High Art

Aspen’s elite honors Frank Stella at the annual Anderson Ranch gala.

Frank Stella

These days, many an art foundation gala is designed to be Instagram bait, but few begin with a sunrise hike up the brilliantly purple, and still snow-capped, Maroon Bells mountains in Aspen, Colorado. Then again, the annual Recognition Dinner at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, which this year honored the 79-year-old artist Frank Stella, is not the usual black-tie boondoggle.

A rustic campus with a cluster of studios, gallery space, high-tech 3-D printing labs, ceramics kilns, a lecture hall, and a co-op style cafe, Anderson Ranch is built on the site of Snowmass Village’s oldest plot of farmland. Since 1966, it’s been a haven for aspiring artists in the Rockies, an arts-based community where students on scholarships (paid for by the loyal donors who showed up for the festivities) can learn from the artists who have visited over the years, like Theaster Gates, Laurie Anderson, Kara Walker, George Condo, and others.

Last week, the top end of the collector coterie who summer in Aspen—Don and Mera Rubell, Mercedes Bass, Eleonore and Domenico de Sole, Debra and Dennis Scholl, plus various bigwigs with flag pins on their lapels—gathered there to be alternately praised and berated by Jennifer and David Stockman. She’s a major collector who serves as president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; he’s a conservative talking head who was tasked with dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts while working in the Reagan administration. Somehow, they fell in love.

And neither let their guard down during a talk about the art market, moderated by Walter Isaacson, the intellectual heart of these parts.

“As for the hedge fund people—and I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone in the room—but for them, buying art has always been used to perfume the pig,” Jennifer Stockman said.

Some nervous tittering echoed through the room, not the least of which came from Stockman’s husband, who spent his post-government career at Salomon Brothers and the Blackstone Group.

“The global economy is roughly 6,000 times the art market,” David Stockman shot back. “You might say the art world is a rounding error,” he added, casually diminishing the value ascertained to the work of many in the room, including Frank Stella, seated in the front row in a baseball cap.

Stockman went on to predict that the impending dismantling of the art market would be “earth-shattering,” and, on that sunny note, everyone went beneath a tent to drink rose and spoon gazpacho. It was the start to a packed evening: There were visits to the multimillion dollar “cabins” of several collectors. There was a quick stop by the Aspen Institute to take a peek at the renowned think tank that Isaacson runs, and also to crash a party for the Ford Foundation featuring very pretty mountain views and overheard conversations about drone manufacturing. (We were escorted out by a rep who informed us, “This was a private party.”) And just to hammer home the High West flavor of all this, a steak dinner and a concert by a Johnny Cash cover band followed, even if the town’s several legal dispensaries were left unexplored.

The closing day featured a talk between Stella and curator Dr. Jeffrey Grove, and then the Recognition Dinner at the Hotel Jerome, where Hunter S. Thompson used to sidle up to the bar around noon and sit for some 16 hours over Chivas and cheeseburgers. It’s been more than a decade since the godfather of gonzo shot himself in the face at his ranch down the street, but a pre-glitz Aspen still prevails at the Jerome. In the foyer, instead of a chandelier, there’s a massive ceiling fixture made entirely of moose antlers.

“I really enjoy it out here,” said Stella, standing on a deck outside where he could smoke one of his beloved cigars. “Though do we have to stand in the sun?”

The gala began in the ballroom with a few speeches suspiciously by-the-book; rumors persisted that the remarks were penned by a speechwriter for the department of labor, as Ann Korologos, the former secretary of labor under Reagan (another Reaganite!), is the chair of the Anderson Ranch board of trustees. That all ended when Dennis Scholl took the stage with his wife, Debra, to introduce the Stockmans, who were receiving the service to the arts award.

“I don’t know if you’ve looked at the walls of your home recently,” Scholl said to David Stockman, the art world doomsayer. “But when you go home tonight, you’ll notice that you’ve—and let’s use Wall Street parlance—‘gone long’ on art.”

The brash intermingling of views in the thin mountain air—of Aspen elite and art students on scholarship, of conservative intellectuals with stints in Republican war rooms and passion-driven art instructors, of optimistic degree-laden curators and apocalyptic economists—grew quiet when Frank Stella took the stage to accept the night’s big award.

“I actually appreciate this award, but art education doesn’t really work,” Stella said. “What you have at Anderson Ranch, though, probably works as best as it can.”

Photos: High Art

Frank Stella. Photo by

Don Rubell and Mera Rubell. Photo by

Mercedes Bass and Paul Anthony Smith. Photo by

Nancy Wilhelms, Ann Korologos, David Stockman, Jennifer Stockman, Frank Stella, and Harriet Stella. Photo by

Domenico De Sole, Eleanore De Sole, Janice Beck, and Philip Beck. Photo by

Ann Korologos, Barbara Berger, Ann Cook, and Nancy Wilhelms. Photo by