Year in Review: A Turning Point for the Arts in Aspen

Paperless tickets and vaccination cards are verified when attendees enter the Aspen Art Museum for the Monty Alexander Trio Rooftop Show at the JAS June Experience in downtown Aspen on Friday, June 25, 2021 (Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times)
Pianist Matthew Whitaker performs in an Aspen Music Festival and School Recital to open the summer season on Thursday, July 1, 2021, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert / The Aspen Times

Just days apart in early summer 2021, the Aspen Snowmass June Experience Jazz and Aspen Music Festival opened for the city’s first major musical performances in 15 months. They welcomed exuberant, vaccinated and unmasked crowds to locations across the city as it looked like the disruption from the coronavirus pandemic was ending here.

Meanwhile, half a dozen pop-up art galleries from major multinational players in the contemporary art market have opened downtown and are remaking the local gallery scene, confirming that the urban exodus from the pandemic is moving and that the financial windfall it brought to the world’s richest people would reshape Aspen’s artistic landscape.

Music festivals continued and hosted historic return seasons, as did the Belly Up Aspen concert hall and Theater Aspen, including the launch of a program diversity initiative at Music Fest and a JAS Labor Day festival. success that brought some 24,000 spectators safe and sound to Snowmass Municipal Park.

But, as the string of cancellations and closures at the end of December has shown, the pandemic has not finished disrupting the performing arts here.

On the opening night of the Aspen Music Festival in June, moments before pianist Matthew Whitaker takes the stage at the Benedict Music Tent, longtime local Bill Dinsmoor – who is entering his 50th season as a spectator of Music Fest with his wife, Jane – commented with foresight, “The fun and what gets people excited is that it’s getting back to normal and hopefully it doesn’t go into COVID 2 with it.” another variant to come. “

As the delta and omicron variants now lead to record local outbreaks, the way forward for the performing arts in 2021 appears to include cancellations (like the one at the Wheeler Opera House this week and those at the Arts Campus in Willits since opening. new location in Midvalley this fall) and moving forward with vaccine requirements (as Belly Up and the JAS Café are doing).

The disruptions of the pandemic led Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to disband its company in March 2021, ending a 25-year period in which the organization gained worldwide acclaim and became an unlikely pioneer for the contemporary dance. The nonprofit continued to run its ballet schools and popular Folklorico program, but the loss of its beloved productions left an undeniable hole in the summer artistic calendar as it came to life in 2021. and meant, for the first time in recent memory, Aspen didn’t have any performances of “The Nutcracker” this winter.

The coming year will likely determine whether a new Aspen-based contemporary dance company can fill the void.

Dance Aspen, a new group founded by former dancers from Aspen Santa Fe, debuted with a sold-out performance at The Wheeler in September. The seven-member society is poised to keep the audience and local donors loyal to Aspen Santa Fe. Director Laurel Winton – a former Aspen Santa Fe dancer – hopes she can raise enough funds to support the full-time dancers and a program of public performances throughout the year: we stay here and want us to be one thing. And there is definitely enough support there.

Kaya Wolsey and Anthony Tiedeman in Danielle Rowe’s ballet “For Pixie”, created by Dance Aspen at the Wheeler Opera House in September. (Rosalie O’Connor / Aspen Dance)

New and broader government funding for beginners like Dance Aspen is expected to start arriving in 2022, thanks to the November 2021 ballot victory of an initiative that changes how funds can be used from transfer tax. real estate supporting the City-owned Wheeler Opera House. Passage of the measure – it won 71% of the city’s vote – lifted the annual cap of $ 100,000 on grants for local arts organizations from Wheeler’s tax collections and also changed the way the Red Brick City-owned Center for the Arts is funded.

The big unknown in the coming year is how the city will distribute the grants of the 4 to 5 million dollars generated each year by the transfer tax, as the amounts and the process were not detailed in the poll measurement. . If the grants are managed competently – and this is a big if for Aspen city officials, as many critics noted during the campaign – these grants could lead to a flowering of new programs and resources. arts and culture serving both Aspen’s full-time population and its tourism economy, building on the $ 451 million economic impact the arts had before the pandemic.

City officials also appear to have rescued the city’s only cinema once again, with a renegotiated, lower-priced lease on the city-owned Isis Theater for Aspen Film, which struggled to generate revenue during the pandemic. Ratified in November, the new lease appears to ensure that ticket revenues can support Isis as a business and end discussions over Aspen’s loss of its cinema.

As movie attendance plummeted, art galleries exploded in Aspen in 2021.

The contemporary art market here was considered so hot that Christie’s International Real Estate converted its first Aspen office – across Durant Avenue from Gondola Square – into an art gallery for summer, showcasing and selling top-notch artists and museum-quality works, including a $ 13.5 million painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Artwork by Imi Knoebel and Dora Maurer at the White Cube pop-up gallery on Mill Street in Aspen in June. (Tony Prikryl / Courtesy photo)

The list of pop-up galleries that arrived here between June and August in the midst of the pandemic included White Cube from London, Honor Fraser from Los Angeles, multinational Amine Rech, Carpenters Workshop Gallery and Lehman Maupin and several taste makers based in Manhattan, including Malin Gallery and Mitchell- Innes & Nash. All came to follow their clientele of collectors who have left the cities for extended stays in the mountains since spring 2020.

“This reflects what is happening in the contemporary art market right now,” said Capera Ryan, Christie’s vice president. “And the pop-ups are coming in to track people who are staying here longer. “

As the influx has brought more world-class art exhibitions to Aspen, the willingness and ability of these galleries to pay sky-high commercial rents in downtown Aspen have made the already difficult financial barriers impenetrable. entry for local artists and gallery owners. Those who closed included longtime local ceramist and gallery owner Sam Harvey, who closed his Hopkins Avenue gallery, and DJ Watkins, who closed the latest performance of his traveling Fat City gallery on Cooper Avenue.

But the most talked about local art exhibit of the year was not in any gallery. Ajax Ax’s anti-billionaire space project, the “Aspen Space Station,” took to private land behind Aspen Mountain last summer with artwork from a collective of local artists. He is expected to return in 2022.

The Aspen Art Museum also grabbed the world’s attention with “Andy Warhol: Lifetimes” when it opened in early December. This museum-wide investigation into the pop artist’s career is a monumental achievement for the museum and an institutional triumph for director Nicola Lees, who took over the museum during the pandemic and attempted to guide it through the countless challenges posed by the pandemic.

A new museum is also expected to open in the coming year.

Quietly, on the residential southern edge of the Aspen Institute campus, construction began in 2021 and completed for the 8,000 square foot Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies. The museum was due to welcome its first guests at a private reception this week. This event, its public opening and the unveiling of its opening show “Herbert Bayer: An Introduction” are now on hold until the latest wave of coronavirus subsides. But in 2022, this museum and study center promises to create a new visual arts mainstay in Aspen that its promoters hope will soon be able to stand next to the Aspen Art Museum and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center as exhibition space. and community resource.

“A lot of what excites me this year is learning how the Bayer Center can be a meaningful resource for different types of communities here,” Director James Merle Thomas said this week.

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