A new trend: Put history aside to please donors

Judith Barnard and Michael Fain

Oh, wonderful! Aspen has truly become a modern town; it has mastered the art of shedding the weight and burdens of the past, sloughing them off as inadequate for the Demands of Today. Aspen has leaped to the forefront of what is truly important, shoving aside the niceties of tradition and history to get to the core of What Really Counts. Thus our small town in a small valley in a small part of a small state becomes a role model for everyone in the whole wide world who is seeking What Really Counts.And it is made manifest in our own Aspen Institute.The Aspen Institute! Where homage is paid to the great books, the classics, the great thinkers, poets and sages of the past. The Aspen Institute, home of tradition and wisdom culled from the ages. The Aspen Institute, where today’s problems and challenges are explored by studying the practicalities, potentialities and philosophies of the past. Ah, but what did Socrates know of trying to please donors? (Good heavens! Change that name, too! It reeks of the old! Why not the Onassis Society, which does, after all, keep it in the same country of origin?)What, in fact, did Socrates or Plato or any of that gang anticipate about the niceties of fundraising in 21st-century America? What did they know of a future in which the line between funding a new building and funding the renovation of an established one whose roots reach deep to Aspen’s beginnings would become blurred and finally disappear? But Aspen knows. More important: The Aspen Institute knows, and is showing the way.And this is the direction.Begin with the Washington Monument. Good heavens, that guy’s been dead for more than a century – it’s hard to calculate, because who cares about all those dates? – and it still needs work to bring it up to where it could be, so let’s find someone with deep pockets and an even deeper desire for some kind of immortality … someone, for example, who is extremely generous but can’t resist the idea, when suggested, of his or her name on the Washington Monument. One possibility: The George Lerner Monument. Hardly anyone will notice the switch from our first general and president to the inventor of Mr. Potato Head.And what of the Lincoln Monument? This guy’s been dead forever, too, but he’s there, for heaven’s sake. At least his statue is; you don’t need a name, too. Besides, the marble needs cleaning. And you know, within two weeks of its being renamed – for instance – the Sylvan N. Goldman monument, who’ll even remember that once upon a time the name given to the monument was that of a former president instead of what’s now there: the name of the inventor of the grocery shopping cart, whose family thinks his name should be emblazoned for all to see? More to the point, who will care?And then there’s Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler/Stallard Museum. Stale names, old hat, boring. Time to move on. Forget Jerome B. Wheeler, he was just one of those New Yorkers (or Californians) who came into town with money and ambition And forget Edgar and Mary Ella Stallard, who lived for 40 years in the house Wheeler built. Long dead, totally unimportant to a modern town. Rename them all; there are plenty of people in town generous enough to pay for spiffing them up, and if they’re offered naming opportunities in return, why in the world would they turn that down?But hold on a minute. Look ahead a few years (since we’re no longer looking back). Aspen, restless Aspen, will grow and change. Along will come new residents, like Hobart and Philippa Onederfoll, with $5 or $6 million to spare, and an eye for permanent status in the hierarchy of Aspen’s greats. In the blink of an eye, the auditorium becomes the Onederfoll Auditorium … a new plaque goes up … and gone, even from memory, is the Resnick Auditorium. Immortality is short-lived these days.Truly short-lived: Aspen is still and ever restless. Here come even newer residents Algernon and Wilhelmina Fabulosini with $15 million and change, just when the building needs a new roof and a fireplace and small espresso café in the lobby – soon to be the Starbucks Lobby. And, unwilling to resist the offer of an Institute by now inured to the swift rewriting of history, the new residents agree to see their name emblazoned on what no one now remembers was known by one and all as Paepcke Auditorium, and yet again the auditorium sheds what little past it has and becomes Fabulosini Auditorium.And then Aspen – fulfilling its reputation in many parts of the world – will have reached the pinnacle, or the nadir, of bad taste.Under the name Judith Michael, Judith Barnard and Michael Fain are the authors of 11 novels and numerous magazine articles. They live in Aspen.