For the last 16 years, the Aspen Ideas Festival has brought thousands of the world’s leading thinkers together for 10 days of conversation on the Aspen Institute’s campus.
But last March, the festival team announced there would be no gathering in Aspen. Due to the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, an in-person summit would not be possible for 2020.
Killeen Brettmann, managing director of the Aspen Ideas Festival, said the decision was a blow to the staff that works year-round from the Aspen and Washington, D.C., offices to put on the event.
“It was obviously a huge disappointment,” Brettmann said. “That was a tough call for us to make but obviously the right call.”
On Sunday, the first ever all-virtual Aspen Ideas Festival launched via the internet. Instead of the approximately 5,000-person cap placed on the physical conference, this year’s event runs for five nights via online livestream link. And, unlike the previous 15 years in which the price of a full festival pass cost thousands of dollars, the 2020 festival is entirely free.
There are more than 10,000 people worldwide registered to “attend” the talks via the institute’s website and YouTube.
Brettmann said at first the team wasn’t even sure if it made sense to carry on with the conference once the spread of COVID-19 made the Aspen event unfeasible.
“So much of what makes the Aspen Ideas Festival unique is, it’s about conversation. It’s about in-person gathering. So to try and translate that into the digital space, we were wondering if we could really do it, maybe the right call was to take a year off.”
At first, the goal was to stay connected to the core attendees and speakers. Aspen Ideas Festival may be the best-known convention organized by the institute, but the many programs coordinated by the Washington, D.C., office also host conferences and speaker services worldwide. Going digital with the festival was seen as a way to try out a digital format with other conversations as well.
“This festival is really the center of gravity for what we do each year,” Brettmann said. And there is no lack of subject matter. “Obviously so many important conversations need to take place right now. [We decided] let’s do the best we can to make these conversations happen and get them out into the world.”
What she didn’t see coming was the exponential attention the conversations would get through free digital offerings.
“The response has been phenomenal,” she said. “A byproduct of this that we probably were not anticipating was the overwhelming response from people who have never been to the festival, couldn’t afford to come to the festival, couldn’t travel to come to the festival.”
After one evening of talks, she’s received emails from the Netherlands, Brazil and Mexico.
“The traffic is coming in. We are getting responses from all over the world how much people appreciate that we are hosting these conversations and sharing the talks,” Brettmann said.
Each evening opens with a recorded clip from festival co-founder Kitty Boone from the Aspen campus.
“For 70 years the biggest thinkers in the world have been gathering here,” Boone said. “We aspire to gather individuals with diverse perspectives in order that we learn and engage with one other in a civil way and navigate society’s biggest challenges.”
While this year the virtual audience will not be talking among themselves while strolling from the Greenwald Pavilion to Paepcke Auditorium, Boone said she hopes the conversations still linger beyond the livestream.
“We would love you to leave each evening of conversation with fresh ideas to consider,” she said.
The approximately 90-minute sessions are broken up into one-on-one interviews, quick introductions of “big ideas” from leaders in industries such as health and law, and tours of the Aspen campus featuring the designs of Herbert Bayer. Topics include racial justice, climate, economics and democracy. Still to come this week are talks from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms and filmmaker Zinhle Essamuah.
In thinking of ways to set the virtual festival apart from the influx of online offerings due to COVID-19, Brettmann said it was important to continue the performance element of the festival, born out of the original “Mind, Body, Spirit” mission of the institute itself.
Tonight’s performance features Jenelle Figgins and Anthony Tiedeman of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo. Brettmann said it is one of the things she is most looking forward to this year.
And, as a silver lining of the many shutdowns and cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of viewers are able to experience the performance too.
“I think digital will absolutely be a part of any ideas festival moving forward when we get back to our live convenings,” Brettmann said.