Although it may be unprovable, it's probably fair to claim that Aspen is the smarty-pants capital of the world for a few days each June when our intellectual betters descend on the West End of town for the Aspen Ideas Festival. As everyone knows, that vaunted event draws some of the heaviest heavyweights on the global stage for discussions and lectures about the most pressing issues of the day. It’s a pretty big deal.
Here’s the thing, though: That claim to being the Mensa Mecca, which we can safely boast during Ideas Fest, doesn’t really wane all that much the rest of the year. Take this coming Wednesday, July 18; as usual, the Aspen Institute is offering up a whopper at 5:15 p.m., with current FBI Director Christopher Wray in conversation with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series.
That’s big, but amazingly enough, the Anderson Ranch Arts Center can top it in star power, as world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei comes to Snowmass Village for a Featured Artists in Conversation chat with Asian art expert and senior Guggenheim curator Alexandra Munroe at 12:30 p.m.
So esteemed is the Aspen Institute that we almost take for granted that the nation’s top cop, who clearly has some important stuff to deal with right now, is going to just sit down and tell us what’s up. Happens all the time, right? But what is considerably less expected is that Anderson Ranch has the clout to draw an artist of Weiwei’s stature to its bucolic Snowmass campus. It’s not an unexplained blip. Unlikely as it may seem, Anderson Ranch has become a real player in the art world.
“Over the last six years, we’ve really worked consistently to build our brand,” said Anderson Ranch executive director Nancy Wilhelms. “I don’t know that we would have hit Ai Weiwei’s radar five years ago.”
'Huge names in contemporary art'
The rest of this summer’s Featured Artists in Conversation series bears testimony to the strength of the Anderson Ranch name right now. Tonight, Thursday, July 12, Calder Prize-winning sculptor Tara Donovan will sit down with MCA Denver curator Nora Burnett Abrams. The night after Weiwei, Thursday, July 19, the ranch will welcome acclaimed artists Bunny and Charles Burson for a talk with Edward Felsenthal, the editor-in-chief of Time magazine. A week later, on July 26, Nigerian-born MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Njideka Akunyili Crosby will discuss her art with Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith.
“These are huge names in contemporary art,” said Wilhelms. “We’re excited about the whole series,” which will also include Vik Muniz and Robert Longo.
At the Aspen Institute, meanwhile, things are just as notable as ever, with a number of talk tracks bringing the country’s VIPs to town this summer. Last night, July 11, another McCloskey Speaker Series event featured Los Angeles mayor and presidential hopeful Eric Garcetti. Tonight, Thursday, July 12, the Murdock, Mind, Body, Spirit Series welcomes renowned child psychologist and author Allison Gopnik. And on July 14, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz will join a Hurst Lecture Series panel to talk about “Designing the Next Energy Economy.”
What’s perhaps most impressive about the AI lineup, which continues on every bit as strong throughout the summer, is that all the talk series events are open to the public and cost just $25 (Wray sold out a while ago, though). That’s a heck of a deal, and its indicative of the AI’s commitment to smartening up the local populace along with the rest of the world.
“Our community programs are 19 years old,” said AI director of Aspen community programs Cristal Logan, “and that has been our number one mission this whole time. We’re all about affordable, easy access for the community to the Aspen Institute. That’s what we do every day.”
While the institute and Anderson Ranch can both talk the talk talk, they’re far from the only topics of conversation on that front. Art galleries up and down the valley celebrate openings with artist discussions; the Aspen Music Festival and School chats up some of the world’s greatest musicians; churches and the As- pen Jewish Community Center regularly invite speakers to give a spiritual slant to timely discussions.
There’s really no end to the intelligent ear candy to be consumed in this area, and it speaks to Aspen’s thirst for knowledge and the town’s mission of nurturing the mind along with the body and spirit.
“The appetite (for all these talks) is here because it was stimulated by the Aspen Institute and Anderson Ranch and the Music Festival,” said Wilhelms. “We all have deep roots here. There are deep roots on the arts and cultural side, and there are deep roots in that whole intellectual capacity, with Herbert Bayer and Schweitzer coming here and the brightest minds in the world being drawn here. We have a history of it.”
Having seen the results of that history at the AI, Logan views it as a large part of why so many big names want to come to Aspen to talk.
“We’ve got an amazing audience here who appreciate all of this kind of content. We know we’ll always have a great audience of smart, inquisitive people,” she said, although she did point to another not-so-insignificant factor. “And it’s not hard to twist people’s arms to get them to Aspen in the summer. Aspen works its magic.”