It’s hard to pinpoint precisely how or when Aspen became one of the art world’s seats of power, but it’s easy to understand why it did. “Big money draws big money,” Jan Greenberg, a St. Louis author and collector, tells me, setting a plate of brownies beside a Louise Bourgeois sculpture on the coffee table in the living room of her Aspen residence, which was designed by the Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer. At least 50 billionaires own homes in or around Aspen, a fact that would have grieved, but not shocked, the town’s founding mother, Elizabeth Paepcke. It has been 77 years since Paepcke, a Chicago philanthropist known as Pussy to her near and dear, “discovered” the faded silver-mining town while on a skiing expedition and—by later establishing both the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Institute—turned it into a high-minded destination for artists and intellectuals. By the 1980s, new fortunes had arrived, mountain castles had been built. Paepcke looked upon it all with horror.
Whatever the town’s excesses, it’s the cultural riches, laid out in particular abundance during the summer season, that still make Aspen unique among the gilded playgrounds around the globe. The billionaires who frequent this exclusive hamlet, with names like Koch, Lauder, Abramovich, and Cisneros, sit on the boards of the country’s most significant cultural institutions. “Where else can you wake up, go hiking, do Pilates, attend a lecture, play tennis, and go on another hike, all in one day?” asks Gabriela Garza, a Mexico City collector, who on the morning we meet has already attended a talk by the acclaimed author Walter Isaacson about Leonardo da Vinci and is back home preparing to host a dinner for Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Across town, Jane and Marc Nathanson, liberal Democrats from Los Angeles, had John McCain over for breakfast at their soaring chalet before attending his talk—about homeland security—at the Aspen Institute. Jan Greenberg and her husband, Ronald, meanwhile, are on their way to hear cello virtuosa Alisa Weilerstein perform a program of Sergei Prokofiev.
“From the jazz festival to the film festival to the ballet to the institute, I’ve never had a boring moment here,” says Nancy Magoon, who seems to have a talent for averting boring moments: She once persuaded Andy Warhol to paint her portrait at 3 a.m., after a party in Miami. Jane Nathanson, who has been skiing in Aspen for more than 50 years, concedes that it is no longer Paepcke’s genteel mountain retreat. “Maybe the new group does things differently,” she says, wryly. “The few WASPs left here were aghast when Stewart and Lynda Resnick offered to fix and rename Paepcke Auditorium, which was falling apart. But I think in time, the old guard saw that the new was just as committed to the intellectual culture of the town.”
Indeed, Aspen owes a considerable debt to a vigorous group of collectors who, despite their contrasting tastes and temperaments, have worked to make the place a contemporary art mecca. They are, in their way, a team. “There’s a sense of connectedness among the women here that I’ve never felt in Greenwich or New York,” says Jennifer Blei Stockman, the president of the Guggenheim board and a passionate supporter of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, a nearly 50-year-old institution in nearby Snowmass Village that offers workshops and artist residencies on its sprawling campus. The elegant Aspen Art Museum and the crunchier Anderson Ranch stand as the pillars of contemporary art in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. A decade ago, when Heidi Zuckerman became the CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum, things got rolling. The museum moved from a modest location by the river to a sleek new building designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban; a huge gift from the money manager John Phelan and his wife, Amy, made it admission-free in perpetuity. Though the museum remains, essentially, a kunsthalle, with no permanent collection, Zuckerman has steered its programming toward cutting-edge and often challenging art. “She came, and our universe changed,” as Greenberg puts it.
But Zuckerman insists that Aspen was more than ready for her. “I felt like I had moved to a land where everyone spoke my language, where I didn’t need to explain anything,” she says. “People here have a high level of confidence, an appetite for extreme ideas.”
Magoon, who was on the search committee that brought Zuckerman to Aspen from the Berkeley Art Museum, agrees. “When it comes to art, there are no sheep, no followers here,” she says. “It’s not a place where one person buys an Ed Ruscha and then everyone buys an Ed Ruscha.” Truth be told, in these parts there may be no work more popular than a Ruscha mountain painting. And yet, however coveted, such canvases offer no match for the genuine article. Allison Kanders, a New York collector who built a Charles Gwathmey–designed house a few years ago, puts it plainly: “I think all of us believe that Aspen itself is the greatest work of art.” On that, Paepcke would have agreed.
The moment you reach the doorstep of Nancy and Bob Magoon’s Aspen chalet, Tony Oursler’s sinister basso, piped through hidden speakers, commands you to get off the property. “It’s the installation-art version of my grandmother’s greeting, ‘Nobody’s home, please leave,’ ” says Nancy Magoon, flanked by her two black labs, Frida Kahlo and Damien Hirst. Humor—from a Chapman brothers Hamburglar sculpture to a David Shrigley 2012 linocut print that reads, simply, shit shit shit and more shit—is essential to the Magoons’ highly personal and fearless collection. It embraces prehistoric Anasazi pottery, Egyptian sarcophagi covers, modernist furniture, and African-American art. Sex is another theme: The Magoons, year-round residents ever since Bob closed his Miami ophthalmology practice, sleep under Tracey Emin’s 1998 Garden of Horror, which celebrates the pleasures of rear entry; Bob likes to joke that he was the model for the cast silicone-and-rubber penises in Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s 2009 Bloody Haemorrhaging Narcissus, a piece cast from the artists’ body parts. The sculpture garden, with its 90-mile views of the mountains, includes an assemblage of discarded water heaters by Nancy Rubins. “Our neighbors tried to sue us over that one,” Magoon says. “I told them the artist takes old mobile homes out of trailer parks, too. I’ll put one of them here next.”
With tousled hair, ripped jeans, and a flannel shirt offering a Coloradan counter-point to her studded Azzedine Alaïa shoes, Gabriela Garza is certainly among the world’s most stylish grandmas. She is also one of the world’s major new-art patrons. “If you want to dabble, fine,” she says, perched on a red velvet Jean Royère sofa facing the emerald flank of Aspen Mountain. “If you need a trophy, you can buy it. If you want to invest, it’s a good investment. For me, it’s the pleasure of learning.” Garza, who resides in Mexico City with her husband, Ramiro, a gas-and-oil magnate, got the bug 15 years ago, when an Antoni Tàpies painting caught her eye. Her collection includes works by Jeff Koons, Gabriel Orozco, and Lawrence Weiner and is anchored, in Mexico City, by a major Cy Twombly painting. “People always say, ‘I only buy this or that,’ ” she muses. “For us, it’s a decision made in the moment, emotionally.” Garza and her family have been visiting Aspen for more than two decades, and friends love to come over for her cook’s exceptional moles. “In my opinion, we’re the best restaurant in town.
“New York City goes to the Hamptons,” Allison Kanders says. “But everybody comes to Aspen. Whereas you go up and down Park Avenue and you see the ubiquitous checklist, here the art collections are more personal.” Kanders and her husband, Warren, an investor, spend the summer and winter seasons in a modernist aerie with views of the Maroon Bells, Colorado’s most photographed peaks. It is among the last private homes designed by Charles Gwathmey, whom Allison had to nudge away from curvilinear surfaces so that she could hang more art. A Sol LeWitt wall drawing faces a giant Rudolf Stingel canvas in the living room, with Paul McCarthy’s candy-pink sculpture of a little girl in between. (“Tame,” she says of the McCarthy, “for a man who did George W. Bush sodomizing a pig.”) Kanders, who bought her first artwork, a Louise Lawler photograph, when she was 21, warms to pieces that are just provocative enough. “You get bored otherwise.”
Eleanore De Sole
“As my mother used to say, ‘Water seeks its own level.’ ” That’s how Eleanore De Sole explains the convergence of art lovers on the slopes that she and her husband, Domenico, the executive chairman of Tom Ford International and chairman of the Sotheby’s board of directors, have been visiting for more than 30 years. But the De Soles’ quiet, utterly sophisticated collection is unlike any other in the area. It consists of a mix of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, as well as Italian modernist painting—including four works by Lucio Fontana and one by Piero Manzoni—to which the couple was introduced by the auctioneer Simon de Pury when they were living in Florence in the 1990s during Domenico’s stint as president and CEO of Gucci. “Domenico and I have what you might call a simple eye. We’re a bit more laid-back and subtle, and I’ll give you another example of that: We live in Snowmass Village,” Eleanore says, referring to Aspen’s slightly less flashy neighbor. The De Soles, avid sailors who when not in Aspen can be found in Hilton Head, South Carolina, say they never buy art unless they are in perfect accord, and they have never sold anything. “Never, ever,” she says. “There’s always another wall.”
Jennifer Blei Stockman
In a town where the Aspen Art Museum gets most of the love and nearly all the money, Jennifer Blei Stockman goes to bat for Anderson Ranch Arts Center, which honored her and her husband, David, and the artist Frank Stella at last summer’s gala. (David was the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Ronald Reagan, who, Jennifer likes to point out, rather famously called for a 50 percent cut to the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget.) Their collection is heavy on photography, but lately they have delved into painting and sculpture. “I’ve always been attracted to art that is more psychological,” she says, “which is why you won’t see any Koons or Hirst here.” Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois, Christopher Wool, and Sigmar Polke are among the artists whose work she collects in depth. Stockman, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Faye Dunaway, is producing a documentary on how globalization and Internet exposure have affected the art world. “Honestly, I’m more of a spirit with artists than with anyone else in the art world.”
Jane Nathanson, a licensed therapist, and her investor husband, Marc, have been coming to Aspen since the early ’60s, when they met at the University of Denver. Back then, they slept in a motel, but nowadays they rest their heads in a log cabin built of timber rescued from a Yosemite fire, made groovy with a sea of shag carpeting and assorted Warhols. (Their primary residence is a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills.) Jane grew up on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where her parents collected Impressionist works. “They encouraged me to paint, but the only person who bought my work was my father,” she quips. Jane and Marc started buying art in New York in the early 1970s. “We got a Warhol soup can for $1,000—when you could afford that stuff. Now it’s a hobby for the very rich.” While their masterpieces—a big Warhol double Elvis and a Matisse once owned by the author W. Somerset Maugham—hang in L.A., the Aspen house skews contemporary, with works by Anish Kapoor, Marilyn Minter, and Gregory Crewdson. The view outside, of the adjacent North Star Nature Preserve with its colony of great blue herons, is no less impressive. “People ask if we should have a sculpture out there. I think a tree is nicer.”
“I think of many of the other women as mentors,” says Nancy Crown, who is the first to admit that her collection is not yet in the league of those of her Aspen friends. The Crown collection is not likely to stay in the shadows for long, however. Though based in Winnetka, Illinois, the family owns the Aspen Skiing Company, one of the town’s biggest businesses. In Nancy and her husband Steven’s rather formal stone house in Aspen Highlands, close to the more extreme snowboarding terrain their sons favor, the Richard Serra works on paper in the living room look chic against the traditional David Easton decor. “We had to remove the wainscoting in the foyer to accept the John Baldessari, but I like that juxtaposition,” says Crown, a Whitney board member since 2011. The couple’s growing trove mixes midcentury giants like Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Diebenkorn, and Bridget Riley with midcareer masters such as Christopher Wool and Wade Guyton, whom Crown calls a friend. “Collecting has been such a rich experience for me—traveling with other trustees, getting to know artists, watching their careers blossom. Living with the art is only part of the joy.”
In Aspen’s genteel West End, a neighborhood dotted with Victorian houses, Jan Greenberg’s Bauhaus box is the ideal setting for works by the modernist giants whom her husband, Ronald Greenberg, started showing in his eponymous St. Louis gallery in 1972. It is no less hospitable a place for works by the contemporary artists whom the Greenbergs’ daughter, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, shows at her New York gallery, Salon 94. (“Jeanne’s our eyes and ears in New York,” Greenberg says.) For her part, Jan has always been attracted to minimalist art—a Donald Judd stack in her St. Louis kitchen is among her treasures—and to gestural painting such as the Sam Francis hanging above the fireplace. There is also rare Diego Giacometti furniture from Ronald’s visits to the artist’s Paris studio; he would bring Giacometti a bottle of bourbon and leave with a lamp. Jan is a prolific coauthor of books for children about contemporary artists (Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman), and a tireless advocate of arts education. She’s not alone. “Aspen got very glamorous, but it’s full of do-gooders,” she says.
“I’m not sure how I got here, but I sure am thankful for it,” Amy Phelan says. A former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, she is also a daring and deeply thoughtful champion of contemporary art and, to quote one of her Aspen neighbors, “beyond philanthropic.” WineCrush, which she and her husband, John, a financier, host as part of the annual weeklong fundraising extravaganza ArtCrush, helped raise $2.5 million for the Aspen Art Museum last year. “When we began collecting, we bought safe things,” Phelan says. “A Chagall, a Picasso. Then we started going to Chelsea, to art fairs. We got a Thomas Ruff photograph, and from then on, everything else felt like my grandparents.” The Phelans buy what they like, with humor and sex the dominant themes. Each summer, they reinstall the art in their Aspen home. There are major Ellsworth Kellys, Warhol’s Dolly Parton (“the queen mother,” Amy calls her), and numerous works by the Phelans’ friend Jim Hodges. In a downstairs bedroom, a video still from John Waters’s Shut Up and Blow Me! hangs over the fireplace. Phelan doesn’t worry about frightening her guests: “If they minded, they wouldn’t be allowed to stay here.”
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