Meeting space void could drive Aspen Art Museum talks |

Meeting space void could drive Aspen Art Museum talks

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” The loss of city land and an unknown purchase price aren’t the only driving forces for opponents of the Aspen Art Museum proposal: Several users of the Rio Grande Room have expressed concern about a lack of gathering space if the building is torn down to make way for a new museum.

“If this public land is sold to the art museum, then the last gasp and hope for all those groups to meet ” that will be gone forever,” said Kent Reed, director of Hudson Reed Ensemble, which uses the room for practices, and last year produced free Shakespeare on the adjoining Galena Plaza.

Voter approval of Question 1 on the May 5 ballot would authorize the City Council to negotiate the sale of Rio Grande Place ” which includes the Rio Grande Meeting Room ” to the Aspen Art Museum. Museum officials want to tear down Rio Grande Place and replace it with a 30,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility.

City Manager Steve Barwick said finding a replacement for lost community space will be a key part of discussions with the museum officials, should voters approve Question 1.

“The negotiations will definitely include defining size, finish and access for public areas,” Barwick said. “For example, there are dance groups that like using [the Rio Grande Room] now. Will [community space in the new art museum] have a dance floor, or will it be carpeted? These are all relevant questions.”

Barwick said those conversations will affect the price the city is willing to accept.

“If we have to go out on the marketplace and replace that space, then of course we’re going to demand more money for the museum,” he said.

Reed acknowledged that the new museum would have meeting and performance space, but noted he has yet to see anything in writing about community uses of that space.

“My feeling is when people are putting up $23 million for an art museum they want to go in and see art,” he said. “They don’t want to see a Sandy Munro concert or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”

But how much is the room actually used?

A review of booking records for the Rio Grande Room in 2008 revealed that the room was booked last year by the city, county and about 20 community groups. Community uses of the room, on average, happened a little less than once per day. They generally fell into two categories: meetings for groups like local homeowners’ associations or AA, and arts events or rehearsals.

Records show that the room was rarely used the entire day. More often, it was used once or twice a day, and sometimes not at all.

“I’m not sure people know about it,” said Carol Bayley, a board member for Aspen Community Theater, who said she “stumbled on it” when she was unable to book dance space at the Red Brick or the Black Box Theater.

“I think if people were more aware, they’d use it more often,” she said.

If the museum buys the land, those 20 community groups ” and a number of government meetings ” will have to go elsewhere.

“We use it a lot,” said Pat Bingham, community relations coordinator for Pitkin County. “Whenever there’s an election, the [Board of County Commissioners] room is used for people to vote ” and so the BOCC has to find a place to meet. They default to the Rio Grande Room.”

Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, which used the Rio Grande Room last year, noted that there are still numerous other gathering places in town, including conference rooms at many local hotels. ACRA, for example, meets at the Community Bank board room, she said.

But she conceded that trying to negotiate an inexpensive price for hotel space, as well as trying to find a room to use in the evenings, can be difficult. For example, the top floor conference room at the Aspen Chalet rents for $1,500 a day, according to the hotel ” compared to the Rio Grande Room’s fee of $25 an hour.

And while Aspen has a lot of meeting space, arts organizations may have a harder time, Braun said.

“Certainly the bank is great for a board meeting,” she said. “But you wouldn’t want to have dance practice there.”

And many places, like the conference room and studio at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, are already consistently booked.

The classrooms at St. Mary Church are equally busy, said Father Michael O’Brien.

“We’re pretty well full is the problem,” he said.

On the other hand, space at the Aspen Community Methodist Church ” which Bayley praised for its piano “and which rents for between $50 and $300, is available, said Pastor Jane Keener-Quiat.

And at least one new community space is currently being added: a 1,200-square-foot meeting space at the new Aspen Fire Station, currently being built on the footprint of the old Aspen Fire Station. Chief Darryl Grob noted that the fire district would likely continue its tradition of not charging community groups for the new room.

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