Nearly a century ago, Aspen was a small mining town in the Rocky Mountains struggling to find its way. Thanks to the idealist vision of one pioneering couple, a few counter-culture heavyweights, and its fair share of stalwart skiers, it was transformed into a magical haven for the mind, body, and spirit—and, now, art. This is the story of how a little spot on the map came to become one of the country’s art world powerhouses, peaking with blue-chip work, major institutions, and mega collectors.
When a museum hires an acclaimed curator of cutting-edge contemporary work to be its director, it doesn’t necessarily expect local history to be excavated. But Aspen, the famed ski resort that began its civic life as a 19th century mining town, turns out to have a rich vein of artistic legacy available for transformation.
Nicola Lees, the British-born curator who became director of the Aspen Art Museum at the beginning of the pandemic, in 2020, didn’t have the outward qualifications to run a major institution in the famously outdoorsy, upscale town, where the snow-capped mountains are so close they seem to spring out of the streets. “I’m a city girl,” says the London native. “In my first week here, I had a bear in my house.” But the draw of Aspen’s international influence, its powerful collector base, and the arts infrastructure already in place led her to take the job.
One of the first major shows Lees organized for the museum, Andy Warhol: Lifetimes, revealed a surprising tale. The exhibition was originally organized by the Tate Modern in London, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, but Lees retooled it for the Aspen Art Museum run, adding new works and shifting the focus—essentially creating a bespoke version for her unique audience.
In 1956 and 1967, long before he was famous and when he was still working as a fashion illustrator, Warhol showed his drawings in an exhibition in Aspen. Later, he visited often, buying land nearby. With such hark backs, Lees has found a way to keep her eye on the specificity of her new home while simultaneously focusing on the broader art world.
As I stroll around Aspen with Lees, trailed by her faithful rescue dog, I am reminded that despite its outsize reputation, it’s a very small town. It’s a place where you can walk almost everywhere, and where people wave frequently to each other.
Lees’ curatorial vision fits well with the founding philosophy of Aspen, which attempts to appeal to more than just the intellect. “We’re trying to curate an atmosphere—in Aspen there’s this mind body spirit thing,” she says.
The concept can be traced to Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, considered the Adam and Eve of modern Aspen, for their work, starting in the 1940s, to establish it as a cultural hub. They founded both the Aspen Skiing Company in 1946, and the prestigious Aspen Institute think tank in 1949. Anderson Ranch Arts Center came along in the 1960s to add even more artistic heft.
A place that could have been just sporty, or brainy, became the perfect balance of both—and it started a virtuous cycle. Well-to-do types who came to ski were encouraged to open their minds to art produced by the bohemian characters who could—at that time—afford to live there. Collecting became a key feature of the patron class and encouraged even more art to arrive.
Since its inception, the Aspen Institute set an impressive international agenda that the organization continues to maintain. It now has offices all over the world, and is famous for its annual Aspen Ideas Festival, a week-long event that takes place every June. This year, part of the festival’s focus is on health, and it will feature the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy.
But a big part of the institute’s legacy can be visited any time, on a short walk from any hotel: Its extraordinary collection of Bauhaus architecture, most of it built by the Austrian-born artist and designer Herbert Bayer. The spare mid-century designs, simple and low-slung, provide the perfect contrast to views of snowy peaks, and set a sophisticated tone for the town.
The Paepckes—who made their fortune in cardboard boxes, of all things, via the Container Corporation of America—recruited Bayer, who worked on and off in Aspen for decades. First came Seminar Hall in 1953, designed with architect Fritz Benedict, with a whole campus-worth of other structures to follow. Cinder blocks, it turns out, can be much more than just functional. (A museum honoring his contributions, the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, opened on the institute’s campus in 2022, thanks to the support of agricultural billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick.)
“The relationship between Paepcke and Bayer was sort of perfect—each needed the other to do what they wanted to do,” says Daniel Merritt, who runs curatorial affairs at the Aspen Art Museum. For Paepcke, it was to turn Aspen into a cultural landmark; for Bayer, it was a chance to fully express his artistry and principles on a grand scale.
The Aspen Art Museum wasn’t founded by deep-pocketed patrons, as many institutions are. The local art maven Andrew Travers, a former journalist for the Aspen Times who is now the manager of education for the Bayer, puts it this way: “Don’t forget, in 1979 the museum was founded by this group of funky weird artists.”
It was established as the Aspen Center for Visual Arts (ACVA) in a convert- ed hydroelectric plant by three local artists—Richard Carter, Diane Lewy, and Laura “Missie” Thorne. Their first show, American Portraits of the Sixties and Seventies, featured works by Diane Arbus, Chuck Close, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe, Claes Oldenburg, and Warhol.
They then reversed course and, for the second show, displayed Medieval objects on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “From the outset, it was clear the artists weren’t afraid to mount projects that were deemed impossible at other comparable institutions,” says Lees.
These days, of course, it takes dedicated patrons to fuel world-class exhibitions and maintain the needs of a major institution. In this regard, Aspen is well off. Far from the days when westward hippies and ski bums owned the land, today’s locals are many of the most influential figures—and collectors—in the country. The list of notable names who own property in the area includes Walton, Koch, Resnick, Crown, Lauder, Abramovich, and Bezos, to name a few. The highest reported local home price, to date, is $72.5 million. Last year, a palatial ski-in ski-out chalet went on the market for $100 million, eventually going for $65 million. (The seller, Detroit manufacturing entrepreneur Joel Tauber, bought the property in 1996 for a mere $9 million.)
“What I’ve found is that the great collectors from across the country all end up in Aspen—this little town in the mountains,” says Sarah Arison, a board member of the Aspen Art Museum as well as the Museum of Modern Art. She bought a home seven years ago, and spends a big chunk of her time there, when not in New York.
As succinctly put by the king of local dealers, Richard Edwards of Baldwin Gallery, “There is so much art in this town now. It’s unbelievable.”
Aspen’s art season begins in June, and it’s one that draws people from all over the world. “It’s all about culture in the summer,” says Sarah Calodney, an art advisor and Aspen resident. “In recent years, the art scene has become even more sophisticated. Normally you’d need a massive city for everything we have.”
On June 22, the Aspen Art Museum unveiled a major show of one of the most talked-about artists working today, the Berlin-based sculptor Nairy Baghramian, known for her somewhat abstract pieces that reference the body and use of material in surprising ways. Baghramian is also set to take over the outdoor niches along Fifth Avenue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this fall. She’s someone every museum seems to want to work with at the moment, but few can get. Her show in Aspen takes over two floors, with the third floor featuring a significant presentation by the up-and-coming painter Florian Krewer. Baghramian has the highest regard for Lees and is excited to be presenting 10 years of her practice. The two met in college, at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Previously, Lees was director of 80WSE, a New York exhibition space that is part of New York University, and before that one of her jobs was as senior curator of London’s influential Serpentine Gallery—the experience that perhaps most shapes her vision for the Aspen Art Museum. “I think of it as a Serpentine in the mountains,” she says, and that is because both her former and current institutions are kunsthalles, meaning they don’t have a permanent collection, and only put on temporary exhibitions. It allows her freedom in how she programs the building, an ingenious structure by Pritzker Prize– winner Shigeru Ban, completed in 2014 and sporting a lattice-work exoskeleton. (Lit up at night, it looks like a glowing lantern.)
“After Nicola became director, she reached out to me,” says Baghramian from her studio in Berlin. She then traveled to Aspen. “I really liked it. It reminded me of my career in Germany, doing exhibitions in kunsthalles.” Working in a non-collecting institution is a plus in her book, because there’s no chance that the museum will acquire something, a fairly typical expectation for contemporary art shows these days. “There’s a freedom for the artist,” she says. “You’re not trying to get into the collection. That’s liberating.”
In addition to Baghramian’s show, the season’s apex is Aspen Art Week, which begins today with a fleet of events including auctions, parties, dinners, and private collection tours. Among other things, Lees will be presenting a performance and installation by Matt Copson, a multi-hyphenate British artist, that will take place in Aspen’s Smuggler Mine. “It’s summer camp for grownups,” Arison says of Art Week.
Anderson Ranch Arts Center, founded in 1966, will also be bringing world-famous artists to town this summer, including a conversation with the contemporary superstar Mickalene Thomas. The five-acre Anderson campus is tucked into the mountains, about 15 minutes away from the center of Aspen. The artist Paul Soldner was among the group that established the arts center. At first, it was more of a casual artist’s collective. Since he was a ceramicist, potting was the first discipline that gained a foothold. “But it kept growing,” says Ashley Todey, the center’s chief operating officer. “Then it was photography, then a wood shop. We kept adding on.” Glass-blowing is currently the only major medium not represented.
Anderson Ranch became an official non-profit organization in 1973. “Our mission is to enrich lives with art, inspiration, and community,” says Todey. It does that in two primary ways: For half of the year it’s primarily an artist residency, with professional makers drilling down on specific disciplines and living on campus. During the summer, the ranch offers a series of artist-led workshops and talks. Even well-to-do types are known to stay in the camp-like lodgings to soak in the fun and edifying atmosphere in order to take, say, a several-day course on collaging.
Something about the altitude makes everything a little friendlier and more intimate. “I recall when the filmmaker Steve McQueen was here,” says Todey of the British director, who won the Oscar in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave. “He was sitting, conversing with students in a humble and personal way—when people come here they’re more approachable.”
By necessity, Anderson has evolved somewhat, now boasting a $10 million endowment. Its summer fundraiser, the Recognition Dinner, this year honors the conceptual artist Christian Marclay, famous for his 24-hour-long film clip opus “The Clock.” But the Anderson Ranch ethos is to honor its roots, which go back to Soldner’s days, when a nude hot tub was a regular part of the scene. Though clothing is now de rigueur, “We’re trying not to lose our funkiness,” says Todey. “One of the things that makes us special is our loose nature.”
The role that patrons have in guiding an institution is certainly illustrated by the starry board of the Aspen Art Museum. In addition to Arison, the trustees include Domenico De Sole, the longtime chairman of Tom Ford International and former CEO of Gucci, private investor John Phelan, and philanthropist Jamie Tisch, to name a few. Lees has made big efforts to recruit a new generation of accomplished board members.
On a sunny day, Lees and I walk over to the home of Melony Lewis, co-president of the museum’s board, and her husband Adam Lewis. Completed three years ago, their striking contemporary house, done up in luxurious fabrics and neutral colors, was designed by architect Jeffrey Berkus, who also designed the Bayer Center.
The art on display would be the envy of any collector. Represented are modern masters like Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, Lee Bontecou, and Josef Albers, but also a who’s who of the best makers working today: Theaster Gates, Amy Sillman, Glenn Ligon, Rashid Johnson, Rose B. Simpson, and Carol Bove. Sam Gilliam, the pioneering painter who died in 2022, is represented by a large canvas, and in Lewis’s home office hangs a shimmering wall sculpture by El Anatsui. Lewis is sitting in front of a huge, mesmerizing canvas by the painter Cecily Brown, currently the subject of a solo show at the Met, as she discusses her stepped-up involvement at the Aspen Art Museum.
“My yes to being on the board was because of Nicola, how she is making things accessible, and her incredible vision,” says Lewis. In particular, “I love how she collaborates,” she adds, pointing through the trees toward the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, with which Lees works on educational workshops for children.
Because the population of Aspen is small and seasonal, but also powerful, collaboration is the concept that the town’s art impresarios return to again and again, working with institutions that the patrons support in their hometowns and leveraging their connections far and wide. It’s a practice that dates back to the Paepckes and Bayer. “There’s a history of gathering here,” Merritt says. “Convening with an intention to work out ideas.”
In a place that has two distinct seasons—skiing and summer culture—there are also two low seasons, and it matters what happens in the off times, too. This spring, Lees staged one of her favorite projects: the Youth Art Expo, featuring the work of two collectives, MAPS and Poncili Creación, as well as the work of some one thousand student artists. She based the concept on a seminal 1968 children’s takeover of a museum in Stockholm approved by the director Pontus Hultén, evidence of her European sensibility and deep knowledge of art history.
The unconventional choice says a lot about the benefits of not losing sight of the past. Lees sums it up well: “We’re trying to do magical things in the mountains that can’t happen anywhere else.”