Peter Waanders takes the helm at Anderson Ranch Arts Center |

Peter Waanders takes the helm at Anderson Ranch Arts Center

Peter Waanders begins tenure as executive director of Anderson Ranch on Tuesday.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Peter Waanders, the new president and CEO of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, has an origin story that mirrors that of many an accidental Aspenite.

He came to town two decades ago for what he thought was a short stay, taking on a consulting job with Explore booksellers.

“And like every Aspen story, that short gig is still going on 20 years later,” Waanders, 49, said before Christmas in the Ranch’s library on its Snowmass Village campus.

Along the way, he built a career, got married, had two kids, and settled at the North Forty. So when Anderson Ranch went looking for a new leader, they found one, in Waanders, just down the road from its campus. After nearly a yearlong search for an executive to replace retiring executive director Nancy Wilhelms, Anderson Ranch last month tapped Waanders. His first day on the job is Tuesday.

“We conducted an international search to find the right fit for this president and CEO role, and are delighted to have found someone with knowledge, enthusiasm and a tremendous reputation right in our own backyard,” Sue Hostetler, chair of the Ranch’s board of trustees said in announcing Waanders’ hiring last month.

After his stint at Explore, Waanders did work for a local accountant, through which he met the influential Aspen gallerist David Floria. Waanders became a partner in Floria’s much loved — and sorely missed since its closure — gallery space. It was there that he met art collectors and local philanthropists, which propelled in 2011 to take on the role of director of the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows donor group, which gives paying fellows access to private Institute sessions with policy and issue experts from a wide range of fields.

There, the Indiana native and University of Pennsylvania alumnus honed his stills in both business and programming.

“Society of Fellows is a little business — you’ve got programming, clients, budget and staff,” he said. “It felt like, ‘How do you run a little business and help people be their best?’”

Like the Anderson Ranch post, his Institute duties included a lot of fundraising. There is significant overlap in the donors and potential donors between the two, he said.

“The summer people that drive the success of all of our nonprofits, the Ranch is always in the top three or four nonprofits they talk about,” Waanders said.

In terms of getting people to write checks, there also is a lot of crossover in fundraising strategy between Society of Fellows and Anderson Ranch, Waanders said. Raising money at the Institute, he explained, was based around finding areas that donors cared about and providing them experiences at seminars with experts in those areas.

“The philosophy was not, ‘How much money can I get this philanthropist to give, but what is this philanthropist passionate about and how can I get connected?’” Waanders explained.

He hopes to do the same at Anderson Ranch, he said, “to have that same model of saying ‘Get your hands dirty, hang out in the woodworking shop, and invest in what you’re really passionate about.’ … I hope to introduce people to what we do here and let them get excited about what they are excited about.”

He hopes to build upon the Ranch’s international reputation in the art world and among its community of local artists to expand its base of participants and supporters.

“There is a huge opportunity of people who would love what the Ranch offers but haven’t connected with what it is, because they haven’t put their feet on the campus,” he said. “Once you do, it’s a magical experience.”

Waanders is not an artist, though he’s proud of the shipping crate he converted into a backyard fort for his children. That, he said, is fitting for an organization built on democratic artistic ideals and being open to all creative people.

“The idea is that everyone is a maker and everyone has this in their life,” he said. “They can learn from experts, deepen their understanding and deepen their skills. It’s part of what excited me about being at the Ranch.”

An art enthusiast, he has works hanging in his home including a Robert Kelly collage, a Carol Summers print, a Caio Fonseca painting, an April Vollmer woodcut and works by Aspen art figures including Herbert Bayer, painter Richard Carter, ceramicist and Anderson Ranch stalwart Sam Harvey and Anderson Ranch trustee Lloyd Schermer.

Waanders takes the helm of the Ranch after a stretch of successes under Wilhelms, who took the reins in 2013 as the nonprofit was recovering from an employee embezzlement that robbed some $736,000 from the nonprofit between 2007 and 2009, and the abrupt departure of director Barbara Bloemink after she clashed with the board of trustees. The five years since have seen the Ranch’s free Summer Series talks become one of the most talked about events of the season, making it a destination for luminaries like Frank Stella and Ai Weiwei, hosting residencies from emerging artists as well as established stars like the Haas Brothers and Tom Sachs, new scholarships to attract a more economically diverse student base, a new intensive mentorship program and the build-up of an $8.5 million endowment.

“The Ranch is in a really strong position,” Waanders said. “It’s not a turn-around. It’s not a start-up. It’s a ramp-up. They’ve got a great staff, great artists, a great reputation. I hope I can come in and help people to do their best.”

Many of the recent initiatives at the Ranch resulted from a five-year strategic plan aimed at growth through 2020. Waanders will be in charge of the vision beyond that.

Named to the post last month, Waanders has used the interim — while he’s still been working full-time at the Institute — on what he dubbed a “curiosity tour” of the Ranch, taking time to understand how it works.

The Ranch has restructured its top job for Waanders, with him serving as a CEO alongside a rotating co-head “curator in residence.” One of his first duties is to find the first curator. Waanders and the Ranch board will fine tune the duties and funding for that position in the coming days, aiming to hire the first resident curator in the next 90 days. He’s meeting with artists, collectors and Ranch board members to refine ideas for the position.

“Doing it right is more important to me and to Sue than to do it quickly,” Waanders said.

The curator’s specialty, Waanders suggested, might drive the programming at the Ranch, build programs and exhibitions around the curator’s passions and expertise.

“That brings in a fresh way of looking at things on an annual or every-two-year basis,” he said. “The idea that this curator could build this energy around a new idea is that no matter how long you have been involved with the Ranch, you are looking at next year as a new way to think about it and have fun with it.”