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Inside Winterfest: The making of a new holiday tradition at Aspen Art Museum

Amid the sounds of banging hammers and whirring drills, curator Saim Demircan winded on Tuesday afternoon through a labyrinth of sculptures, paintings and crafts staged for installation at the Aspen Art Museum as a team transformed galleries into Winterfest.

“This is the fun part,” said Demircan, a curator-at-large for the museum who spearheaded this new COVID-safe architectural installation, exhibition and sale. “Just figuring out where everything is going to go.”

Physically, it is a marvel. Designed by the German artist Veit Laurent Kurz, the installation fills two galleries. It includes three massive mountain sculptures, which provide free-standing walls for hanging two-dimensional works, a large concrete lake sculpture that doubles as a pedestal for sculpture, and an alpine cabin, which functions as its own gallery-within-a-gallery (yes, go inside).



It’s a new kind of show for the museum, chiefly because patrons can buy work off the walls, but also because it functions as an installation, an exhibition and fundraiser. In the works since late spring, Winterfest is a creative solution to several of the vexing challenges facing museums during the coronavirus pandemic: it provides festivity without crowds; it provides a fundraiser for an institution that was forced to cancel the galas it has long counted on for income; it gives artists a boost of exposure and sales at the end of a year when many gallery shows were scrapped or moved online.

Aspen Art Museum director Nicola Lees, who took the post in the spring as the pandemic fallout was just beginning, began brainstorming what would become Winterfest with Demircan in those early days. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the museum’s annual ArtCrush gala in August as well as its major winter fundraising event, normally held between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Lees and Demircan began discussing ways to replace these with an event that might raise money and exhibit art without requiring large crowds.



Those talks led them to the German tradition of “jahresgaben,” selling exhibitions conducted by the nation’s member-based art galleries in the weeks before Christmas — part of a civic patronage tradition there since the 1820s.

“It’s been a very successful model,” Demircan explained. “I suggested we use the skeleton of that as a model for a selling show of unique works.”

Kurz, with his familiarity with the German tradition, was also natural fit to build the environs for this show because he has recently been experimenting with temporary structures — including a cardboard gallery on a Brooklyn rooftop — in his work.

Rather than a simple sale or silent auction, the Aspen adaptation of the concept would also be the kind of exhibition artists would get excited about, a unique exhibition platform.

“We wanted to do a fundraiser that artists really wanted to be a part of because it is an exhibition in and of itself,” Demircan explained. “The artists are responsive to this because it is not your typical group show.”

IF YOU GO …

What: Winterfest: An Exhibition of Arts and Crafts

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Friday Dec. 18 through Feb. 21, 2021

More info: aspenartmuseum.org

Exhibited within Kurz’s alpine fantasy land, the Winterfest show includes original artwork from 28 artists including locally based stalwarts, American stars and international artists.

Standout pieces among them are a pair of new watercolor and dirt paintings of flowers by conceptual artist Precious Okoyomon, who has been exploring the fertile symbolic ground of invasive species in recent work.

There are masks by the the late Beau Dick, a renowned First Nation artist from Canada, and there is a massive “Sesame Street”-esque stuffed snowman by the artist Stefan Tcherepnin.

There are ceramic wall-mounted lamps by Soshiro Matsubara and early 1970s work by the Aspen-based painter Richard Carter, who also co-founded he museum in 1979. The Carbondale-based sculptor James Surls has also contributed a wood sculpture. Malcolm Mooney, best known as the former singer for the krautrock band Can, contributed several small new watercolor works that he calls “Damn-demic Monsters” (short for “damn pandemic monsters,” they look just like that).

And there are young and emerging artists here, like Olivia Erlanger and Rochelle Goldberg and Brandon Ndife, whose first major New York gallery show this spring was cut short by the pandemic shutdown.

Surprising connections between the artists arose as Demircan put the show together. On a visit to the studio of great Aspen ceramicist Sam Harvey, Demircan noticed Harvey collected pieces by Viola Frey — who is also included in the show — and learned Frey had taught Harvey.

Proceeds from the show will go at a 70-30% split to the artist and the museum. Winterfest is also intended to drive museum memberships, which are required for buyers. Admission remains free. The show runs through Feb. 21.

atravers@aspentimes.com


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