‘Survival is exhausting’: Aspen gallery owners collaborate after being replaced by luxury chain stores
Chain and luxury stores have been replacing locally-owned, affordable businesses around the world, and the change is particularly visible in small mountain towns like Aspen.
Amid these changes, two Aspen gallery owners found a way to collaborate this summer after they lost their spaces last year.
On a festive evening in early July, Sam Harvey and Skye Weinglass hosted the opening night of their summer pop-up gallery in Aspen.
The small, bright space was filled with colorful paintings, textiles and ceramics.
A local couple popped open a bottle of rosé and handed out glasses as people filtered in.
On the other side of the room, Harvey, who specializes in ceramics, introduced guests to a set of handmade cups on display.
Harvey prides himself in showing a mix of works from local and visiting artists — some well-known and some up-and-coming.
In his old Harvey Preston Gallery space downtown, it was always important to him to offer something for just about everyone.
He once sold a decorative pitcher made by a well-known ceramicist for $50,000, but also had handmade cups for $35.
“People kept wanting us to make a distinction between our clientele and to kind of put people into tiers of accessibility and I didn't want to be a part of that,” Harvey said.
Part of why Harvey was able to offer such a wide range of prices was that his rent was extremely affordable for Aspen.
He was even able to afford the empty basement under his gallery, which he fixed up into a studio space for about 15 local artists to rent out.
“There were people doing ceramics down there; I put in a kiln. Jewelers were down there and people who did sewing, and a couple of photographers,” Harvey said. “I made it a space where locals could have an affordable place to work.”
Harvey says he was given 30 days to vacate the space he’d been renting for nearly a decade without an offer to stay and negotiate a higher rent.
“So I moved out of the space and I looked for spaces in town after that,” he said. “The rents are just impossible for me; I would have to sell different kinds of work, and I would have to be dogged in terms of sales.”
Harvey has seen prices that range from $15,000 to $65,000 a month — and he’s still not sure if he’ll find the right place.
Weinglass also lost her downtown gallery space last spring and is still looking for a new spot.
She grew up in Aspen and has had a series of pop-up galleries around town, but in 2018 she finally found her dream location for the Skye Gallery: a historic building from the 1880s, right in the center of town.
“It's got a lot of history and it’s a beautiful brick building with brick walls,” Weinglass said. “It's a block from the gondola; it's just the best corner location with the best light.”
Much like Harvey, Weinglass featured a mix of local and visiting artists from around the world at her gallery.
“I loved bringing genuine artists into Aspen and just giving them a platform to shine and to rise up and to have a show,” she said. “It's really hard for an artist to find a solo show in a beautiful gallery space, especially in downtown Aspen.”
Weinglass also created a place for community members to gather.
“There's not a lot of places for us locals to hang out here,” she said. “So we had a lot of fun events in the gallery, like jewelry workshops, yoga, meditation, art openings, artist talks, dance parties, karaoke night, like all of that.”
Weinglass said her landlord Andy Hecht only offered her six-month leases, which made planning gallery shows difficult — and eventually her rent increased to about $25,000 a month.
When she heard the space was going to be rented to a chain store, Weinglass says she offered to pay more, but the deal fell through and she had to leave.
“I want to fight for the heart and soul of Aspen and I want to be able to stay here because exponentially local businesses are closing,” she said.
Both Weinglass and Harvey’s spaces sat empty for a while, and are now occupied by luxury brand clothing stores with locations around the country.
Aspen Public Radio reached out to both landlords for this story, but they declined to do an interview.
Back at the gallery pop-up, Weinglass and Harvey said they enjoyed collaborating and they were grateful to have found a space in the 1A Projects Showroom for the summer.
The building, across from the Aspen post office and Clark’s Market, is owned by Harvey’s old landlord Mark Hunt; Harvey and Weinglass sublet the space from one of his tenants.
Despite being off the beaten path a bit, the room was buzzing with people on opening night, including artist Nori Pao, who was showing a series of photos she took of a solar eclipse.
Pao helped Harvey set up the artist studios under his old gallery.
After it closed, she had to move to a smaller studio further from home, and she said others are still looking for studio space.
“They're working out of their homes or they're not making work anymore because there's just no place, there's nothing affordable, not even close,” Pao said.
Pao moved to Aspen from New York years ago looking for a change, but she’s noticed Aspen becoming more like the place she left behind.
“One of the reasons that people come from all over the world here is the culture — and it's not just about culture that they can get in New York or L.A. It's about Aspen and the locals,” Pao said. “But if we don't have any local businesses, it really kind of puts a damper on that.”
This change is something that part-time Aspen residents and artists Patricia Blanchet and Lynn Goldsmith have noticed too.
“No vital, healthy community is vital and healthy without artists who are residents of, and in that community,” Blanchet said. “I do hope the landlord sees this, or other landlords in the community [see this], and says, 'Hey, we actually need gallerists who are artists and who have been part of this community for a long time.'”
For her part, Goldsmith acknowledges Aspen has never been cheap and efforts to make it more affordable will need to take a holistic view of the problem.
“It's not just ‘evil landlords’ — you know, we've got a real estate tax system and all kinds of things which are making prices go up higher than what really is affordable,” she said. “But thanks to artists like Sam and Skye, you just keep on reinventing.”
Balancing a successful resort economy with local needs is something the city of Aspen’s Community Development Director Phillip Supino thinks a lot about.
“This is not just a matter of whether or not there are some affordable restaurants for locals,” he said. “That's certainly a concern, but ultimately the visitor experience and how our community as a tourist destination is attractive or not to people is also defined by these economic forces.”
According to Supino, the city is limited in how much it can intervene in the commercial real estate market, but it has taken some steps.
Back in 2017, Aspen’s city council passed an ordinance that prevented developers from demolishing downtown buildings and replacing them with chain stores, but there are no restrictions in place if developers aren’t tearing a building down or redeveloping a property.
While issues like these are nothing new for Aspen and many other communities, Supino said there’s a renewed sense of urgency.
“What's different, in my view, is that the pace and scale of the change in the last, I'd say two to four years, is significantly larger and faster than it has been in previous years,” he said.
One of the ideas Supino thinks could have a big impact would be for the city to help support more public-private partnerships in the commercial market such as a “community or urban land trust.”
It would operate much like an ordinary land trust, but instead of conserving land for agriculture and wildlife, it would conserve downtown buildings for locally-serving businesses.
“That is a gap in our community's civic infrastructure and I think it's something that requires a lot of attention from elected officials and from institutions outside of government,” Supino said.
As for Weinglass and Harvey, they both plan to continue looking for gallery spaces in downtown Aspen, but Weinglass worries that she may never find the right place.
“I was feeling really optimistic when I first closed the gallery, I was like, ‘I'll definitely find a space,’ and now there’s less and less available, and I'm becoming more and more realistic with it,” Weinglass said. “I’m like, ‘Damn, it's been a year and a half and I haven’t been able to find a space at all.’”
For his part, Harvey doesn’t want to leave his home of 30 years, but if he can’t find an affordable gallery space, he might have to.
“I don't want to leave this valley because I still love living here,” he said. “I mean, it's such a great and beautiful place, but at a certain point, survival is exhausting.
Harvey and Weinglass’ collaboration wrapped up last week, but Harvey will keep his part of the gallery pop-up open for another month or two.
Weinglass is heading to New York in October to open a pop-up gallery near the Highline in Chelsea — where she says the rent was surprisingly lower than in Aspen.
She hopes to return to her hometown next summer.