- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) - Only in Aspen - surrounded by hills and mountains of money - would the good citizens come together to raise $72 million for a museum with no collection.

Not that the Aspen Art Museum isn’t worth the attention. Its roster of rotating exhibitions, sometimes difficult, routinely ground-breaking, make it a national leader in contemporary art.

And not that its new, $45 million building, opening with a 24-hour celebration Aug. 9, isn’t a prized possession. The place is a modern wonder, a mind-bending box, covered top to bottom in a screen of wood strips woven together like a basket, and designed by Shigeru Ban, the top architect in the world right now.

Still, it takes a civic sensibility specific to this mountain town - flashy, spendy, grateful and generous - to pull off an effort this size. Consider: The entire museum was funded by private donations, with 27 local moguls and lucky trustfunders writing checks for $1 million or more each.

That will leave the AAM with a tidy endowment of about $27 million to help cover operations for decades to come.

“There’s not a single tax dollar, not a single dollar of public money,” said Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the powerhouse director who spent eight years leading the charge for the new museum, battling opponents who thought the building might be too large and out-of character for a town that remains cozy on its surface.

To be sure, Ban’s building will bring Aspen more international attention than it gets already. The architect, headquartered in Tokyo, won this year’s Pritzker Prize, the profession’s highest honor.

He is roundly respected and for good reason. His structures are delicate and precise, beautiful to look at and reasoned in ways people can understand.

In deference to this town’s big industry, he programmed his 33,000- square-foot building like a ski mountain. Visitors enter from the sidewalk and immediately ascend to the rooftop deck, via 57 stairs or a glass elevator (a lift?). They take in the attraction’s thrills during a four-floor descent.

Or they can simply stay on the expansive roof deck, with a café, and an exposed three-dimensional, truss ceiling that unfolds to the best view of Apex Mountain in the village. It’s an open-air, public park, free of charge, that the museum hopes will become a hangout for the neighbors.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, left, spends time with businessman and philanthropist Tom Pritzker, right, Pritzker’s wife Margot, in Gallery 1 where has Shigeru Ban’s humanitarian architecture on display. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

“Everybody can take the stairs from the outside and enjoy the view,” Ban said. “You don’t even need to see the art.”

Of course, you could hardly miss it. Starting with an opening exhibition of by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang that features living turtles with electronic tablets attached to their backs walking around a pen.

There’s also an exhibition of Ban’s designs, and another that mixes and matches the objects by the late French art icon Yves Klein and American artist David Hammons, exploring the links between two important figures of the 20th century.

With 17,500 square feet of gallery space - three times AAM’s old headquarters off of Mill Street - there is room for all that and more. Galleries are vast, lit naturally, and ceilings are 14 feet high. The floors are concrete and there is an abundance of whiteness - walls, railings, bright, white, LED lighting.

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