Guest commentary: The Aspen Art Museum: misconceptions and history
For a town with so much history — both in its 19th-century silver boom to its 20th-century rebirth as unique laboratory for sport and intellect — we often are stunned at how so many — visitors and, alas no small number of late arrived residents — remain ignorant of what Aspen was then and is now.
Only a few weeks ago at an Aspen Historical Society panel with noted local luminaries from the 1970s, a moderator asked the important question about what made Aspen such a special place to have drawn them here, and not one of the guests nor the moderator seemed to recall that it was Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke whose vision and investments in Aspen in the wake of World War II had created the physical, cultural and intellectual infrastructure that today, 60 some years later, are the pillars of our unique hamlet in the mountains.
The most recent example of this historical amnesia came in no less than the cultural pages of The Wall Street Journal in an article of shocking inaccuracies about the new Aspen Art Museum due to open its doors Aug. 9. Written by a reporter named Kelly Crow — who seems to have breezed into town for so short a time she thought the new museum building by renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was being built on Independence Pass — the article was riddled with error of fact and devoid of knowledge.
As some of the original founders of the Aspen Art Museum, we were astounded by the fact that Crow seemed totally unaware of the rich history of the contemporary visual arts in this valley that inspired, created and drove the Aspen Art Museum exhibitions since its founding in 1979. That she referred to the 35-year-old museum as a “local showcase for traveling exhibits of crafts and Western memorabilia” shows a level of ignorance that leaves us speechless.
Had she had the minimum curiosity to read former museum director Dean Sobel’s book “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen 1945 — 2004” (which was given to her by the museum), she would have learned that since the end of World War II, Aspen had been a showcase for cutting-edge art movements from the post-war Bauhaus to pop and minimalism and beyond.
Long before we founded the Aspen Art Museum in the old Holy Cross Power Plant on the Roaring Fork, contemporary artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichenstein, Donald Judd, Robert Indiana, Christo and Ana Mendieta had trooped here to be exhibited in shows at the Aspen Institute and John Powers’ Aspen Center for Contemporary Art (dubbed in the 1960s as the Museum Without Walls).
When we decided to found the museum with walls, it was with the specific goal of continuing that tradition with the new artists of our time so that the visual arts in Aspen would have the same visibility and status as its other cultural offerings in music, dance and theater. Our articles of incorporation, under the name of the Aspen Center for Visual Arts, state our aim most clearly: “To establish and maintain a visual-arts facility offering educational exposure to a wide variety of visual arts, both passively in form of exhibitions and actively through lectures and guided tours.”
It was the mission the art museum has pursued from its founding to today. Far from offering crafts and Western memorabilia, as Crow maintains, the art museum since its inception has brought to Aspen the works of such art luminaries as Diane Arbus, Chuck Close, William de Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Laurie Anderson, Meg Webster, Andy Goldsworthy, Ed Ruscha and hundreds of others.
From the beginning, we as its founders hoped that in time the Center for Visual Arts — which officially changed its name to the Aspen Art Museum in 1984 — would grow and flourish and that the time would come when it would outgrow its limited spaces in the old power plant and find a bigger and better space to preview the ever-evolving world of contemporary art today.
We — as artists, art lovers and museum founders — are delighted that this day is finally upon us with the opening next month of Shigeru Ban’s new museum building. That such a new, architectural monument in our town has drawn controversy is only to be expected given how change is so hard for Aspen. But we who have been in it and seen its great exhibition spaces can only applaud that the visual arts we have so long championed have a new and wonderful home in Aspen. It is a wonderful gift to art — and to our town.
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Vagneur: Today’s the big local’s day, even though the celebrating may need to be a bit different this year.