Grass-roots gallery |

Grass-roots gallery

Developers with an empty storefront and artists with a dream are creating local business synergy this summer at Aspen Highlands Village.

The Aspen Artist’s Cooperative is a new gallery for Roaring Fork Valley artists – a place where local artisans can display and sell their work. Situated in a high-profile corner of Aspen Highlands Village, the business is a dream come true for co-owners West Townsend and Mark Tye.

The men have been searching for an appropriate-yet-affordable spot for the cooperative for several years. They tell horror stories of outrageous rent requests in downtown Aspen, but an opportunity finally arrived when Townsend looked around Aspen Highlands Village, saw a vacant space, and pitched his idea to Hines, the village’s developers.

Representatives for Hines saw the artist’s cooperative as the perfect fit for summer at Highlands Village – a place they’ve been positioning as a destination for activities like lawn bowling and outdoor movies during the summer months. The village is also the “Gateway to the Maroon Bells,” funneling both visitors and locals through to Aspen’s most popular recreation area.

“The cooperative certainly fits the scope of our vision for Highlands – as a place that locals can call their own,” said Jeanette Darnauer of Darnauer Communications, which handles public relations for the village. “We believe very strongly that if locals call Highlands their own, tourists will follow.”

Although the cooperative only has its current space on the Highlands Village Plaza through the beginning of September, Townsend and Tye are negotiating with Hines to establish a year-round lease to continue a business that’s already filling a niche.

A dependable place for local artists

West Townsend and Mark Tye met at least five years ago (they can’t really remember when) as bartenders at Aspen’s Mezzaluna restaurant. Like many up-and-coming local artists, Townsend’s paintings were hung in the hallway on the way to Mezzaluna’s bathrooms.

Tye says he liked his co-worker’s art, and commissioned him to draw a portrait of his dog. Tye bought other pieces of work from his friend, and when he heard the plan to create a gallery for local artists that would offer more prominence than restroom hallways and coffee shops, he agreed to be the financial backer.

Three years ago, the pair looked into renting a space in downtown Aspen during Christmas and New Year’s; the landlord was asking $25,000 for two weeks.

“There was no way we could afford that, but we held onto the idea anyway,” Tye said. The idea is essentially an alternative to most of the art galleries in Aspen, which regularly feature nationally and internationally renowned artists.

“The whole gist is that when you’re a young and inexperienced artist, you have a hard time getting a place to show your work,” Townsend said. “We have a lot of great local art around here that’s not being put up in any of the fine-art galleries in Aspen.”

As the duo learned early on, spaces in Aspen come with a high price. But early this summer Townsend approached Hines with his pitch for a gallery, and the developers liked his idea enough to guarantee him low rent all summer long.

“We see them as part of the summer offering out there, but instead of being in a tent, it made sense for them to be in a space on the plaza on a temporary basis,” said Bob Daniel, vice president of Hines. “We think they add some more activity to the summer at Highlands.”

The gallery plans on being part of Highlands’ Saturday Swap by offering art demonstrations like photography, mosaic and painting workshops. According to Darnauer, this was Townsend’s plan all along.

“They’re the kind of people that Highlands was looking for – I loved the idea that they were willing to participate in so many events,” she said. “West told me they’d be there for the Saturday Swap with educational seminars and demonstrations, and they weren’t somebody just coming out to take a space. They really seemed to understand our mission.”

Daniel said that Hines will wait and see how the cooperative works out this summer before offering the cooperative a permanent space on the plaza.

“We’re not giving away that space by any stretch of the imagination, but having someone in that space is very important,” he said. “We’ll see how it works out, and if it makes sense for them to be there in the future.”

Quirky and local

The Aspen Artist’s Cooperative is modeled after the Boulder Artist’s Cooperative, where pieces of art are accepted on consignment, with the gallery taking just 30 percent of each sale as compared to 50 percent in traditional art galleries.

“Thirty percent is a small take for us to try to survive,” Tye said. But with a low fixed rent, the group has already broken even on their initial investment.

Being a place for local artists means that the cooperative accepts all kinds of art, from paintings to ceramics, jewelry, sculpture and furniture. Townsend placed a “calling all artists” ad in local newspapers, and the cooperative has been growing steadily ever since.

At a recent grand opening, the gallery even included some performance art. Artist Rick Magnuson set up a tennis-ball-serving machine in a closet-size room of the gallery and aimed it at a bubble-wrapped female mannequin. As the tennis balls flew at warp speed toward the mannequin or the wall behind her, Magnuson sat in a chair against the opposite wall, wearing safety goggles and a baseball glove, trying to catch each tennis ball that bounced around the small room.

A crowd gathered regularly to watch the temporary spectacle through a nearby glass door, until the serving machine was empty.

“This is a great grass-roots business, and I think the town really needs this at this point – it needs more character,” Townsend said.

Alicia Matesanz De Las Heras has contributed her sculptures, primarily ceramics fired with a raku technique, to the gallery.

“West offered that I become a part of the cooperative,” she said. “It’s a great idea for helping artists in the valley. There are a lot of galleries in town, but this is a place for local people.”

Will Young also has his ceramics at the cooperative, and said he’s familiar with all of the high-end galleries in Aspen that show only high-quality glasswork or work by artists with well-established names. Young is used to showing his work in Denver, Boulder and Santa Fe, since local venues are limited.

“There is nothing like this in the valley, and so many artists in the valley are unrepresented and don’t have a venue to sell their work,” he said.

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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