaton to leave Wheeler Opera House
October 3, 2014
Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House since 2005, announced Thursday that he will be leaving the organization in December for a job in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sitting in his office Thursday, Slaton remembered coming to Aspen exactly nine years ago, when the Wheeler was "in rough shape," suffering from structural flaws, staff issues and a bad reputation. Since then, Slaton has overseen planning for more than $8 million in venue improvements, the creation of a homegrown comedy festival, the emergence of MountainSummit and Mountainfilm and the recent residency of the Anderson Ponty Band, his fondest memory.
Slaton said that in a role like his, it's good to get new blood in every eight to 10 years. He knows directors who have stayed in the same job for 35-plus years, which he said is not healthy, especially in a dynamic town such as Aspen.
"I felt like I had taken the place a good, long distance, and it's just time to hand the baton to somebody whose legs are fresher than mine and … who's coming in with new eyes and who can take it down the next stretch of road," Slaton, 60, said.
The Wheeler has undergone two major projects in the past three years, with a $2.8 million first-floor remodel in 2011 and a $3 million balcony and technology upgrade in 2013. Once the upcoming $3 million remodel of the entire second floor is complete, Slaton said the Wheeler will be set up for the next 50 years.
"The happy thing about this is I don't have to worry about it going under," he said. "I've taken it this direction. The next person is going to take it that much and then somebody after that and somebody after that. And that's a great feeling."
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Before Aspen, Slaton oversaw a 2,200-seat facility in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as head of the Community Arts Center. Starting Jan. 5, he will begin his new job as executive director at the Piedmont Council for the Arts in Charlottesville, where homegrown group the Dave Mathews Band has helped spur a flourishing arts scene that now features a performing-arts center, a Live Nation nightclub, an open-air pavilion and a 20,000-seat arena.
Some of the artists Slaton is most proud to have brought to the Wheeler include Jon Anderson (who was recently joined by Jean-Luc Ponty), Brandi Carlile, Bernadette Peters and Randy Newman. He's also proud to have renewed friendships with former Wheeler and Aspen regulars such as David Brenner, Jerry Jeff Walker and Judy Collins.
"Gram has been a pleasure to work with," Assistant City Manager Randy Ready said in a statement. "The Wheeler and the community have been very fortunate to have his amazing technical and artistic expertise at work. He set very high standards for the opera house and will be a tough act to follow."
Slaton said that it was around the time the balcony and seating improvements were completed in 2013 that he began to think about moving on. He called returning to his hometown "accidentally ideal." It will give him time to address family business, but he does not leave without mixed feelings.
"It's never an easy decision, although this one kind of was. You think with your head and not your heart, it's an easy decision," he said. "It's been a tremendous gift being here."