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‘Survival is exhausting’: Aspen gallery owners collaborate after being replaced by luxury chain stores

Garrett Creamer
Courtesy of Skye Gallery
Local artists and curators Sam Harvey, left, and Skye Weinglass stand outside their summer pop-up gallery in Aspen on opening night July 12, 2023. The gallerists decided to collaborate after they both lost their downtown spaces last year and were replaced by luxury brand clothing 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.

While the retail landscape has been changing for decades, the town has seen a wave of local businesses close in the last few years — affecting restaurants, clothing stores and art galleries alike.

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.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Sam Harvey shares information about a set of ceramic cups he curated with two guests who stopped by the summer pop-up gallery on opening night Jul 12, 2023. Harvey, who is an acclaimed ceramics artist himself, has been curating and teaching ceramics in the valley for nearly 30 years.

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.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Sam Harvey, far right, talks with guests on opening night at the summer pop-up gallery in the 1A Projects Showroom in Aspen on July 23, 2023. Harvey plans to keep his part of the pop-up gallery open through at least September while he looks for a permanent space.

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.”

But last fall he and another local store he shared the building with, Amber’s Uptown Consignment, received notices from their landlord Mark Hunt’s office that their leases would not be renewed.

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.

Courtesy of Skye Gallery
A group exhibition called “Curious Matter” by artists Dan Lam, Meghan Shimek and Yellena James on display in the old Skye Gallery space in February 2021. Weinglass has been looking for a new gallery space in Aspen since she had to leave her previous space last spring.

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.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Friends and supporters of local gallerist Skye Weinglass dance to a live DJ on closing night at the old Skye Gallery location in downtown Aspen on April 13, 2022. The evening was full of laughs, tears and camaraderie as people shared memories and said goodbye to another local gathering spot.

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.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Guests gather at the Skye Gallery in Aspen on closing night April 13, 2022. Owner Skye Weinglass and her team turned the event into a community dance party and vintage clothing and art sale that lasted late into the evening.

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.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Local artist Nori Pao explains the process behind her latest photographic series of the solar eclipse on opening night at Sam Harvey and Skye Weinglass’ summer pop-up gallery. Pao is one of many local artists who has shown work with Harvey and Weinglass over the years.

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.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Part-time valley residents and artists Patricia Blanchet, left, and Lynn Goldsmith catch up on opening night at the summer pop-up gallery. Both Blanchet and Goldsmith said the vibrant art scene in Aspen is part of what attracts them to the small mountain community.

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.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Luxury brand clothing store John Elliot, which has locations around the country, now occupies the historic building in downtown Aspen where the locally-owned Skye Gallery used to be. City leaders passed an ordinance to limit chain stores in 2017 and are exploring other ways to support affordable, locally-owned businesses.

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.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Local residents and friends of Skye Weinglass write down their favorite memories on the Skye Gallery memory wall on closing night on April 13, 2022. Weinglass wrapped up her recent summer collaboration with Sam Harvey last week and is opening another pop-up gallery in New York City in October.

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.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.