Rather than let the lack of an in-person festival due to COVID-19 compromise the quality and content of this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, event organizers are using these historic, unprecedented times to drive its adjusted, virtual program.
The vast majority of the festival’s content will focus on the pandemic, race, American society and “where do we go from here?” Aspen Ideas Festival Executive Director Kitty Boone said Wednesday. The free 60-90 minute programming will post online starting at 5 p.m. every day from June 28-July 2.
Boone and her team planned to start promoting the digital festival this week, but decided to hold off in light of the reignited Black Lives Matters movement following the death of George Floyd. The viral video of a white police officer suffocating Floyd on May 25 has spurred peaceful and violent protests throughout the U.S. and even the world, drawing attention to police brutality and systemic racism.
“We just decided that for obvious reasons and to be sensitive to what’s going on in the streets in America, promoting a festival could take a backburner to more important conversations that need to happen about what’s going on today in American society,” said Boone, who serves as vice president of the Aspen Institute’s public programs.
Event organizers will instead start to publicize details of the five-day festival — including an impressive lineup of speakers — next week, Boone said.
Spoiler alert: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert and immunologist who is at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, is one of the speakers, Boone offered.
Additionally, Talking Heads founding member, singer-songwriter David Byrne is slated to lead a discussion about happiness, while a major venture capitalist from China will talk with the editor of WIRED Magazine “about artificial intelligence and its future around helping us imagine next pandemics.”
“This is very much on par with the quality of speakers and the breadth of content that we would host at any normal festival,” Boone said.
Other topics on the 2020 Ideas Fest agenda include economic and diplomacy issues, global and domestic health, leadership and the arts.
“What we’re working on so hard right now is to make sure we’re reflecting what’s been going on in American in the last two weeks, and how we can contribute to the ideas and the conversations there,” Boone said. “That’s a vitally important piece to us right now. We don’t want to be tone-deaf, and we also want to be particularly relevant by bringing new voices to the scene.”
Another initiative that’s kept Boone and her team busy is the launch of a weekly digital news magazine called Aspen Ideas Now.
In its seventh issue, the weekly product explores similarly relevant subjects while also seeking to engage younger and more diverse voices. One particular conversation series with major elected officials — be it the mayor of San Francisco or the governor of Arizona — tackling the current crises in their respective areas aims to unearth “what’s informing their leadership style and approach right now,” Boone said.
“It’s a thoughtful, but different, type of conversation,” she said. “We’re definitely trying out different kinds of things.”