Arts December 20, 2017

The Language of Art

Paula Crown reflects on contemporary art and its ability to connect us

Artist, advocate and entrepreneur Paula Crown, the driving force behind the impressive contemporary art collection at the Limelight Hotel Ketchum, believes that art is a language. She sees artists as our social cartographers and believes art gives voice to things that aren’t being seen in the larger culture. And she is committed to deepening that conversation.

“Even though it’s not at the top of our hierarchy of needs in terms of eating, sleeping, and sex, making art has been a part of our human experience since the beginning of civilization,” said Crown, relaxing in the lounge of the Limelight Hotel Ketchum. Exhibited above where Crown sat is “Twilight Waterfall (Black/White)” by Pat Steir. Adorning another wall just a few seats away is “Daydream (Speculations)” by Robert Rauschenberg. A cotton watercolor print by James Turrell stands in stark contrast along an opposite wall, right beside “Untitled (Waterlines)” by Richard Long. All these artworks in such close proximity to one another make walking into the lobby of the hotel a bit like stepping into the glassed tiers of the Whitney Museum of American Art, or perhaps the MOMA in New York City. Guests standing in the lobby are literally surrounded by seminal works by iconic artists of the 20th-century avant-garde movements, including realism, pop art, minimalism, conceptualism and abstraction.

“Art is a language, and we find different ways to express that language,” Crown explained. “I’m not a musician or a dancer, but I’m very visual, and I engage with spaces and think about the effect that the poetics of a space have on us and what can make an environment more interesting.”

“Sunlight Waterfall,” by Pat Steir

“Sunlight Waterfall,” by Pat Steir. 2008, silk screen, 70” x 34¾”, edition 10/40.

Crown, who began her career in high-stakes business as a former vice president of real estate finance at Salomon Brothers, is no stranger to how to analyze the use of space and the importance of art within that dialogue. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2009 and is currently a trustee of MOMA, serving as chair of its Education Committee. Her role in the Limelight Ketchum Contemporary Art Collection is multifaceted; she is both the architect behind the installation through her position as one of the principals of Henry Crown & Company—the investment company that owns Aspen Skiing Company and the hotel—and also as a practicing artist with several pieces in the collection. In 2012, Crown shifted her definition of herself as an investment banker and advocate, adding artist to her delineation after earning her MFA in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Crown seems equally comfortable in both roles, easily moving from discussions on the importance of art (she helped spearhead Aspen Skiing Company’s “Art in Unexpected Places” program) and art education, to a discourse of her study of the movement and breadth of wind for her own piece, “Anemos 14(+),” a stainless steel g-chain mesh and resin piece that hangs on the East wall of the conference room of the Limelight Hotel Ketchum.

“I seek ways to map experiences and to navigate the spaces in between—where we all search for bearings,” said Crown. In many ways, the art collection that she and local Wood River Valley resident and art dealer Bill Griffin have assembled on the many walls of the hotel explores similar concepts.

Topography is the official theme of the hotel’s art installation, and each of the works addresses the profound connections we make with our environment, an element that Crown and Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan—who joined our discussion in the lobby—feel is central to life in the Northern Rockies.

The art collection is impressive for a valley of approximately 15,000 residents. The main level public installation, which was unveiled August 2017, includes 23 major graphic works by 16 international artists who have worked in, and been at the forefront of, a broad range of artistic practices, including realism, conceptualism, minimalism and abstraction. New and notable artists are featured alongside some of the best-known and brightest names from the past century, including Anne Appleby, John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Tara Donovan, Ann Hamilton, Mary Heilmann, Carmen Herrera, Ted Lawson, Richard Long, Raymond Pettibon, Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Kate Shepherd, Pat Steir, and James Turrell.

An additional room, the Limelight’s Convention Gallery Space, is dedicated to a selection of 16 graphic works by exceptional female artists. Crown likes to reference Virginia Woolf by emphatically stating that these women deserve “a room of their own.” Art continues throughout all five floors of the hotel, where Amy Pilkington was commissioned to make original linen prints for each guest room, and local artist Lisa Wood provided large-scale photographs.

“Tectonic Plates, Untitled,” by Raymond Pettibon

“Tectonic Plates, Untitled,” by Raymond Pettibon. Lithograth, 42” x 60”, edition PP2/50

Some of the works are more apparently narrative in scope, such as Richard Long’s “Untitled (Waterlines), 1989,” a visual representation of waterlines poured from his water bottle along the walking line from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean across Portugal and Spain, while others, such as Pat Steir’s impressive waterfall pieces—“Sunlight Waterfall, 2008,” and “Twilight Waterfall (Black/White), 2008”—speak more to the process, recording the movement and presence of the artist even as the lines of nature and the spirit of creating the piece emerge from within. Both seem to speak to the fleeting presence and random chance of human endeavor, calling upon the imagination of the viewer to fill in the absences and negative space.

“I believe the power of art can transcend politics, culture, race and gender to provide places [in which] to reflect, connect and heal,” stated Crown.

“Art is important in these spaces,” agreed Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan. “We have these eddies and areas to pause and spend time with family or friends, spaces to contemplate and really engage, and art elevates the experience so that it’s more than about just skiing or dining or the adventure. It’s the whole experience.”

“If anything, that alone could be the artist’s mission in life: to get people to pause,” reflected Crown, who is no stranger to the rushing chaos of modern life, social responsibilities and living in the age of digital media. “Perhaps now, more than ever, art is needed in all our spaces, because we’re all racing and everyone is yelling over each other to answer, but no one is listening and no one is taking time to connect.”

Regardless of the reasons, exploring the inspiring and pivotal works in the Limelight Hotel Ketchum contemporary art installation is worth every second of contemplation and attention because truly great art asks questions of the larger culture. And these iconic pieces poke and prod and nudge, while also providing space to pause, reflect and connect.

This article appears in the Winter 2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.