What’s the price of arts and culture in Aspen?

Aspen Film Director of Programming Landon Zakheim, left, chats with filmmakers Charlie Lyne, Reema Sengupta, Gustavo Rosa, and Nicholas D'Agostino after the second Shortsfest program on Friday night at the Wheeler Opera House.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Aspen’s arts and culture community is knocking on City Hall’s door, asking to be let in and have a seat at the table. At the moment, leaders of the town’s most high-profile nonprofit organizations feel they are sitting at the equivalent of the kids’ table at a family holiday dinner.

A handful of arts and cultural leaders met for two hours with the Aspen City Council during a work session to discuss whether a task force should be established to examine the role of cultural arts in Aspen.

“It may seem evident to you as a city and council … how valuable the arts are … but actually out there that’s not the case, at least that’s not the perception of it and our perception is that the city can actually do a little bit more to embrace that message,” Jim Horowitz, president and CEO of Jazz-Aspen Snowmass, told council last week.

City staff’s proposal was to have a community-wide conversation about the future of cultural arts, and then hire a third-party consultant to prepare an analysis to understand the economic influence of that industry here.

Council members were reluctant at first to spend money on a study. They told staff they wanted to tread lightly in having government involved.

But after a handful of executives who run the largest arts organizations in Aspen told council that more attention could be paid to the industry, elected officials agreed to move ahead in a less obtrusive fashion.

In the coming months, the city will act as a facilitator and host a series of roundtable discussions with the local arts community — for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Once that’s complete, an economic analysis will be done.

“We need better information on this sector,” Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said. “This process needs to be inclusive. … I need to hear from the cultural arts community before doing a study.”

The last economic study of the arts in Aspen and Snowmass was done in 2004, which estimated that its impact is nearly $85 million a year. That includes expenditures by the arts organizations and their audiences.

Certainly that figure has grown significantly, yet no one knows what it really is, said Heidi Zuckerman, CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum.

“The economic impact is huge,” she said. “I actually think that it should be a number that any person sitting on your side of the table should be able to cite.”

Horowitz agreed.

“As opposed to a task force to tell us what we already know … an actual study of the economic impact of the arts … would be valuable,” he said. “We have a sense of it (but) data and information in our world matters.”

He said the city would be able to get a better understanding about the people who come here for the arts and culture, and how they spend their money.

Once elected leaders understand just how large of a role the arts plays here, more emphasis could be placed on it. The city spends a lot of effort on environmental initiatives and bolstering the sports industry — but necessarily not on the arts.

“We want a seat at the table,” said Gena Buhler, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, adding she and her counterparts want a stronger presence in the city’s collective conscience. “To have a citywide recognition that the cultural arts are important to the long-term viability of this town.”

Horowitz cited the example of banners that were placed on lampposts around town a couple of years ago. They promoted different genres of arts and culture in Aspen, but it took a lot of bureaucratic red tape to get them up.

Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, said he doesn’t believe there is a problem but more of an opportunity for the city to champion the marketing image of Aspen to include the cultural arts.

He told council that many countries around the world have sent delegations to experience the cultural offerings here, particularly at the music festival. If they recognize how robust the cultural arts are here, “Shouldn’t we all?” he asked.

“The arts are part of our identity and success,” he said.

Zuckerman said the cultural arts are probably the most undervalued sector in Aspen.

“While the economic impact can’t be undervalued, neither can the spiritual value … you can quote Winston Churchill, ‘If we are not fighting for culture, what are we fighting for?’ and if we are talking about the soul of Aspen, I think the soul of Aspen is arts and culture,” she told council. “What I would like to see is the City Council say, ‘We value arts and culture and we are going to advocate for that in a broad way.’”

After polling his fellow council members, Mayor Steve Skadron said there’s support to keep the conversation going, with an economic analysis on the cultural arts industry to follow.

“I think there is so much opportunity here,” he said.


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