Aspen Institute tore down its wall and became more public under Walter Isaacson

Before Walter Isaacson joined the Aspen Institute in 2003, the organization was generally regarded as a insular think tank unapproachable by locals.

Isaacson, in an interview with The Aspen Times last week, said that was one of the first things he wanted to change when he took the helm.

In the past few years, the Institute has made a push for making the annual Aspen Ideas Festival more accessible to locals, hence the addition of public events in recent years, as well the new Millennial Pass for $99 (and those 100 0asses sold out quickly).

“Ever since I first came to the Institute 14 years ago, I found it puzzling that the Institute wasn’t more open, especially to the Aspen community, so we created an entire public programming arm that has the Aspen Ideas Festival,” Isaacson said. “But it has other things as well now. We have the Security Forum, and our Action Forum, as well speaker events, because I felt it was important to be open to what I feel is one of the most wonderful communities in the world.”

Isaacson also credits Cristal Logan, vice president and director of Aspen Community Programs, for being “able to come up with ideas for bringing younger people.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Institute also rolled out such local programs as Hurst Student Seminars, underwritten by Institute trustee Bob Hurst and his wife, Soledad, which includes two four-day discussions that cater to students in the Roaring Fork Valley. Hurst also underwrites a lecture series that is open to the public.

Additionally, the Institute’s Vanguard Chapter of the Society of Fellows, comprised of members under the age of 45, has made it more accessible to the younger set.

“With Bob Hurst, we provided scholarships for people throughout the Roaring Fork Valley to programs they wouldn’t be able to afford, and now with the Vanguard Chapter of our Society of Fellows, we’re trying to reach millennials and younger people,” he said. “It’s been a constant push to become more open. Even when we have our closed programs, like the Aspen Strategy group, we make sure to have one or two big public sessions with the people who our part of the closed-door meetings, so that people of the community can ask questions and enjoy it.”

Other public programs in Aspen include the McCloskey Speaker Series, which will include a Republican Governors Panel on July 25, and the Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Series, among others.

The Institute has seen its revenue grow over the years. In its Form 990 tax return for 2015, the nonprofit reported total revenue of $142.9 million, up from $96.5 million in 2014. In 2013, it reported revenue of $93.2 million; and 2012 generated $94.5 million, according to tax records.

“I think that the Institute, 15 to 20 years ago, was almost walled off from this town and paid no attention to the town,” Isaacson said. “And we keep working every year to go to the other extreme.”