Meredith Carroll: The art museum they don’t see |

Meredith Carroll: The art museum they don’t see

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

If you’d left Aspen in 2011, returned in 2014 and did nothing but read the letters to the editor sections in the local papers to catch up on anything significant that transpired in your absence, you probably wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the new Aspen Art Museum ate the old Wienerstube restaurant. And not in an accidental “Oh, that was your lunch in the fridge at work? Gosh, I’m sorry; I didn’t know because it didn’t have a name on it” kind of way. On the contrary, it’s more like: “Did you hear? Godzilla ruthlessly devoured a baby bunny that was just minding its own adorable business. What a tragedy! Godzilla is definitely the worst.”

Yet no matter what the Chicken Littles say (“A hideous monstrosity of an anti-culture structure shoved into the heart of our town,” one letter-writer wrote in The Aspen Times last year), the Aspen Art Museum did not, in fact, eat the Wienerstube or even just take a bite out its schnitzel. What it did was artfully seize an opportunity to own a prime piece of downtown real estate and negotiated resolutely with the Aspen City Council, which voted 4-1 in favor of the deal.

Still, there are those who’ve had more difficulty than others moving past the Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Shigeru Ban’s museum design, which The New York Times lauded as being “as much a work of art (on the outside) as its contents.” (To be fair, another letter-writer denounced it as “an ugly, offensive, obnoxious, square building that does not fit into our quaint mountain town.”)

Unlike diverging sentiments regarding the building’s aesthetics, though, what’s inarguable is the impressive size of the museum’s endowment, which will go a long way toward ensuring its longevity. How it came to be and that it will endure is precisely what seems to give agita to those who continue grappling with the museum’s presence — and that also may be why they won’t acknowledge how it has proven to contribute to, and not detract from, the community.

Aspen City Councilman Bert Myrin is among the people struggling with channeling Taylor Swift and shaking it off. At a City Council meeting in December, he referenced the development of the museum as “an experiment gone bad.” And in an email last week, he spoke of how “little, if any, vitality the (museum) adds to (the corner of Hyman and Spring)” compared to the City Market parking lot.

“The (museum) should have built (sic) respecting the surroundings like Harris Hall, where what’s inside influences people rather than what’s outside,” Myrin said. “But that is the difference between old Aspen and new Aspen, where what’s inside matters more than what’s outside, and this applies to people as well as buildings.”

Besides mythical monsters allegedly gobbling up cute baby animals for breakfast, though, Myrin didn’t reply when asked what, if anything, he actually knows about the museum’s programs and initiatives, which are ample, thoughtful and far-reaching.

Heidi Zuckerman, the museum’s CEO and director, said she and her staff approach “community engagement with the mindset that the museum plays a critical role in supporting the work that our community does by connecting their efforts to the broad-based critical thinking that artists do and the exposure to their original works that a museum setting provide.”

“We begin collaborations,” she said, “by asking how we can enhance work that our community partners always do, asking, ‘What else could be possible through the lens of art?’”

This includes a museum-sponsored program at the Pitkin County Jail where inmates are given an opportunity every other week to express their artistic sides. Jail Administrator Don Bird says the inmates who participate “find real value to it.”

“It’s an opportunity for them to express a talent that they may know they have but have never really considered,” Bird said. “It’s also a good way to combat forced idleness.”

The museum also sees every client at the Youth Recovery Center, Colorado’s only inpatient rehabilitation program for minors suffering from substance-abuse and behavioral issues. Furthermore, the museum’s front-of-house staff has been trained by the Aspen Hope Center to “create a welcoming environment,” which means patients receiving outpatient care from the Individual Intensive Outpatient Program can think of the building as a designated “safe house.”

Free lunches are provided to all visiting school groups, some of which travel from as many as 100 miles away for the Exhibition in a Box program. While a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips may not sound like the sexiest benefit, it can be significant for many students not always able to leave school for special activities because of a reliance on subsidized lunches.

High school students in the museum’s Young Curators of the Roaring Fork program get real-world experience producing an exhibition. Arte en Espanol, a program hosted in collaboration with 107.1 La Tricolor, brings art to the Spanish-speaking community through on-air interviews and on-site programs in Spanish. Active Art brings art to the Pitkin County Senior Center and Heritage Park Senior Center in Carbondale. Through their tactile experiences in art, inpatient residents suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s in the Carbondale program have started demonstrating positive memory responses.

Zuckerman also recently started hosting informal, intimate community gatherings with the museum’s visiting artists “as a way to connect them to local leaders that share interests” on topics including animal rights, civic development and the empowerment of women.

Along with admission to the museum, most of the programs and services provided are free of charge because of Zuckerman’s success at raising funds to offset expenses. While her fundraising prowess on behalf of a commendable agenda should be even more reason to celebrate the museum, some use it instead as another excuse to fling mud.

Of course it’s not all that difficult to separate the existence or physical appearance of a building from the work done by those who occupy it or that with whom it’s associated. The crumbling, neglected Canadian prime minister’s mansion doesn’t reflect poorly on the wildly popular Justin Trudeau, for instance. Or looked at another way, your (probable) feelings for Donald Trump don’t mean you can’t relish a stay in a 5-star Trump Hotel that boasts beds adorned with Bellino Italian linens and marble bathrooms featuring deep-soaking tubs.

Certainly those who’ve made bashing the museum an art form have no obligation to start praising it, however, they might rethink trying to bury something that functions to elevate the same community they make it seem as if they’re trying to protect.

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