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‘There is a huge opportunity for collaborations’: Gallerist D.J. Watkins outlines his vision for the ‘Aspen Collective’ at the Wheeler Opera House

Works by contemporary local artist Chris Erickson hang on the walls of the Aspen Collective, a new gallery concept at the Wheeler Opera House. Gallerist D.J. Watkins secured a long-term lease for the city-owned space, where he’ll focus on ‘art that really makes you think.’
Nicole Hausherr
Nik House Media, courtesy of Aspen Collective
Works by contemporary local artist Chris Erickson hang on the walls of the Aspen Collective, a new gallery concept at the Wheeler Opera House. Gallerist D.J. Watkins secured a long-term lease for the city-owned space, where he’ll focus on ‘art that really makes you think.’

A new gallery concept called the “Aspen Collective” will open its first art exhibition this week in a small, city-owned retail space at the Wheeler Opera House.

It’s operated by D.J. Watkins, who’s known for his collections of artwork by Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman and Thomas Benton. (Those artists of the 1960s and 70s have been featured at Watkins’ various pop-up concepts, including the Fat City Gallery and the Gonzo Gallery.)

But Watkins has also put the spotlight on contemporary local artists, who will be a focal point at the Aspen Collective. Chris Erickson’s bright, colorful paintings are now hanging on the walls, with an opening reception on Saturday; sculptor Leah Aegerter, painter Samuel Prudden and acrylic and ink artist Whit Boucher are slated for shows later this year, according to Watkins.

Watkins said that he wants to show art that engages with critical issues.

“I feel like art and activism go hand in hand,” he said. “And I think that there's a lot of aesthetically beautiful art out there, but when the art really makes you think, that's where … I believe the power lies.”

Watkins was one of four applicants for the retail space, which the city leases at well below market rate. (Rent for this year will be $5,000 per month for nearly 500 square feet of space, with increases tied to the consumer price index. It’s a five-year lease, with the opportunity to renew; some other retail spaces in Aspen rent for quadruple that rate, or more.)

The city council had asked to consider multiple proposals in 2023, instead of simply extending the lease for the previous tenant, Valley Fine Art. A selection committee recommended Watkins’ application based on several criteria, including creative vision, community engagement, environmental stewardship and sound business practices.

According to a city memo, Watkins’ concept “specifically addressed the plight of local artists and curators who have been priced out of their own spaces and pledged to create an artistic home for local artists.”

“Additionally, Mr. Watkins’ proposal included the creation of regular community events at the gallery inviting participants to learn about and discuss art and current local issues, resulting in the gallery becoming ‘a center of community engagement,” the memo states.

Watkins says he appreciates the stability of a five-year lease, since he’s bounced around short-term locations for other concepts in the past.

Valley Fine Art also submitted a proposal to remain in the space; owner Mia Valley is now moving her business to virtual and offsite operations.

Reporter Kaya Williams spoke to Watkins about his vision for the Aspen Collective after the city approved his lease last fall. This interview has been edited and condensed.

I'm always going to focus on, instead of lamenting, what can we do to make a change?
D.J. Watkins, owner of the Aspen Collective gallery

Kaya Williams: I'd love for you to start by just telling me a little bit about the concept behind (the Aspen Collective).

D.J. Watkins: It's basically an extension of some of the work I've been doing over the past few years, representing and promoting local artists.

This last summer, I curated five shows in my hallway gallery at 415 Hyman Avenue. And I enjoy working with young artists and emerging artists. So this was kind of an extension of that work. And when the opportunity arose to be in the Wheeler Opera House, I jumped at it.

There's going to be a focus on environmental artwork that makes us think about the crisis that we're facing, and using art as a vehicle to discuss issues.

Williams: (City officials have indicated) there might be some ideas for collaboration with other curators and gallerists in the valley (as well).

Watkins: Exactly. That's going to be a big theme: partnering with other curators, and gallerists who have lost their spaces over the years, bringing the art into the center of the town for people to see.

You know, we have so many incredible artists working here in this valley. So I think it's going to be an opportunity to really bring the art and give it a beautiful space that people can engage with.

That's something that's really powerful about the Wheeler, and I think it's going to bring some vitality and energy into that space.

Williams: How does it feel to be able to bring in other gallerists, and other artists who are really wanting for those kinds of spaces right now?

Watkins: I mean, it's going to be great. You know, the idea of the Aspen Collective — to collaborate with all the creatives in the valley — is going to be a really cool thing, because it's going to allow us to change exhibitions often, keep things interesting, keep giving people a chance to come and see what's new.

And I think that there is a huge opportunity for collaborations, and I want to make it known to the community to pitch ideas and exhibitions and artists and shows to me.

Williams:  I gather that's maybe part of this “Aspen Collective” name, too.

Watkins: Exactly, and it's an open kind of call and an open venue for collaborations. That will give an opportunity to people that might have lost their spaces, or don't have something as attractive as the center of town in the Wheeler Opera House.

I'm just humbled and honored to have access to this historic space. And I look forward to making it a place where people can come and engage with other members of the community and with exciting art.

Williams: To pull that thread a little bit further on the collaboration here, but also the challenges of losing space, I've been kind of mulling over the idea of a zero-sum game and whether being a gallerist in this valley is like that, given that there are limited opportunities. Does it feel that way, sometimes? Or would you take a different perspective?

Watkins: You know, I'm an optimist about where the community is going. I think there's a lot of difficult issues that we need to tackle, whether it be housing or affordable retail spaces or affordable food options.

But I think that it's up to us to make the change that we want to see.

That was one of the interesting things about the book “To Aspen and Back” by Peggy Clifford. You know, none of these issues are new. We've been struggling for decades with a lot of what people complain about today. And I like to say, “history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

And I think that over time, it's up to us to keep working to make Aspen the special place that it is, and the reason why we love it. There are still all these incredible special things about the town that are why we're still here.

I'm always going to focus on, instead of lamenting, what can we do to make a change? There's an event called the Climate Fresk, and it's where people come together and learn about global warming and the issues (related to it).

So I'm going to be hosting events like that where we can come in and talk and learn, but then also come up with ideas to make this space and this town even more special.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.