Is Aspen’s cultural cup overflowing?

Stewart Oksenhorn
Jazz Aspens Labor Day Festival 2005 is expected to draw a record 40,000 music fans over five days, one more indication of the way the upper valley arts scene has grown over the last decade. Aspen Times photo.

I had no idea when I moved here that my new hometown was a cultural powerhouse. But it became quickly apparent that Aspen had a reputation for more than skiing and mountains. It was a place where classical music, dance, theater, films, visual arts, festivals and nightclubs all thrived.Looking backward 13 years, however, I have a different sense of Aspen’s standing in the arts, circa 1992.

The granddaddy of the town’s artistic life, the Aspen Music Festival & School, had just entered the Robert Harth era, and the late Music Festival president had barely begun to leave his mark on the institution. There was no Harris Concert Hall to brag about; almost all of the festival’s concerts were held in the 20-something-year-old Bayer-Benedict Music Tent, whose charms were beginning to be outweighed by its acoustical challenges.Jazz Aspen teetered year to year on the edge of extinction, and it’s a fair bet that even if the organization folded its tent, hardly anyone would have noticed. The Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s fiscal straits forced it to cancel its 1995 Writers’ Conference, its principal event. Dance Aspen was experiencing the severe financial woes that would put it out of business in 1998. Suzanne Farver, a lawyer and art collector with extensive experience in the arts world but with no training as a curator, directed the Aspen Art Museum. Aspen Theatre in the Park changed its leadership with alarming regularity. Aspen Filmfest was able to present its one festival a year with a full-time paid staff of one.The Double Diamond was an unknown quantity, having just opened its doors. The massive U.S. Comedy Arts Festival was just being born out of the tiny Aspen Comedy Festival. And Aspen Ballet was a school for kids.The biggest new thing on the arts scene of the early ’90s was the introduction of the Snowmass Village Free Summer of Music series, which filled Fanny Hill each summer Thursday.

So if Aspen was a cultural Mecca then, what is it now?Aspen Filmfest’s Shortsfest draws short-film makers from around the globe, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet sends its company to the world’s finest dance stages, and the Writers’ Foundation is embarking on its biggest event ever, featuring Ireland’s most prominent contemporary writers. Harris Hall and the Aspen District Theatre and the Belly Up nightclub have been added to the roster of venues. Skilled, schooled pros run the Aspen Art Museum, Theatre Aspen (the former Theatre in the Park) and Filmfest. Jazz Aspen has drawn more than 30,000 music fans in a single holiday weekend.The growth in the arts has been enormous; a July 2004 study commissioned by the Red Brick Center for the Arts, concluded that “art activities have evolved into a powerful economic engine, helping to sustain and drive the economy of the Roaring Fork Valley.” And there’s more to come: There is a plan afoot, spearheaded by Theatre Aspen, to build a permanent structure, to be shared by several arts organizations, that would house a 300-seat theater and a 150-seat theater. The Belly Up seems not content merely to replace the old Double Diamond, but intent on rivaling the country’s most storied music clubs by booking as many nights, and the biggest names, as possible.Snowmass Village, fueled by a sales tax passed in 2002 for marketing and creating events, aims to become “the Red Rocks in the mountains,” in the phrase of Josh Behrman, the town’s festival producer. That comparison doesn’t seem far-fetched, given this summer’s lengthy, eye-catching roster of musical talent. The point should be hammered home at summer’s end, when Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, expanded to five days and fortified by two nights of jam-band Widespread Panic, expects to attract nearly 40,000 attendees.

It’s hard to argue against having a wealth of talent around; it’s tough to say that having a choice of seeing classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company, the Derek Trucks Band, Steve Martin’s adaptation of “The Underpants,” the Aspen Art Museum’s DesignArt exhibit and a Latin American-themed chamber music concert – as there is on Aug. 6 – is a bad thing. But are all these offerings too much of a good thing? Is it overtaxing the attention and finances of the potential audience?No and no, the people responsible for booking all those acts say – obviously, unanimously, almost reflexively. In fact, the arts presenters on the whole don’t see themselves in competition with one another for ticket-buyers. Instead, they tend to look at each organization as its own sphere which, ideally, works in coordination with the rest to create a multifaceted arts galaxy that is uniquely attractive to the audience. Schedule the right events, they say, and you’ll attract all kinds: the young jam-band fan from Grand Junction scraping his coins together to see Widespread Panic, the family from Denver who spends a weekend seeing a ballet and free concerts, and the cultured New York investment banker who spends all of August squeezing in as much as she possibly can.”The goal for all of us arts organizations, rather than battling for each seat, is to make it possible to get people here for a week and enjoy music, theater, dance,” said David McClendon, whose vision as artistic director of Theatre Aspen is to make the organization a year-round entity, complete with a $20 million building. (That venue, to be shared with Aspen Filmfest and perhaps others, is currently looking for a downtown space, with hopes to begin building in 2007.)Behrman echoes that spirit of cooperation. And in his view, the essence of that cooperation is not stepping on one another’s dates.

“The most important thing we have to keep in mind is to work together as event planners – never to compete, never impose,” he said, adding that he hopes to double the number of wintertime concerts to as many as 20, which he puts on through his Mountain Groove Productions. “Don’t put a free concert against a paid concert. Look at the calendar more closely. Having two events in the same night helps no one.”But there are only so many dates – and there are so many events. Even while the major organizations tend not to overlap their big shows, conflicts are inevitable. Last winter, for instance, one night of the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival was pitted against a free hip-hop concert in downtown Aspen staged by the Aspen Skiing Co. (yet another new player in the concert game). The crowd at the Wheeler, as it was for the four-night bluegrass festival as a whole, was small. And Beyond Bluegrass, which has drawn some of the biggest name in acoustic music to Aspen, seems a likely casualty as the herd gets thinned ever so slightly.While few would claim Aspen has a shortage of arts by volume, there are categories – especially those that appeal to a younger audience – that could stand some beefing up.”I would like to see maybe a greater diversity,” said Torre, who, before being elected to Aspen City Council worked as a talent buyer at the Double Diamond and as a tech hand at the Wheeler. “More spoken word, more multimedia, more small-scale dance performance. We could do more in art forms that aren’t for real big public consumption. Our kids need to be exposed to a greater diversity of artistic expression.”

The potential benefit of the crowded calendar is that the sheer weight makes Aspen even more of a destination for the culture seeker. With summer a wall-to-wall string of festivals, performances, benefits and openings, and winter edging closer to a packed schedule, out-of-town arts enthusiasts barely even need consult a calendar before heading to Aspen. Apart from the ever narrower offseasons, the lights are always on above the Aspen marquee.”That’s very much the goal,” said McClendon, a recent Aspen resident. “The biggest and most important thing all the arts have to offer is Aspen itself. People can come, spend a week, experience first-class everything. That doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s the opportunity we have.”Michael Goldberg has emerged as the leading advocate of the more-is-better school of thought. Since opening the Belly Up last winter, Goldberg has widened eyes not only with the impressive makeover of the old Double Diamond space, but with the acts – both the number and the names – he has booked. Chris Isaak, Dr. John and Leon Russell all appeared on the Belly Up stage this past week – before the summer season even started in earnest.”We have to book enough, and frequently enough, that we’re not just on the Aspen map, but the bigger map,” said Goldberg. “I don’t think we can go at this halfhearted.”Goldberg is far from the only one looking to develop an audience that comes from beyond the Roaring Fork Valley. When McClendon speaks of growing Theatre Aspen, he’s thinking not only of a permanent venue, but also of turning the organization into a regional draw. Jazz Aspen has grown by booking the kind of acts that draw their own audience from around the country. For next week’s Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in Snowmass, Behrman has taken out ads in Relix, a national magazine that caters to the jam-band crowd. Government is helping to broaden the scope; Aspen City Council recently gave the Wheeler Opera House more than $150,000 for marketing.

“We have to cast the net wider,” said McClendon, who has increased Theatre Aspen’s marketing efforts in Denver for this summer.Creating that mega-arts draw doesn’t happen through aimless growth and mindless bookings. McClendon, Behrman and Goldberg all echoed the common theme that the Aspen audience is a sophisticated one, and the arts market is competitive; therefore, the product must be first-rate.”I need to pick it up three notches, because the town has picked it up three notches with the Belly Up and the Skico free concerts,” said Behrman. “My acts, my timing, my marketing have to be better.”To McClendon, providing top-quality arts isn’t only about pleasing those who happen to be here. Compelling entertainment on a grand scale tends to create its own audience. The ideal case is the Aspen Music Festival, by far the biggest summertime attraction (an obvious conclusion confirmed by a recent Aspen Chamber Resort Association study) that raises no eyebrows by presenting multiple events each day. It may seem a paradox that McClendon is eying expansion while acknowledging that Theatre Aspen’s presentations have not generally played to full houses. But as he sees it, the growth in the number of presentations goes hand in hand with better theater.

“You have to create that partnership with your audience,” he said. “When you develop that commitment, that shared bond, you can begin to take them places, and they’ll know you’re going to give them something good. So first we have to create a first-rate artistic product, worthy of the sophistication of this audience. Consistently.”Rather than speculate about whether Aspen has piled an overabundance of treats on its plate, its arts presenters are taking the empirical approach. Perhaps by the end of this summer’s unprecedented load of concerts, rock shows, festivals, dance performances and theater presentations, there will be a better idea of just how much culture this resort town can handle. Until then, it’s time to feast.”Whether there is the appetite for what we’re offering remains to be seen,” said Goldberg. “Is it too much now? Between Snowmass and Jazz Aspen and Belly Up, have we all at the same time thought Aspen didn’t have enough – and now we have a surplus?”‘Til you go out and try it, you don’t know.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is