Solid turnout for opening of art museum

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
People walk outside the new Aspen Art Museum on Saturday.
Christina Capasso/Special to The Aspen Times |

Starting at 5 p.m. Saturday, the public got its first real look at the new Aspen Art Museum, and the overall sentiment was that people liked what they saw.

It’s been a four-year process since the museum was approved in 2010, with an extraordinary amount of public opinion flooding the media about the building design in the past few weeks.

There was even some speculation that there might be people planning to protest the opening, but that was not the case. On Saturday, the public finally had a chance to put the pieces together for themselves and see the museum as a whole.

“The most amazing part was having a line stretch down Hyman Avenue of people waiting to come in at 5 p.m.,” said John-Paul Schaefer, the deputy director of the museum. “We clicked in more than 500 people in the first 15 minutes we were open. The vibe has been fantastic, extremely supportive. It’s been fun and rewarding to watch people absorb the art and the building itself.”

The Aspen Art Museum is the first permanent U.S. museum designed by architect Shigeru Ban, who won the 2014 Pritzker Prize for Architecture. Ban wanted to incorporate the beauty of the surrounding Aspen area into the building’s functionality as an art museum, and now the public can decide if he was successful or not.

The opinions about the opening were as varied as the art itself, with most people in support of something the museum had to offer, whether it was the building design or what the museum staff chose for its inaugural exhibitions.

“The building is quite striking,” said Chris Dassios, of Toronto. “It fits well within this environment because of the wooden look.”

Dassios was visiting Aspen with his wife, Gianna, who also was impressed with the overall architectural design of the museum.

“The weaving pattern, the interconnection itself, adds some amazing texture to the building,” she said. “Most great pieces of architecture get slammed when the public first sees it. When the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris, the joke locally was the best place to view the tower was from within the tower itself because you couldn’t see it that way.”

The base of the museum had large, nearly 10-foot-tall reflective letters reading, “With Liberty and Justice for All.” Several attendees questioned whether the large lettering fit with the overall look of the building.

“The lettering doesn’t fit,” Chris Dassios said. “But the message does. It’s very American.”

To celebrate the grand opening, the museum remained open continuously for 24 hours with a variety of additional entertainment offered, ranging from live musical performances to a silent dance party with headphones and a dream-interpretation activity that encouraged people to sleep for several hours inside the museum.

John Reardon, an attorney and confirmed rockhound from Glenwood Springs, spent considerable time at the Colorado mineralogy exhibit and found himself trying to identify the different minerals and where they came from.

“I love this stuff,” he said. “I’m enjoying the hell out of it. My first impressions are totally positive with the museum. The only thing I question so far is the lettering outside. There’s obviously liberty and justice in Aspen, but does it really apply to all? That’s debatable.”

County Commissioner Michael Owsley said it was interesting to watch the building being built and enjoyed how the exterior was woven together.

“Aspen definitely is a brick-and-mortar town,” he said. “This is sort of a 21st-century version of brick and mortar without the brick. It’s interesting how the outside seems to go from solid to transparent brick. I’m still trying to absorb the building as a whole, and so far I like it.”

The museum carried an appeal for both the young and the old. Five-year-old Jack Swartzlander, of Golden, was all smiles as he bounced enthusiastically from exhibit to exhibit.

“Oh yeah, I really like the museum,” he said. “I like the turtles and the iPads. It’s fun to peek out of the squares that surround the building. I considered trying to climb the outside of the building because it looks like a climbing wall.”

Not everyone was in full support of the museum, including Norma Dolle, the owner of the Snow Queen Lodge in Aspen. Dolle has lived in Aspen for 44 years and doesn’t like the direction the museum design chose to take.

“We have a wonderful Victorian look in Aspen,” Dolle said. “I don’t like all the squares on the outside of the museum. It looks too modern and doesn’t fit with the other buildings around town. I wish they would’ve considered a local architect. As for the art itself, it isn’t very compelling. Overall, I’m not that impressed.”

Like it or not, the one thing that was obvious was that the museum was making people contemplate what they liked and what they didn’t, which for some meant that the museum was a success.

“This building itself is art,” said Irene Shickman, who lives part time in Aspen. “Because it’s the first of its kind, people will love it and hate it, like most art. I’ve read a lot of people don’t think this building fits in Aspen, but why not? I know it’s a big square, but it says something to me. I love the unique designs within the building. That’s exciting to me, and I think most people will feel the same way when they visit this museum.”