Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
September 7, 2010
This has been a rough summer for the arts in Aspen.
Actually, not rough for “the arts” themselves so much as rough for the arts organizations.
I’m not talking about the problems caused by the difficult economic times. Those are serious problems, but that’s part of the game. The economy rises and falls and we fall and rise with it.
The rough times in Aspen’s arts world seemed to result from a changing of the guard. It was yet another case of (WARNING! Cliche alert!) the billionaires pushing out the millionaires.
That hackneyed phrase originally referred to the obscenely high price of real estate in Aspen. Only billionaires could afford to live here.
But now those billionaires apparently decided it was time to take their rightful place at the top of the heap in the Aspen art scene. After all, “the arts” are what distinguishes Aspen from those other ski towns. If there’s social prestige to be had, it comes with seats on the boards of the top-rank arts groups. And if anything’s worth having, billionaires want to have it. (That’s how they got to be billionaires.)
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Way back in “Old Aspen” – which is to say, Old New Aspen, the Aspen of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and maybe even ’80s – the arts were run by a cadre of wealthy people who moved here because they realized what a great town Aspen was.
They were actually a pretty interesting group. They came here for the arts, for the intellectual stimulation, for the sheer beauty of the place. (You know, that whole Walter Paepcke/Aspen Idea thing. Forgive me if I skip the details.)
Back then, the “rich” of Aspen were millionaires. I didn’t know their finances, but these people were worth tens of millions certainly. Hundreds of millions in some cases, I suppose.
There was inherited money and newly made money. There were Mad Scientists and Boy Geniuses. There was Old East Coast Money and Old Hollywood Money (if you can accept that there is such a thing as Old Hollywood Money). Old Texas Money too.
The way they saw it, their presence – and their money – deserved a lot of the credit for Aspen’s re-flowering after the end of World War II (following its deflowering in the Silver Crash of 1893).
And perhaps they deserved that credit. In any case, the way they saw things was that they had created a pretty nice town for themselves. And they didn’t mind sharing it with the rest of us, as long as we all behaved.
But that was then and now that nice little mountain town of theirs has been taken away from them. No one’s been driven out of town, of course, but Big Money has shouldered its way in and Old Money is standing aside. No choice, really. The Big vs. the Old. Who do you think’s going to win?
We’ve seen brutal examples at two of Aspen’s most widely respected arts organizations. One of those nasty fights is very well known; the other, though just as rough, was less widely publicized. But in both cases, Big Money marched in, took over, and steamrolled anyone who got in the way.
Beyond that, I’m not going to get bogged down in any details today.
Dirty laundry and dark secrets, like suppressed gas, are best left unaired. (I got that from a fortune cookie.)
But I will say that any actual long-term damage to the organizations themselves will be hard to assess. Certainly it was unpleasant for the streamrollees. But Big Money can pick up an organization on it its own Broad Fiscal Shoulders and march on. The guard changes. The results? Only time will tell.
And now we must add to that roster of rough play the most recent disaster: the Aspen Art Museum. Another case of Big Money having its way.
I know some of you really do love the museum project, and – may you be forgiven your trespasses – you certainly have the full-throated right to do that.
But for my part, I can’t help thinking of the bull at the corrida – the bullfight – just a few weeks ago in the Spanish town of Tafalla. That half-ton fighting machine with sharp horns and a tiny brain somehow jumped the barrier and got loose in the stands, causing chaos and serious injury.
Now in our case, the “bull” (that’s the art museum, if this little metaphor is getting too obscure) didn’t jump. He was carried to the barrier and thrown into the crowd by a gaggle of folks who can afford that kind of gesture.
Chaos? Injury? They didn’t worry. The super-rich never do. They knew it’d all calm down eventually. And, among the many things they can afford to do, they can afford to wait.
And it all calmed down. Threats flew. Lawsuits flew. The city government collapsed in the wind. More threats flew but it was all over.
And, just as the billionaires had imposed their will on those poor people who had but a few hundred million, so they have now had their way with the city itself.
Never before – in my admittedly shaky memory, so maybe only “almost never” – has the city of Aspen just given up and bowed to the Glorious Inevitability of Big Money.
A major project that will change the face of a big chunk of downtown Aspen has been approved with a snap of the government’s fingers. Approved without review. Approved without real public comment and debate.
Approved pretty much as proposed. Approved by lawyers.
Yes, I know. We’re talking about an art museum. We’re talking about a “good thing.”
But we’re also talking about blocking views of the mountain. That’s supposed to count in a mountain town. We’re talking about casting sidewalks and streets into shadow all winter. That’s supposed to count in a sane, well-run mountain town.
We’re talking about an enormous building whose checkerboard exterior of wooden bricks will (according to the museum) “match the overall characteristics of other buildings around town.”
This, I guess, might be true – but only if the “other buildings around town” are featureless mindless hulks.
And that brings us back to that bull, running loose in the crowd. Goring and trampling any of the little people (even “little” millionaires) who dare to get in its way.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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