Nancy Wilhelms, executive director of Anderson Ranch, talks to Christie’s about the 52-year-history of the Rocky Mountains arts retreat that has welcomed artists ranging from Catherine Opie to Ai Weiwei, Ed Ruscha and Frank Stella
In the mid-1960s, the American ceramicist Paul Soldner had an idea: to renovate a number of old Colorado farm buildings and create an arts retreat in the spectacular village of Snowmass, in a Rocky Mountains valley. Teaming up with local property developers — who were keen to add a cultural offering to an area already popular for skiing — he created Anderson Ranch Arts Center, which opened its doors in 1966.
The aim was to provide a place for arts education without any of the formality or pressures of a degree programme. ‘It’s a centre, not a school’, said Soldner, who died in 2011 at the age of 89. ‘We’re different.’
Accompanied by his peers, including photographer Cherie Hiser, sculptor Peter Voulkos and woodworker Sam Maloof, Soldner taught just a handful of students at first. More than half a century on, that figure has risen to 1,250 a year, with Anderson Ranch now recognised as an arts centre of international significance. In the past few years, Christo, Marina Abramovic and Frank Stella have all visited campus and worked with students; Ai Weiwei is set to arrive later this summer.
We caught up with Anderson Ranch’s executive director, Nancy Wilhelms, to find out more.
If you had to describe Anderson Ranch in one word, what would that be?
Nancy Wilhelms: ‘Community. We have nothing to do with the idea of artists as solitary beings, working away alone. Here we have an open-door policy where people are constantly interacting and sharing ideas, whether over lunch in the communal café, in the dorms, or in the various studios whose doors are always open.’
Do you feel that’s true to Paul Soldner’s original intentions?
NW: ‘Very much so. The place started out with the Sixties ethos of a hippy arts community, and that continues to this day.’
Tell us more about the make-up of your community.
NW: ‘Alongside myself and the Anderson Ranch staff, there’s a regularly rotating set of teachers, and of course, the students who usually stay for a week each. We also have a Visiting Artists Program, whereby established figures are given the time and place to create new work. This programme began in 1980, and Ed Ruscha was among the first to take part.
‘One of the joys of this place is when the artists move around campus and engage with the students, in some cases discussing and critiquing their work, in others just having a friendly chat.’
Can you give any specific examples?
NW: ‘In 2014 we welcomed Steve McQueen, who was fresh from his Oscar win [for Best Director] for 12 Years a Slave. I can vividly remember him hanging out by the picnic table, answering questions from everybody about the film. It was magical, and Steve seemed to be having as much fun as anyone.’
Presumably the setting helps, too?
NW: ‘I think so. We’re located in five beautiful acres of verdant landscape [eight miles from Aspen], with a view up to some huge peaks. It’s a unique place, one that we think can’t help but inspire great creativity.’
What types of art do you specialise in?
NW: ‘We cover what you might call all the main bases. We have state-of-the-art studios, open 24 hours a day, for ceramics, photography and new media, painting and drawing, wood-turning, printmaking, sculpture, furniture design and woodworking, as well as a workshop for children.
‘Class sizes are kept deliberately small, meaning that each student gets a lot of individual attention. People of all ages and abilities will find their place here. We encourage them to experiment, be bold — and have fun.’
Right now you’re in the midst of your busiest period of the year?
NW: ‘Yes, the height of summer, when Anderson Ranch is at full capacity. In addition to hosting 130 students at a time, along with 25 to 30 children, we also run a series of summer talks with major artists. Among the highlights this year is Ai Weiwei’s visit on 18 July. We’re already at capacity attendance for that one, but the good news is we’ll be streaming it online.’
Do you have students or artists who are so fond of Anderson Ranch that they come back again and again?
NW: ‘We do. Probably the best examples are the artists Catherine Opie and Tom Sachs, who both started out here as students but subsequently came back as faculty members.’
In its 52 years of existence, how do you feel Anderson Ranch has evolved?
NW: ‘Well, for a start, it has grown in size: the centre’s five original buildings have now become 14. But we’re also aware of the need to invest constantly in our facilities. We strive to keep our studios state-of-the-art, which is important if you think of our age as one in which technology and art are converging fast.
‘For a collection of what once were cattle barns and sheep sheds, Anderson Ranch has really come a long way.’