Year in review: A turning point for the arts in Aspen |

Year in review: A turning point for the arts in Aspen

Performances returned, a ballet company shuttered and pop-ups popped up everywhere

Paperless tickets and vaccine cards are checked as attendees enter the Aspen Art Museum for the Monty Alexander Trio performance on the rooftop during the JAS June Experience in downtown Aspen on Friday, June 25, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Pianist Matthew Whitaker performs in an Aspen Music Festival and School recital to open the summer season on Thursday, July 1, 2021, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
GOODBYE, 2021; HELLO, 2022

This week and into the first week of 2022, The Aspen Times will examine the issues and news events that defined the Aspen-area community in 2021, while also turning the lens to next year and what to watch for. Our 10-part series will show how the pandemic’s tentacles have and will continue to dip into our lives: skiing, tourism, development, mental health, labor shortages, business closings, housing shortages, a real estate boom, entertainment, and on and on.

Within days of each other in early summer 2021, the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience and the Aspen Music Festival opened for the town’s first major live musical performances in 15 months. They welcomed exuberant, vaccinated and unmasked crowds back to venues across town as it appeared the coronavirus pandemic’s disruptions were ending here.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen pop-up art galleries from major multinational players on the contemporary art market opened downtown and remade the local gallery scene, confirming that the pandemic’s urban exodus population shifts and the financial windfall it brought to the world’s wealthiest would reshape Aspen’s arts landscape.

The music festivals went on and staged historic comeback seasons, as did the music venue Belly Up Aspen and Theatre Aspen, including the launch of a programming diversity initiative at the Music Fest and a successful JAS Labor Day fest that brought some 24,000 concertgoers safely back to Snowmass Town Park.

But, as the late December string of cancellations and closures has shown, the pandemic isn’t done disrupting the performing arts here.

On the opening night of the Aspen Music Festival in June, moments before pianist Matthew Whitaker took the stage at the Benedict Music Tent, longtime local Bill Dinsmoor — beginning his 50th season as a Music Fest concertgoer with his wife, Jane — commented presciently: “The pleasure and the thing people are excited about is to have it go back to normal, and hopefully not going into COVID 2 with some other variant coming in.”

As the delta and omicron variants now lead to record local outbreaks, the path forward for performing arts in 2021 appears to include cancellations (like the Wheeler Opera House’s this week and those at the Arts Campus at Willits’ since the new midvalley venue opened this fall) and moving forward with vaccine requirements (as Belly Up and the JAS Café are doing).

The pandemic’s disruptions led Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to dissolve its company in March 2021, ending a 25-year run during which the organization earned worldwide acclaim and became an unlikely trendsetter for contemporary dance. The nonprofit has continued running its ballet schools and its popular Folklorico program, but the loss of its beloved productions left an unmistakable hole in the summer arts calendar as it roared back to life in 2021 and meant, for the first time in recent memory, Aspen had no “Nutcracker” performances this winter.

The year ahead is likely to determine whether a new Aspen-based contemporary dance company can fill the void.

Dance Aspen, a new group founded by former Aspen Santa Fe dancers, made its debut with a sold-out performance at the Wheeler in September. The seven-member company is poised to keep Aspen Santa Fe’s loyal local audiences and donors. Director Laurel Winton — a former Aspen Santa Fe dancer — hopes they can raise enough funding to support full-time dancers and a year-round public performance schedule: “We are looking long-term for this because it’s just so apparent that the community wants us to stay here and wants us to be a thing. And there’s definitely enough support out there.”

Kaya Wolsey and Anthony Tiedeman in Danielle Rowe’s ballet “For Pixie,” which Dance Aspen premiered at the Wheeler Opera House in September. (Rosalie O’Connor/Dance Aspen)

New and broader public funding for upstarts like Dance Aspen is likely to start flowing in 2022, thanks to the November 2021 ballot victory of an initiative that changes how funds can be used from the real estate transfer tax supporting city-owned Wheeler Opera House. The measure’s passage — it won with some 71% of a city vote — lifted the annual cap of $100,000 on grants for local arts organizations from the Wheeler tax collections and also shifted how the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts is funded.

The great unknown in the year ahead is how the city will dole out the grants from the $4 million to $5 million generated annually by the transfer tax, as amounts and process were not detailed in the ballot measure. If the grants are managed competently — and that is a big if for city of Aspen officials, as many critics noted during the campaign — these grants could lead to a flowering of new arts and culture programs and resources serving both Aspen’s full-time population and its tourist economy, building on the $451 million economic impact the arts had pre-pandemic.

City officials also appear to have saved the town’s only movie theater once again, with a renegotiated lower-priced lease on the city-owned Isis Theatre for Aspen Film, which has struggled to generate revenue during the pandemic. Ratified in November, the new lease appears to ensure ticket revenue can support the Isis as a business and end talk of Aspen losing its movie theater.

While movie attendance slumped, art galleries boomed in Aspen in 2021.

The contemporary art market here was viewed as so red hot that Christie’s International Real Estate converted its premier Aspen office — across Durant Avenue from gondola plaza — into an art gallery for the summer, showing and selling blue-chip artists and museum-quality works including a $13.5 million Jean-Michel Basquiat painting.

Artwork by Imi Knoebel and Dora Maurer at White Cube’s pop-up gallery on Mill Street in Aspen in June. (Tony Prikryl/Courtesy photo)

The roster of pop-up galleries that arrived here between June and August amid the pandemic included London’s White Cube, Los Angeles’s Honor Fraser, the multinational Amine Rech, Carpenters Workshop Gallery and Lehman Maupin and several Manhattan-based tastemakers including Malin Gallery and Mitchell-Innes & Nash. All came following their collector clientele who have left cities for extended stays in the mountains since spring 2020.

“It speaks to what’s happening in the market right now in contemporary art,” Christie’s deputy chair Capera Ryan said. “And the pop-ups are coming to follow people who are staying here longer.”

While the influx brought more world-class art shows to Aspen, these galleries’ willingness and ability to pay sky-high commercial rents in downtown Aspen made impenetrable the already-challenging financial barriers to entry for local artists and gallerists. Those who closed included longtime local ceramicist and gallerist Sam Harvey, who shuttered his Hopkins Avenue gallery, and D.J. Watkins, who closed the latest rendition of his itinerant Fat City Gallery on Cooper Avenue.

But the most talked-about locals’ art show of the year wasn’t in any gallery at all. Ajax Axe’s anti-billionaire spaceman project, the “Aspen Space Station,” set up on private land on the backside of Aspen Mountain last summer with works by a collective of local artists. It’s due for a return in 2022.

The Aspen Art Museum also drew worldwide attention with “Andy Warhol: Lifetimes” when it opened in early December. This museum-wide career survey of the Pop artist is a monumental curatorial achievement for the museum and an institutional triumph for director Nicola Lees, who took over the museum during the pandemic and has attempted to guide it through the countless challenges posed by the pandemic.

A new museum is also expected to open its doors in the year ahead.

Quietly, on the residential south edge of the Aspen Institute campus, construction plugged along in 2021 and completed for the 8,000-square-foot Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies. The museum had been slated to welcome its first guests in a private reception this week. That event, its public opening and the unveiling of its opening show “Herbert Bayer: An Introduction” are on hold now until the latest surge of coronavirus subsides. But in 2022 this museum and center for study promises to create a new pillar of visual arts in Aspen that its boosters hope might soon stand beside the Aspen Art Museum and Anderson Ranch Arts Center as both an exhibition space and a community resource.

“A lot of what I’m very excited about this year is learning how the Bayer Center can be a meaningful resource for different kinds of community here,” director James Merle Thomas said this week.

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