One of the world’s most popular ski resorts, Aspen has long been celebrated for its breathtaking scenery and winter sports. Now a new generation of collectors and institutions is reviving its status as a mountain mecca for art.
The residents of Aspen, Colorado’s ritziest ski town, have long sought to preserve their splendid isolation. When the writer Hunter S Thompson ran to be the town’s sheriff in the 1970s, he pledged to change its name to “Fat City”, hoping to dissuade any newcomers. But in the past few years there has been an extraordinary influx of people, initially seeking solace from the pandemic in second homes or mountainside chalets. This has put a rocket under the art scene of one of the country’s most affluent enclaves.
“The joke is that the millionaires were shoved out by billionaires,” says one collector, who asked to remain anonymous. In the summer of 2021 galleries such as White Cube and Mitchell-Innes & Nash opened pop-up spaces within blocks of each other, bringing their artists’ works to Aspen’s captive market. In 2022, Sotheby’s launched a permanent gallery. Artcrush, the Aspen Art Museum’s annual fundraiser, has become an essential midsummer fixture for collectors around the world.
All of this has transformed the local art scene. By one estimate, 32 of the world’s most prominent collectors now spend part of their year in Aspen. Marianne Boesky, who runs her eponymous gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood, has a seasonal outpost on East Hyman Avenue, hosting shows through the warmer months. In contrast to the initial fever of 2021, commitment to the town is now essential for newcomers. “Aspen is a real community,” she says. “Showing up for a month and trying to sell art might work in the short term but it won’t bring the relationships that we all need in our business.”
Nextdoor to Boesky is a young dealer named Simon Miccio. He opened a gallery in Aspen in 2023 and runs a year-round programme there, even in off-season months when the slopes are empty. “There’s a critical mass of collectors from across the US here,” he says. Indeed, curators whisper about art hoards hidden away in these mountains’ modernist chalets.
The Powers Art Center is a private foundation that exhibits the collection of the late publishing mogul John Powers and his wife, Kimiko, in a space that’s a short drive from Aspen. It is a world-class art institution in the middle of a cow pasture and holds one of the world’s largest collections of editioned works on paper by Jasper Johns.
The Aspen Art Museum is another beacon lighting up this city to the art world. Its wooden latticed façade was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Shigeru Ban in 2014 and gives the glass-fronted interiors an inviting alpine glow. monocle meets the museum’s director, Nicola Lees, on the roof, which is being readied for a winter installation that looks directly onto Aspen’s manicured ski run. “Our model is like that of a European Kunsthalle, which means we’re a non-collecting museum,” says British-born Lees, who landed in Aspen in 2020 after long postings at non-profits such as the Serpentine Gallery in London and 80wse in New York. “This is an opportunity to have a kind of Serpentine in the mountains.”
Lees has used her network to build bridges with institutions such as Dia Art Foundation in Upstate New York. Today she leads us through the gallery, where crushed and twisted automobiles, the work of US sculptor John Chamberlain, are being unloaded. It’s challenging work, especially for a rural art museum, but Lees says that there are open minds among these mountains.
Aspen’s art scene is currently riding high but it’s also tapping into a long history. In the 1940s a Chicago industrialist called Walter Pepke came to the town, which was then a dying silver-mining community. He saw an opportunity to create a ski resort and gathering place for artists and thinkers. Pepke founded the Aspen Institute, a think tank of sorts that could host conversations on the arts, design and sciences. He then commissioned Austrian painter and Bauhaus-trained architect Herbert Bayer to transform the town into a “total work of art”.
Last year a new museum opened in Aspen dedicated to Bayer’s legacy. His influence is evident everywhere, from the design of the institute’s modernist campus to the colour schemes used in the houses. “I learned a lot from him that I still use now in the studio,” says Dick Carter, a self-taught constructivist artist who was Bayer’s painting assistant in the 1970s. Carter co-founded the original Aspen Art Museum in 1979. Today he worries that the money flying around the local art scene could kill the valley’s original creative vibe, a view shared by others. “It’s cheaper these days to rent a gallery in New York than in Aspen,” says Sam Harvey, a local gallerist who represents artists from across the US. “It’s important that this valley is still a place where artists can work.”
Thankfully, there are institutions to safeguard that. Anderson Ranch hosts visiting artists and residencies in log cabins that are dedicated to disciplines such as ceramics, woodworking and printmaking. The ranch is as much a hub for local residents who want to refine their watercolour technique as it is a retreat for the US art elite. Previous alumni range from sculptor Arlene Shechet to the Haas Brothers. According to the faculty, artists visit knowing that they can take risks and look for new directions in their work.
It was founded in 1966 by ceramicist Paul Soldner, who also built his own home, piece by piece and all by hand, in the foothills just outside Aspen. This monument to self-reliance, curiosity and creativity is known as the Soldner Center. His daughter, Stephanie, still lives in this remarkable A-frame and gives tours of the home that her parents built over the course of 40 years.
“Aspen has always been a place of invention and ingenuity,” she says, surrounded by her father’s earthen vessels and paintings by her artist mother, Ginny. “It’s somewhere people could come and do exactly what they wanted to do.”
Monocle comment: It might be tempting to stick to the well-trodden floors of the world’s best-known galleries when seeking a cultural fix, or following the collectors to the latest ‘next big city’. But looking further afield, where community is king, can delight, surprise and offer a unique perspective.