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The Arts Get High in Aspen

by Gail Sachson 19 Aug 2014 10:28 AM

Aspen’s new downtown art museum – designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect – has just opened – with celebratory fireworks and commissioned exhibitions from a noted Chinese artist. Oh yes, and also protests, calls for boycotts and controversies about tortoises, iPads and height restrictions.


2._AAM_ExteriorThe new Aspen Art Museum. Photo credit: Roger Adams, Aspen Public Radio

Guest Blogger Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering lectures, tours and program planning.  A part-time Aspen resident, Sachson will present a virtual tour and discussion of the controversial , privately funded, spectacular new Aspen Art Museum at SMU on October 8th from 6-7:30. 

The new 33,000 sq. ft, four-story-tall Aspen Art Museum opened to the public August 9th. Its presence in downtown Aspen — just a few blocks away, but miles away in a visitor’s mindset, from its old building — added  even one more meaning to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”  How high is too high?

There are those who say the museum is too tall.  Too big. Too out of place in the old Colorado mining town, where neighboring structures might be from the 1800s and prior zoning restricted tall buildings.  A free, 24-hour opening celebration was great fun — with a crowd-pleasing Dixieland jazz band, midnight silent dancing (with earphones not to upset the neighbors), lectures, panel discussions, food tastings and tours. But the party did not convince some feisty Aspenites that the boxy, woven-wood-clad building belonged in Aspen. The fact that the architect, Japanese-born Shigeru Ban, had just won the 2014 Pritzker Prize for architecture did not change their minds. It was deemed a “catalyst for a chasm in the community.” And that it is.

gail aspen1Weeks after the opening, the two local papers are still filled with tirades and treatises for and against the museum in op-ed columns and letters to the editor. Not much has been written about the actual art — other than the tortoises. The commissioned inaugural exhibitions by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang incited a placard-carrying protestor outside the museum, scathing letters and cries of animal cruelty and calls for boycotts. Black Lightning, a celebratory fireworks display on Aspen Mountain, reportedly caused a startled dog to jump off a second-story window, while Moving Ghost Town involved African Sulcata tortoises that roamed the roof-top pen with iPads attached to their shells.

But others applauded loudly. At least 60 community proponents and passers-by were drawn to participate in a sidewalk panel discussion of Jim Hodge’s commissioned work, “With Liberty and Justice for All ( a work in progress),” which  wrapped the words of the Pledge of Allegiance around the museum’s facade in giant reflective letters. Hodges is well-known to Dallas art lovers because of his popular 25-year retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art last year and the camouflage-painted wall he created for the sixth floor at the Wyly Theater. In Aspen, the engaged audience discussed the significance of the title phrase — which we often say mindlessly — as well as one’s personal responsibility to create a world of liberty and justice.

gail aspen2edirBut liberty and justice for tortoises was brought up as well. Shortly after Hodge spoke, a lone protestor stood on the same corner with a sign saying “Take the iPads off the Tortoises” — suggesting that the museum was not taking responsibility for tortoise liberty. They had roamed Colorado ghost towns for the three months prior to the opening, and what the tortoises passed over was recorded, then displayed on the shell-mounted tablets. Presumably, Guo-Qiang is asking us to take notice of the history of this particular place, even as it appears on 21st- century technology worn by ancient observers, animals that are known to live hundreds of years.

If the tortoises are “a marketing gimmick”  for the museum, as some have charged, Aspen businesses have been quick to piggy-back on the notoriety. Sotheby’s International Reality is offering a $5 million home with the selling point, “one block from the new Aspen Art Museum.” The nearby Mexican restaurant  El Rincon, hoping for  customers and chuckles, ran an ad depicting Mexican Chihuahuas with iPads on their backs.

But not everyone is smiling. The former mayor was allegedly punched out for having supported the construction of the museum.

So is the museum’s paper/wood/resin basket facade a welcome mat for the community? Or is it a snow-trapping welcome mat for the pigeons and reckless teenage boys testing their climbing skills (as has happened)? Is the only public roof-top deck a gift to the community? Or does its height change the cherished ski-town’s ambience — in addition to blocking the view from the neighboring multi-million dollar homes?

Eventually, the letters to the editors will stop. Another town crisis, such as the cobblestone-paved, outdoor malls being deemed unfriendly to women in high heels, will dominate dinner-party discussions. But now, thanks to private donations — including many Dallas funders — Aspen has a free, convenient, non-collecting, rotating exhibit, downtown museum, designed by a world-class architect with six galleries filled with challenging art.

It was quite a challenge. Come visit.