Michael Cleverly: Cleverly or Not
In 1976, the city of Aspen created a task force to find a use for the old Holy Cross building. Shortly thereafter I began to watch my friends Missie Thorne, Diane Lewy and Dick Carter conceive and midwife The Aspen Center For Visual Arts into existence. It was a two-year process and during that time they leapt every hurdle and ran into every stonewall imaginable. There was opposition from all sides. Some politicians didnt want to support something that would end up being a place for the Red Mountain crowd to have their cocktail parties. Elements of the public either didnt place much value in the arts, period, or didnt think precious tax dollars should be spent on such frivolity.When American Portraits of the Sixties & Seventies opened in June 1979, it was instantly clear how tragic it would have been for that place and that show to have never happened. The show was a whos who of work by the finest artists in the country: Andy Warhol, William Beckman, Chuck Close, Alice Neel, Willem De Kooning, Diane Arbus, George Segal, Marisol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Paschke, Jim Dine, Red Grooms and Robert Mapplethorpe were a few. There was a Gregory Gillespie self-portrait that had appeared in Time magazine just weeks before. Local artists Franz Berko, Chris Cassatt, Barbara Rubin and myself were represented. A performance piece by Laurie Anderson and a wrapped piece by Christo stretched the boundaries of what portraiture is. There was portraiture as furniture and sheet music. The show happened under the guidance of Philip Yenawine, the first director of the Center, who had been hired away from The Museum of Modern Art, and Julia Childs Auger, the curator. There have been few complaints since that opening night.Now, 30 years later, a proposal to move what has evolved into the Aspen Art Museum to a location near Main Street that is owned by the city, has me watching the same battles being fought all over again. There have been several lucid and well-reasoned letters and columns arguing against the move. There have also been a few incredibly ignorant and wrong-headed ones.Some people think a pizza parlor should be saved. The space it occupies has been a revolving door for little businesses for as long as I can remember, and the fact that the current one has lasted more than five minutes, and therefore should be considered an old and venerable institution, is ludicrous and shouldnt be any factor in the important decisions at hand. Some argue that the city may get flimflamed into selling the property for less than its worth. Well, I guess there is a history of some of our elected officials pencils being a little dull, but a yes vote on this question will only begin the process. It will simply not kill it dead, here and now. Therell be all the transparency anyone could want if negotiations move forward. While the current space is underused, it is being used, reportedly one to two hours a day. I cant believe that the specific, spatial needs of those entities that are using it cant be met elsewhere. The Holy Cross venue will certainly become available down the road, and in the meantime several options have already presented themselves; Im sure therell be more as time passes.Members of the art community, who should be the most avid supporters of the museum, have been put off by the present powers-that-bes inflexibility as far as programming goes. I am one of them. It would behoove all of us to take the long view and bear in mind that an institution like the museum is organic and constantly evolving. I tried to remember how many directors there have been since Philip Yenawine and couldnt directors come and go, so do boards, things change.There are people who dont think city-owned property should be sold at all, or that there might be some better use for it down the road, something vague and wonderful. This is the wonderful thing down the road. If a new museum isnt a valuable asset for the town, what would be? What does Aspen need? A new boutique, jewelry store, fur store, overpriced restaurant, a new space for bureaucrats to shuffle papers around in, a new place for those bureaucrats to live, perhaps condos or a real estate office selling fractional ownerships? Every resort has art galleries and so do we, but this is different. This museum would put Aspen as far ahead in the visual arts as the Aspen Music Festival and Jazz Aspen do in the world of music, as Aspen Santa Fe Ballet does in dance, and it would drastically change the character of that part of town for the foreseeable future. Other towns are constantly picking up the rear, trying to emulate what Aspen has done. The new museum would be something that couldnt even be realistically copied. Once again Aspen would stand alone, in the vanguard of the arts.If anyone from the museum had asked me, I would have suggested that they pause once in a while to kiss a little proletariat butt. In a sense theyre trying to sell edgy atonal music to a show tune crowd. Apparently some people dont have a taste for that sort of thing and probably think a project should be judged simply on its merits. No charm offensive has been forthcoming. Its too bad because I believe that what is perceived as a high-handed attitude on the museums part may well doom an incredible opportunity for the city, and that would be very sad.As an old-timer, Ive seen a lot of changes in town. Ive felt blindsided by many of them and have liked a few. This is one change I can see coming and it is one change that would definitely be for the better. This would be the rare change not generated and fueled by pure greed. Weve seen landlords, lawyers, realtors and developers take the things we loved about this town, the things that made us want to stay here, and tear them down to wring every penny out of every square inch of Aspen they could, leaving nothing but shiny new monuments to that greed in their wake.A new museum would be a gift to Aspen that we would be insane to turn down. A yes vote only leaves the door open for further negotiations,. If the whole thing at any point starts to smell, there will be countless opportunities to bury it.
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