Anderson Ranch Arts Center celebrates 50 years

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Students at work in Anderson Ranch's ceramics studio. This summer, as the ranch celebrates its 50th anniversary, more than 1,000 students will take part in more than 150 workshops on the Snowmass Village campus.
Courtesy Anderson Ranch |

Paul Soldner didn’t believe in grades or traditional student-teacher hierarchies. So in the late 1950s in Aspen, when some locals asked the influential ceramicist and champion of what became known as the “American raku” technique to teach them how to make pottery, he simply gathered them around kilns and clay in a downtown storefront, told them what he knew and operated it as an artists co-op.

Freely sharing artistic knowledge, encouraging experimentation and helping emerging artists find a voice were among the founding principles of what became the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer.

Soldner, in an oral history recorded in 2003 with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, recalled a chance mid-’60s meeting with a developer at a local cocktail party. As tourism and development of what was then called Snowmass-at-Aspen ramped up, the group was interested in starting a community arts center in the burgeoning resort. They had purchased four ranches in the area of what would become Snowmass Village (the town wasn’t incorporated until 1977). Though Soldner was dubious about an investment group pushing ski resorts and golf courses, he was grateful and surprised when it offered one of its ranches to Soldner and his students.

“Well, we couldn’t believe our luck,” Soldner, who died in 2011, said in the recording.

“The whole summer is wrapped with a golden bow, and within the summer is a very special week, which is our 50th-anniversary week. It contains something for everyone.”Nancy WilhelmsExecutive director, Anderson Ranch Arts Center

He had his pick of the ranches. One situated above the Brush Creek Valley, which had long been operated by the Anderson family, captured his imagination.

“It was a mixture of falling-down log cabins and barns and things, but it had a character to it that we really felt was a little better than some of the other farms that were a little bit more formal,” Soldner said. “It also happened to be up on the road, whereas the others were down in the meadows and beautiful sites, so it was a temptation to go to the meadow. But we decided to stick with the road and took over the lambing shed, where they used to have lambs, and we got out all the manure and threw it out and put in concrete floors, built some wheels, built some kilns and continued the cooperative out there.”

Such were the humble origins of what would become the world-renowned Anderson Ranch, which now hosts more than 1,000 students in 150 workshops every summer and brings some of the brightest and boldest minds of the art world to its rustic environs.

That lambing shed still houses the Long Studio and one of the ranch’s ceramics buildings. An original ranch house now hosts a library and meeting rooms. In all, the pastoral campus now holds about 55,000 square feet of building space, including studios for artists working in every medium — from photography and painting to digital arts and woodworking and, of course, ceramics.


Soldner’s vision for the ranch was an alternative to the formalities of graduate schools for artists — a place where less experienced artists could learn from high-caliber working artists. It began as a pure cooperative with students working for the chance to learn. That approach quickly began to evolve. The ranch affiliated itself with Colorado Mountain College in 1968 and then, in a crucial turn in 1973, became an autonomous nonprofit that eventually called itself the Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

But the philosophical core of the organization has stayed true to Soldner’s vision.

“When Paul Soldner communicated about what he wanted for Anderson Ranch, his comments were, ‘It’s a center, not a school,’ and the values that he set up were things like small class sizes, 24/7 studio access, and those still hold,” said today’s executive director, Nancy Wilhelms. “That was 50 years ago, but that is Anderson Ranch today.”

The ranch does charge students tuition these days, but its scholarship partnerships help bring leading artists to Snowmass from university art programs across the U.S.

“These are the artists of the future,” Wilhelms said. “Our programs are working with young artists to become our leading contemporary artists or faculty members at major institutions or art critics.”

In the 1970s, Tuesday-night potluck dinners at the ranch helped bond the artists-in-residence with the Snowmass community. (In recent years, the free Summer Series lectures from leading international artists and irreverent lunchtime auctionettes have had a similar effect.)

In those days, the campus included one of Soldner’s custom hot tubs, in which he was known to lounge in the nude.

Along with Soldner, the ranch was shepherded in its early nonprofit days by photographer Cherie Hiser, woodworker Sam Maloof and art dealer Mary Martin.

“They were trendsetters, people out there breaking the mold, people with big ideas,” Wilhelms said.

Another key turning point came in 1979, when the organization was deeded its land and began investing in and expanding the facilities on campus. In 1981, the ranch began winterizing its barns and buildings to host year-round events. (Though summer is still its peak as a creative hive, the ranch now hosts artist residencies through winter, along with art exhibitions in its Patton-Malott Gallery and regular apres-ski gatherings.)

That year also marked the beginning of visiting-artists programs at the ranch, which have become a cornerstone of it today. A veritable who’s who of contemporary artists have made pilgrimages to Snowmass to make new work, critique students and visit studios: Marina Abramovic, Ed Ruscha, Theaster Gates, Frank Stella, Kara Walker, Bill Viola and Catherine Opie (who returns this summer) among them. Sculptor Tom Sachs will be making new work at the ranch in July, which includes an open studio session to which the public is welcome.

The ranch’s openness to innovation and experimentation has helped it stay relevant through the decades. In 1995, for example, ranch photography students (including actor and artist Dennis Hopper) were among the first to beta test a new program called Adobe Photoshop 1.0. A studio packed with 3-D printers and digital fabrication tools, known as the “fab lab,” opened two years ago with an eye on the new frontiers of art-making.

Anderson Ranch is celebrating its 50th year all summer, but the week of July 17 to 22 is its apex — along with Sachs’ open studio session, it’ll include the revelation of a 50th-anniversary print by painter Simon Haas created on-site, a talk by painters Fred Tomaselli and Tom Burckhardt, and a dinner honoring photographer Carrie Mae Weems, fashion icon Domenico De Sole and champion of the arts Eleanore De Sole. The free Summer Series talks (July 7 through Aug. 11) include leading lights of the contemporary art world, from photographer Alex Prager and sculptor Charles Ray to visual artists Titus Kaphar, Thomas Houseago and Liza Lou to New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz and Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin.

“The whole summer is wrapped with a golden bow, and within the summer is a very special week, which is our 50th-anniversary week,” Wilhelms said. “It contains something for everyone.”

Editor’s note: This story also appears in Summer in Snowmass, a magazine published by The Aspen Times.