Nicola Lees, new director of the Aspen Art Museum, leading through the coronavirus crisis
The Aspen Art Museum announced the appointment of Nicola Lees as its new director March 11, seemingly just moments before the U.S. tipped into the crisis period of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was that night that the NBA canceled its season and Tom Hanks announced he’d contracted the virus and the new reality began to take hold. Lees, who was then director and curator of New York University’s contemporary art space 80 Washington East Gallery (80WSE), closed that gallery the following day. The Aspen Art Museum closed two days later. The long period of stay-home orders, public health restrictions and economic free-fall followed.
Four months later, the Aspen Art Museum has opened its doors again. And Lees is on the job here.
She is taking the reins during a historically challenging time for arts organizations around the world. Institutions are facing existential budget crunches and questions of health and safety, while being challenged to rethink their very missions, how they carry out basic functions, how they serve a public without mass gatherings.
“It’s been an interesting time to come into a new leadership role,” Lees, a London native, said with almost comical understatement, speaking from behind a facemask in early July at a table in the museum’s rooftop sculpture garden, beside Maren Hassinger’s wire rope installation “Nature, Sweet Nature.”
The museum opened to the public July 1 following the state-mandated closure. Admission is still free but reservations are required, as the number of total visitors is limited, while facemasks are required and assigned foot traffic patterns are enforced. The opening unveiled the Rose Wylie painting show “where i am and was,” Kelly Akashi’s sculpture “Cultivator” and the Hessenger piece, while also reopening exhibitions of paintings by Lisa Yuskavage and Oscar Murillo. All of the shows have been extended through fall amid the public health crisis.
Lees’ job description didn’t include public health expertise or expectations of handling a pandemic. She is focused now on figuring out how to lead the museum through a transformed world and how best to serve artists and the public through the uncertain future ahead.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, where Lees was a curator from 2008 to 2013, said Lees is poised to meet the demands of this most challenging situation.
“Nicola is brave enough to be truly interdisciplinary and her experimental approach goes far beyond existing boundaries to envision new realities, something which so urgently needs to be addressed now more than ever before,” Obrist said in an email.
Lees’ start date was April 1, but she could not travel to Aspen until June due to the crisis. She carried out her duties in her first months on the job remotely and digitally — much museum business will continue virtually for the foreseeable future — and included decisions like canceling the annual ArtCrush gala, extending current exhibitions into the fall, moving education programs online and doing a round of permanent layoffs for full-time staff.
The ArtCrush gala has raised between $2 million and $3 million annually for the museum in recent years, and provided a significant portion of the museum’s $7 million annual budget.
Losing ArtCrush meant cutting expenses, which — along with the logistical restrictions brought on by the pandemic — will impact exhibitions. Lees suggested that might mean fewer shows with longer runs or possibly multi-year commissions for artists to do multiple projects with the museum. Operating costs like international shipping have been among the budget items trimmed in recent months.
“I don’t think it’s going to make it less dynamic or less energetic, but we’re going to have to be smart about it,” she said of the exhibition budget.
Hectic as it may seem, the physical quiet of quarantine has been an opportunity, Lees believes.
“Even though there’s been a huge amount going on, it has also been a moment of reflection,” Lees said.
Lees and the institution have had to rethink the role of a museum, staging events on Instagram and a virtual exhibition with its Young Curators program, while preparing to give artists a space to interpret the present moment and giving the public a place to interact safely with art.
“The conversation in many ways is around this idea of a new intentionality,” Lees said, noting how much more thought people must put into basic day-to-day tasks and interactions during the pandemic, and how that is translating to institutions like museums and, perhaps, a new age of thoughtful leadership.
Curatorial signatures of the Aspen Art Museum — like giving artists museum debuts and spotting the hottest new talent — are also under reconsideration.
“This idea of the newest or the first may be a framework that in the COVID era is maybe not so urgent,” she said.
So what is urgent?
“Building relationships, being collaborative, building communities, thinking about how we can do things together and share resources,” she said.
To that end, Lees is planning to bring more curators’ voices and perspectives into the museum, with contributors who might include guest curators or new positions like curators-at-large.
From her first days on the job, Lees has been joining weekly calls among Aspen’s arts leaders. These meetings are new to Aspen’s arts and culture organization. Lees arrived on the local scene at a moment of unprecedented openness and collaboration for Aspen’s cultural sector.
“We’ve all been thinking about how we can be hyperlocal and how we can meet this shift in the world and how people are experiencing their lives,” Lees said. “At the same time, the whole thing with Aspen is that everyone has a global and international program. … You have these pillars of Aspen, the Institute and the Music Festival as the oldest institutions and now this amazing web of film and theater and literature — all coming together.”
Lees was drawn to this museum, in part, by the intellectual and cultural history of Aspen. She knew artists loved coming here, loved working with the museum. She’d heard details from the likes of Lutz Bacher and Oscar Murillo during their exhibitions here.
She was also curious about the alpinist culture of Colorado. Lees was a mountaineer as a teenager, when she traveled to climb around Europe, South America and Africa — she summitted Mount Kenya — and she is hoping to rekindle that adventuresome lifestyle.
Lees met with Aspen Skiing Co. leaders for the first time last week and is hoping to find ways to collaborate, whether by reviving the acclaimed Art in Unexpected Places public art partnership or on new projects.
“The legacy of that (Art in Unexpected Places) program was one of the attractions of coming here,” she said of the program, which ran from 2006 to 2017 and hosted on-mountain installations and happenings like Yutaka Sone rolling massive dice down the Buttermilk halfpipe and Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Black Lightning” daytime firework over Aspen Mountain.
Lees is not an art world celebrity; she’s not a splashy big-name hire for the Aspen Art Museum. But the breadth and variety of her experience in the art world seem to put her in a position to succeed under the unusual microscope of Aspen, where cultural leaders are subject to both small-town battles and the scrutiny of the international spotlight.
Like the Aspen Art Museum, 80WSE is admission-free, nonprofit and focuses on contemporary work. Lees’ exhibitions there included Bacher, John Giorno and Louise Lawler. Before that, Lees served as a curator at the Frieze Foundation, London’s Serpentine Gallery and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
For Frieze Projects London she curated dozens of site-specific installations from artists including Cerith Wyn Evans and Kim Gordon.
At Serpentine, where she was senior curator of public programs from 2008 to 2013, her focus was decidedly multi-disciplinary. It included presenting the massive public art projects and live performance for the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, curating the gallery’s “Ideas Marathon” series and the Serpentine Cinema. Lees also curated the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts in 2015 in Slovenia.
Obrist, the Serpentine director, praised Lees as “someone with a strong vision but who is also generous with her time and energy, especially in platforming and supporting young and emerging artistic practice.”
That mix of experience was among the assets cited by the museum board upon Lees’ appointment in March, after a nearly nine-month search for a new director.
“Nicola is an energetic, innovative and visionary institutional leader and her knowledge of and passion for contemporary art is evident through a host of ambitious and globally relevant large-scale exhibitions and projects featuring many of the most important established and emerging artists of our time,” read a statement from board of trustees members John Phelan, Amnon Rodan and Paul Pariser upon the announcement of her appointment.
Lees follows longtime director Heidi Zuckerman at the helm of the museum. Zuckerman led the museum for 14 years and spearheaded the effort to build its downtown Shigeru Ban-designed facility, which opened in 2014, while making the museum a player in the international contemporary art scene and launching initiatives including ArtCrush and Art in Unexpected Places. Her tenure also included a wide expansion of the museum’s education and access programs, which in 2017 earned the museum the National Medal for Museum and Library Services.
A new learning director, Rachel Ropeik, formerly of the Guggenheim Museum, came aboard about a month before Lees did at the museum to oversee those vaunted education programs. She and Lees are shepherding them into the post-coronavirus world.
The museum hasn’t shown Aspen-based or Colorado-based artists since it moved into the downtown museum, though programs for local artists — including critic sessions and fellowships — have grown. Were it not for the public health crisis, Lees would have been doing studio visits and getting to know the area’s artists this spring.
“The museum is here for the community,” Lees said of the institution’s relationship with locally based artists. “We want to work out how we can embed that more in the structure of what we’re doing. It’s going to take more time to find the best approach so that everyone feels included.”
One project Lees already spearheaded is artist Jonathan Berger’s reimagining of the museum shop, which she said will be inspired by Manhattan’s legendary Little Rickie’s and will include a curated collection of things local, regional and international.
The months since Lees’ appointment may have been a whirlwind. But now that the doors of the museum are open again and she is inside, it’s time to get to work.
“I had a really clear vision from afar,” Lees said, “but now I’m here and it’s really now a time to have conversations about how we can grow together, build relationships, build communities. That’s going to be a process.”
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