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Aspen Art Museum

Roger Adams

Seven years since its conception, the new Aspen Art Museum opens this weekend with a 24 hour non-stop gala celebration.  Designed by internationally famous architect Shigeru Ban, the latticed surrounded cube cost 45 million dollar to build.  And, while the museum’s director and patrons are elated at how the building looks, the reaction in town has ranged from ridicule to open hostility

For years the art museum, which is devoted to contemporary art, has been located in a much smaller building outside of Aspen’s central core.  The new museum is three times as large as its predecessor and sits right in the historic downtown.

The new museum demands attention; its massive modern design with the eye-catching wood latticed facade stands out against Aspen’s brick-faced, late 19th century buildings.  The opening is a big deal; Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper cut the ribbon on the museum last weekend.   

Hickenlooper was effusive in its praise saying, “The very building itself sings out; art.”

Indeed, the building’s inner features place a viewer’s focus squarely on the art. Natural light fills most of the common spaces inside including the exhibition galleries.  The six generously-sized galleries are divested of any obvious design features.  Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the museum’s director and chief curator points to the gallery walls which she calls, “pristine.”  They are white and bare; no outlets, switches or sensors.

Credit Roger Adams
The exhibition galleries feature pristine walls and consistent grey-tinted concrete floors.

Says Zuckerman Jacobson, “They are preserved as a sacred space for the presentation of art and because of that you as a viewer feel very safe and comfortable in the spaces and are therefore open to the possibilities of transcendence that happens when art really works.”

The architect, Tokyo-based Shigeru Ban, has won major awards for his work designing low-cost housing and public buildings in developing countries. The Aspen Art Museum is Ban’s first museum project to date.  And the building illustrates the designer’s interest in everyday materials like the lowly cardboard tube.  Cardboard tubing runs throughout the museum’s ceilings and walls.  The outer lattice envelope is plywood, hi-tech marine laminate but, plywood just the same.

This weekend’s opening celebrations include a 24-hour public party. It will feature performance art, non-stop music, dream analysis, and on the rooftop cafe a group of tortoises with iPads strapped to their backs will be wandering about replaying digital footage of Colorado ghost towns.

Over the decades Aspen has witnessed all manner of headline-grabbing events.  Still, as the grand opening extravaganza nears townies are still getting used to this new neighbor.  Like much of contemporary art itself, the museum is not universally understood.

“Well it certainly is big, isn’t it?” Asked one man sipping coffee at an outdoor café this week.  “I don’t see it as an eyesore, I don’t particularly enjoy it either.”

That ambivalence has not been evident in letters to Aspen’s two daily newspapers.  For months the papers have run angry missives from letter writers who dislike the new museum.  One writer suggested the grid facade will only become acceptable when the building’s outer lattice is covered by pigeon droppings.

Andy Stone, a former editor of the biggest daily, the Aspen Times, is leading the charge.  Stone said recently that the building is the result of a “kind of madness that comes around here from time to time and results in some terrible, terrible decisions and terrible buildings.”

Going on step further, long-time Aspen gadfly, artist and now legislative candidate Lee Mulcahy, has offered a reward of one hundred dollars to anyone who climbs the exterior of the museum.

It is, says Mulcahy, “A wild west bounty for the first citizen outlaw that scales the skyscraper.”

All this fuss over the new building is expected according to museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson.  It really should come a no surprise, afterall she says, “No one liked the Guggenheim in New York when that opened, no one liked the Pompidou in Paris when that opened.” If everyone agreed on everything she says, life would be boring.

This weekend’s public opening ceremonies begin at 5pm on Saturday.   Like the gala, all exhibitions will be free to the public.  Two of the museum’s local patrons made a donation to ensure there never will be an admission fee.  

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