The Aspen Institute’s new idea |

The Aspen Institute’s new idea

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson is promising big changes about the way the Institute mixes with Aspen. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

At a mid-June press conference, Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson opened his comments on the Institute’s future with a reference to its past.”We didn’t really partake in the community much, and worse yet, we didn’t benefit from being in the most interesting community in the United States,” Isaacson said.

Well, he and a handful of other decision-makers at the Institute appear to have found a way to change that with the Aspen Ideas Festival, a five-day event that will bring in more than 100 of the brightest minds in the world – leaders in government, business, law, media, religion, science and the arts – and put them on display, discussing the big issues of our times. Speeches, panels, breakout discussions, workshops, tutorials and long breaks in between for face-to-face contact are designed to get speakers and participants rolling on eight topical “tracks”: The State of the Environment; Health and Bioscience; Global Dynamics; The Global Economy and Society; Perspectives on Leadership; Culture and the Media; Family Economics: Work and Wealth; and the American Experience.Isaacson says the Ideas Festival will combine seminars and policy programs and all the bright people who participate in them, add some speeches, plenary sessions and panels, scatter them around the Institute campus and town, and open some of the sessions to the public at affordable rates (tickets to the public sessions range from $15 to $25). The point of the festival is to immerse the participants and the community in an exciting swirl of thought and debate on the compelling issues of the day.Running as part of the Ideas Festival is a visit by The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C. Using the Aspen District Theatre at Aspen Elementary School, the troupe will stage five performances of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare experts affiliated with the theater will also put on master acting classes.Like Aspen’s 1949 celebration of German intellectual and humanist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Ideas Festival points to a more public orientation at the Institute.

“There was Goethe, now there’s this,” Isaacson said.It is a remarkable Aspen Institute event, perhaps different than any other since the heyday of the International Design Conference in Aspen, which through the 1960s and 1970s drew scores of the greatest thinkers in various design fields here each June.”It [is] our way of being a lot more inclusive than what the Aspen Institute used to be, when 20 people would come to the top of the mountain and nobody in town knew what they were doing or why they were here,” Isaacson added.

Isaacson’s words may offer a ring of hope, but history instructs that such overtures will soon be drowned out by the demands of the stakeholders who have long controlled the Institute and its mission.”I don’t trust it,” one local who has lived here since the mid-1900s said. “It’s still too early to tell. It’s got an elite air.”Caution and skepticism toward the Institute and its intentions dates all the way back to July 1949, just a month after Walter Paepcke and the town of Aspen hosted some 2,000 dignitaries, intellectuals and other attendees at the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, which celebrated the 200th birthday of the great German poet and thinker. Paepcke wanted to carry the success of that first gathering forward, but his plans were greeted with hostility by some locals.”Some of the objections for having a festival each year are lack of housing, shortage of dining space for more ordinary crowds, disrupting the free and easy life of some few Aspenites, and generally cluttering up the streets and shops with extra people,” The Aspen Times reported on July 28,1949.With the help of local business owners, Paepcke prevailed over “some few Aspenites” and in 1950 the newly formed Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and the community began their relationship in earnest.

If there was a time when Aspen and the Institute were partners, it was the 1950s and 1960s. The Institute would schedule public lectures by experts and academics in town for the executive seminars, bring movies to the Wheeler Opera House and put on a series of summer concerts (which spawned the Aspen Music Festival and School). Locals were invited to everything. That era ended in the late 1960s, when Atlantic Richfield Oil Company executive R.O. Anderson became the Institute’s chairman and hired Joseph Slater as president. Together, Anderson and Slater thrust the Institute onto the world stage by sponsoring conferences on the burning topics of the day and developing the policy programs that remain an important part of the Institute’s programming. The new emphasis on world and national affairs may have created the Institute we know today, but it nearly destroyed the organization’s relationship with Aspen. Although the executive seminars continued here, most of the organization’s energy and activity was focused in Washington, D.C., and at satellite locations around the world. After the Aspen City Council denied the Institute’s proposal to build a a 356-room hotel and 56,000-square-foot conference facility at the Aspen Meadows in 1979, Anderson sold the entire West End campus – Music Tent, the Meadows, Paepcke Auditorium and all the property – to developer Hans Cantrup. The Institute began moving its executive seminars and conferences to an isolated campus near Crestone, Colo., which turned out to have little appeal to high-powered executives accustomed to Aspen.The sale proved devastating for the Institute’s reputation and fund-raising capabilities both here and beyond, according to Slater and historians familiar with that era, and for the next seven years it hobbled along, renting the space it once owned. From the late 1980s, when the Institute regained ownership of its campus, through the early 2000s, the Institute rebuilt its standing here and elsewhere under the leadership of David McLaughlin.

In 1999, the Institute hired former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, dubbed him “vice president, Aspen,” and charged him with the task of connecting the Institute with the community.Bennett created the extremely popular Community Seminar and other programs that did just that, but his position was eliminated about a year after it was created by the newly anointed president, Elmer Johnson.The mission statement penned by Johnson made it clear that under his tenure, the Aspen Institute would dedicate its attention and resources on influencing the world’s elite decision-makers. “The Aspen Institute is a global forum for leveraging the power of leaders to improve the human condition,” the first sentence of Johnson’s mission statement reads.It was just the kind of statement that has kept Aspenites at bay since the 1960s.The problem with the Aspen Institute, says lifelong local and retired teacher Willard Clapper, is the “fence of intelligence snobbery. There’s that fence that allows those super-smart people in and keeps the rest of us out there.”

Except for a climbing lecture or two at Paepcke Auditorium, Roger Marolt, a fifth-generation Aspenite (and columnist for The Aspen Times), says he has never attended an event at the Institute.”It was just a name and a concept really, something I just heard about but never knew what they did,” Marolt said of his childhood relationship with the Institute.”I think it’s one of those things that makes you feel good that it’s here. It’s something that’s nice to brag about even if locals don’t participate.”

Elmer Johnson’s short tenure ended unceremoniously in August 2002. Walter Isaacson, a Time Warner executive at the time, resigned his post as the top dog at CNN and took control of the Institute in January 2003.In fits and starts, Isaacson’s first two summers in charge set the stage both for this year’s Ideas Festival and his initiative to open up the organization up to locals and visitors. In July 2003 he made his first onstage appearance, talking about Benjamin Franklin, the subject of a book he had recently published. Later that summer, Forbes magazine, in coordination with the Institute, held it’s third annual Brainstorm Conference in Aspen.In 2004, the Institute staged and Isaacson presided over a four-day conference on Albert Einstein, who happened to be the subject of a book Isaacson was writing at the time. The conference, which proved extremely popular with locals, despite the $750 cost for a three-day pass, brought a variety of intellectuals to publicly celebrate Einstein’s miracle year of 1905.Despite the success of the Einstein conference, however, Isaacson had yet to show much interest in communicating with the people who live here.

The Aspen Times Weekly had planned a long piece about Isaacson and the direction of the Institute that summer. But Isaacson and two other executives abruptly canceled their interviews with a Times reporter after he wrote two critical pieces, a review and a story, about the Institute. The Times Weekly feature was scratched as a result.By that time, however, Isaacson and Institute executives Kitty Boone and Elliot Gerson were working on the Aspen Ideas Festival. From the outset, according to Gerson, the plan was to make the Ideas Festival as open as possible. Gerson was in fact hired to carry out that mission. His title is Vice President of Seminars and Public Programming. His mission is to find ways to open at least some of the programming at the Institute’s campuses around the world to the public.

“Like most people, I’d heard about the Aspen Institute for years, but I couldn’t tell you what it was,” said Gerson, who attended college with Isaacson. “I knew that it was invitation-only.”With the Aspen Ideas Festival, Isaacson, Gerson and Boone will match panel participants with stimulating minds from a variety of backgrounds. Attendees who purchased six- and three-day passes will be able to observe small-venue panels and tutorials on the various subjects, and the general public has the opportunity to hear speakers and panel discussions at the music tent and smaller, in-town venues. The public events are either free or nominally priced.Events at the Institute’s Wye River campus in Maryland and other sites around the world are being designed to get more people involved. Gerson and Isaacson say public programming is being given the same level of attention as the executive seminars, policy programs and other Institute mainstays.”A new leg or aspect of the Aspen Institute strategy is public programming – bringing the things we do to a wider audience,” Gerson said.”I felt we benefit enormously from being in Aspen, and we should serve the community in return,” Isaacson said. “The more exciting things we can do that interest people in the community, the better.”

Clearly, with about 15 public events that include speakers like primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, Harvard President Larry Summers, pastor and author Rick Warren (“A Purpose Driven Life”), National Public Radio commentator Cokie Roberts and National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Elliot Gerson, the Institute is sharing its wealth with the community.And on an institutional level, Isaacson has pushed ahead with plans to build a new 250-seat conference center on the Aspen campus. And he has rewritten the mission statement to reflect the broader audience and goals that he’s cultivating there. It purposefully excludes the emphasis on the elite that his predecessor found so important.”Whatever your mission is,” Isaacson said of the new openness, “if you’re trying to promote enlightened leadership and meaningful dialogue and you’re just meeting in a small group among yourselves, you’re not being very effective. That’s reason No. 1.”And reason No. 2 is we’re part of the heart and soul of Aspen, and that’s part and parcel of who we are.”Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is

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