Aspen’s New Art Museum
24-Hour Grand Opening
6.00 am, Sunday August 10, 2014
In the decade-plus that I have spent here in the Roaring Fork Valley I have trouble recalling a more divisive and outright emotional issue to grip the community than the size, scale and outright ‘New Yorkness’ of our new improved and massively enlarged Aspen Art Museum. Yes, the one with the turtles crawling around on its roof with I-pads strapped to their backs.
With a total square footage running into the thirty thousands the new museum serves as a stark contrast to the old re-purposed electric power station on a leafy bank of the river a quarter mile down the road. In stature, prominence, outlook and prestige the new museum building doesn’t so much dwarf its surroundings as devour every square inch of entitlement generously afforded to it by the City of Aspen council by a 4 to 1 vote.
Interestingly enough the only dissenting vote back then was cast by current mayor Steve Skadron. Tensions however continue to rise as the controversial structure rolls out the welcome mat to a suspicious, perhaps even hostile local community. Tempers are at such a pique that only the other day the presiding mayor at the time planning permission was given for the new building, Mick Ireland, was attacked and punched while attending a picnic in a public park. Admittedly the assailant was in his mid-eighties, but ’round these parts that’s about as radical as it gets.
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Why not take a 3 minute Virtual Video Slideshow Tour?
To see the place from bottom to top, from inside and out, in 180 seconds, just click on the link above.
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When I first heard that as part of the new Aspen Art Museum’s Grand Opening the building would fling open it’s doors for 24 straight hours I made an immediate decision to set my alarm and time my visit for 6:00 am Sunday morning as I imagined that by this hour the night crowd would have finally made their way home, and the early birds would yet to be rolling up with their yoga mats in readiness for the 7 O’clock ‘Sunrise Yoga and Meditation Session’ (Level 3 by the way). And so it proved, the streets were empty to the point of desertion, and there was hardly a sound to disturb the peaceful dreams of a city still deep in Sunday morning slumber.
The pictures you are seeing, and are about to see, are my first glimpse of the new structure, and freed from the fear of being taken out by a distracted SUV I was able to make full use of the empty streets and approach the larger-than-life building from the vantage of the wide cloak of asphalt…. and I have to report that, from everything I have heard and read about the size/design/imposition of the thing, to my genuine surprise I was rather taken by it. Yes, it’s big… brutal even (though not in the architectural sense), but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by it. I had read about the screen but I had not expected it to be constructed of woven wood. The effect, I thought, was rather grand.
Yes people, I know this might be hard to believe but in Aspen this constitutes a ‘big building’, a very big building indeed as a matter of fact… hence the controversy.
However, in the scheme of things we are talking about one floor of excess and a wrap-around screen that speaks of New York…. at least to us.
However, I found the screen rather nice… mesmerizing in fact. As a sculptural form alone it strikes me as a new Aspen icon, but as I was to discover as I stepped inside, a facade is just one of its functions, for once the threshold has been crossed these very same interlacing patterns serve to contain and protect those within, creating in the process a sanctuary of diffused light and cloistered, almost secretive, spaces.
The more I gazed at the screen the more intrigued I became. ‘Wouldn’t it be something to climb right up to the top?’
To be honest I was so enthralled by the exterior that it took me quite a while to actually enter the building.
With the new shinier than shiny mirror finish selfie opportunities abound.
But eventually I tore myself away from gazing at the building’s interlaced exterior and stepped inside the determinedly inconspicuous lobby.
I wouldn’t call the lobby friendly or inviting, but serviceable in an austere utilitarian way. The staff were helpful if not peppy, and the gift shop was surprisingly tucked under the stairs… but what stairs!
We’ll get to this cascading feature in a little while, but for now its time to dip into the first gallery.
The first thing I noticed was the lighting… very white and bright, flat, and very odd, at least to my eyes. However, such seems to be the way with contemporary art galleries these days (alas).
Not wishing to play the Philistine I will focus my attention on the sculptural merits of the building rather than critique the art on offer within.
Doorways throughout the museum were generally very tall and very narrow, making exits and entries a communal affair even at 6:30 on a Sunday Morning.
Climbing to the second floor the exhibit space was covered in cardboard, paper and distinctly temporary buildings. Hmmmmn, informative, but art?
I can’t really say that this exhibit held my attention for very long, and so within moments of leaving the ground floor I found myself on the roof.
It was only later that I realized that this section of the museum is actually open to the public, free of charge. Access is gained by the exterior staircase that we shall see in a moment, but for Aspenites, and all those visiting the city, the new Art Museum has, I believe, created an instant classic, nay icon, with this bold, extravagant penthouse of a public meeting place.
The museum is not yet a day old and yet locals are already doing what they do best, accompanied by 800 or so variations of Erik Satie’s modal ‘Vexations’, a rather morose backdrop to an otherwise quite exhilarating occasion.
Pianists came, and went… the Satie continued on. and on
Meanwhile the ‘Sunrise Yoga’ people began to arrive.
A ‘guard’ casually invited me to ‘grab a mat’ and join in, but I respectfully declined the offer. It was after all not even seven in the morning, and these people, well, they’re “Level 3”. I rest my case.
The infamous turtle exhibit was strangely lacking in turtles… strapped with I-pads or otherwise.
No sign, no explanation as to their absence, just gone. I did not see a single turtle, or I-pad for that matter.
Personally I have to break my silence on the art and say that I think this turtle exhibit is the silliest piece of nonsense I have heard of in a long time. Admire the turtles for their natural sculptural perfection, or leave the blighters alone. I’ll leave it at that.
But I will say that the rooftop looks like an exciting and welcome addition to the list of downtown Aspen cafe options, especially with access being totally free to the public. And what views! I can’t think of another in downtown that comes close to the Museum’s upfront and personal view of Ajax mountain and its famous ski runs.
Which brings us back to the stairs – those stairs. Those amazing stairs.
To put it simply – the stairs dominate the building. The stairs are the building.
Three flights up, three flights down. With direct access to the street I can see this fast becoming a favorite Aspen promenade.
It was only while I was descending these stairs that I realize that I had missed a floor – the basement, and so I promptly set to put that right.
Not wishing to be unkind I have to say that the basement experience left me extremely unimpressed. But why? Why exhibit art this way? Who wants their art served up in such drab artless fashion?
The longer I was down there the more depressing the picture became. This is no way to treat art.
For a brief moment I thought I had stumbled across a rather interesting, or at least perplexing sculptural installation, but it turned out to be the bean bags left over from the ‘Dream Interpretive Activity’ that had just let out moments earlier. Minutes after this picture was taken the bags were unceremoniously carted away and order duly restored.
So, what about the art? I am going to dodge the bullet by claiming that, beanbags and missing I-pad clad turtles aside I didn’t lay eyes on much in the way of sculpture and so I’ll keep my opinions to myself, but to give you an idea here’s a sampling of what was hanging on the museum’s walls:
By-the-way, bright overhead lights and reflective glass makes for a poor artistic experience in my opinion. Yes, yes… “insurance”… “the risk”…. etc etc, but really, is this what we are now to expect from our ‘leading’ museums?
And so, climbing out of the basement and back out onto the street my inaugural visit to Aspen’s new Art Museum was at an end… and still it was barely 7:30 on a summer Sunday morn.
Gathering my thoughts I took one last look at that crisp new facade.
Yes, it’s big. Yes it’s bold… and it’s certainly brash.
Whichever way you look at it a little bit of New York has now lodged itself on a block of little ol’ Aspen’s downtown. But what of it?
I must admit that when I first heard about this “monstrosity” I braced myself to be shocked… shocked I tell you, that such a ugly edifice should invade the ‘Out West’ status quo that has governed the city’s character for decades. But with the arrival of this game-changer of a building I find myself not only softening to the brash newcomer, but positively smitten and intrigued by it.
I might be wrong but I have the sneaky suspicion that more than a few people will be impressed once they actually step inside the building, especially if they make it all the way up to the third floor. For whatever I, or you, or anyone else thinks about the actual art on display within its walls, as Steve Skadron, our formerly dissenting mayor so succinctly put it: it’s here and we’d all better get used to it.
My take on that would be: “It’s here, better use it”. And you know…. it doesn’t look so bad, once the shock of the new is given time to subside.
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