It’s Aspen but is it art?

Although frowning on building taller buildings for residential real estate, Aspen accepted a four-story building in its downtown area to house art. Victorian, it’s not. Photo/Allen Best

Although frowning on building taller buildings for residential real estate, Aspen accepted a four-story building in its downtown area to house art. Victorian, it’s not. Photo/Allen Best

Passing hat yielded $72 million for new Aspen art museum

African tortoises bearing i-Pads on the roof in 24-hour opening

ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen’s new $45 million art museum debuted to the public on Aug. 9 with round-the-clock open doors.. It also opened with controversy.

The most controversial exhibit, “Moving Ghost Towns,” was one conceived by New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang. It features three African tortoises carrying iPads on their backs. “With iPads mounted to their backs, the tortoises feature video footage of three local ghost towns, which were filmed by the creatures themselves,” the museum’s website explains. “Forgotten stories of the once prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises’ perspective.”

Some charged animal abuse, although a veterinarian retained to monitor the tortoises found nothing of the sort.

“In my professional opinion, the tortoises have adapted well to their new habitat, and the iPads have not interfered in any way with their natural behavior,” Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier said in a statement posted on the Aspen Art Museum Facebook page.

Of course, how natural can it get on the roof-top deck of a 47-foot-tall building in downtown Aspen?

The Denver Post art critic raved that the four-story, 17,000-square-foot museum is a “modern wonder.” It was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who won this year’s Pritzker Prize, the profession’s highest award. “He is roundly respected and for good reason,” Post critic Ray Mark Rinaldi said of Ban.

“His structures are delicate and precise, beautiful to look at and reasoned in ways people can understand.”

Mimicking the experience of the ski mountain a few blocks away, visitors can first march up the 57 stairs (or take a glass elevator) then descend through the four floors of exhibits.

“From a distance, the structure looks like a giant wicker trunk, which is likely to keep its design controversial,” Rinaldi wrote. “Still, it manages to be sleek and warm at the same time, thoughtful and monumental, like a museum wants to be.” But, he added, it is not one for traditionalists.

For some time, sly mentions of the museum’s wood-latticed exterior have been showing up in the Aspen newspaper. “Pigeon’s roost” is one oblique reference.

Last week, letter-writers in the Aspen newspapers continued to debate the merits of the architecture.

“The function of this box doesn’t serve the art or the visitor,” huffed Ziska Childs, describing the work as contrary to the work of renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright and the locally remembered Fritz Benedict, a 10th Mountain Division veteran.

“This art museum box has nothing to do with either a natural form or the natural setting.”

Former PItkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis strolls outside Aspen's new art museum. Photo/Allen Best

Former PItkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis strolls outside Aspen’s new art museum. Photo/Allen Best

But others said that Aspen need not look over its shoulder and pointed to Walter Paepcke, the Chicago manufacturer and benefactor who beckoned Aspen into the modern existence after World War II with an emphasis on the arts and culture. Paepcke “did so with the help of the most modern, transformative minds that have ever graced this earth,” wrote Gavin Merlino in one of the letters.

The building is also among the tallest in Aspen. This goes against the dominant thought that taller is not better and scale matters greatly. But that philosophy is grounded in the idea that tall buildings in downtown Aspen should not be built solely for residential real estate.

This taller building is different. The museum is free and open to the public.

In addition to Aspen construction costs, donors provided an endowment of $27 million. In other words, passing the hat yielded $72 million. The Denver Post notes that 27 people wrote checks for $1 million or more, and of them, 22 have homes in Aspen and many are on the Art in America magazine’s annual Top 200 international collectors list.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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