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Cai Guo-Qiang, Black Lightning, 2014. Explosion event. Commissioned by the Aspen Art Museum.

While designing a new mid-mountain Elk Camp restaurant on Snowmass ski area five years back, the Aspen Skiing Company heard input from architects, skiers, chefs, and other expected stakeholders. But the company brass also included an unexpected voice: a contemporary art museum director.

Creating and exhibiting works of art has become an unlikely mission for SkiCo, as its Art in Unexpected Places partnership with the Aspen Art Museum (AAM) has expanded over the past 11 years. At Elk Camp, AAM director Heidi Zuckerman’s suggestion led to a 9-by-30-foot mural wall to showcase original work by leading contemporary artists, rotating biannually—Shinique Smith’s Resonant Tides is up through next fall. (The company politely declined Zuckerman’s suggestion to make the mural space twice as long, which would have eliminated some of the mountain-view windows.)

The collaboration began with a lift ticket, shortly after Zuckerman took over the museum in 2005 and met SkiCo’s execs.

“At the beginning, it was a small, under-the-radar effort,” recalls SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan. “Heidi innocently came and said, ‘You’ve got these lift tickets. Wouldn’t it be fun to do something with them?’”

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Laura Owens’s lemons, which evoke falling aspen leaves, adorn this winter’s Aspen/Snowmass lift passes.

They commissioned Japanese artist Yutaka Sone to create the first Unexpected Places tickets: his impressionistic ski scene appeared on the 2005-06 ticket. High-profile artists like Takashi Murakami, Anne Collier, and David Shrigley have followed. This winter’s passes, by Los Angeles–based painter Laura Owens, feature 11 permutations of vibrantly colored falling lemons. Like most of the artists who’ve designed the passes, Owens has a long-standing relationship with the museum; she had a 35-piece solo show there in 2003.

Visuals on a ski pass are one thing, but rolling a pair of giant, P-Tex–covered dice down Buttermilk's superpipe—as Sone did during the 2006 X Games—is quite another. Putting art on passes opened the door for SkiCo to push the boundaries even further, with avant-garde performance art and other works across the four mountains. Take the ambient sound installation placed along Snowmass’s Trestle run by Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz for the 2010-11 ski season. Or the pair of large-scale, children’s book character–inspired Tom Sachs sculptures erected on the Snowmass Mall two winters later. A black lightning bolt set off over Aspen Mountain by firework artist Cai Guo-Qiang? Why not?

This fall, AAM and SkiCo released a book, Art in Unexpected Places II, which surveys the past five years of this public art collaboration. (A retrospective of the first six years was published in 2011.)

Looking back on it all, says Kaplan, the project's scope widened without a strategic plan or specific goal other than inspiring awe. He adds that the art is about more than tourist amenities and diversions: “It establishes this higher sense of purpose and connection to the bigger challenges facing society today and really pushes us to be better, to be more honest and more compassionate—even more human.”

Heady stuff for a ski company to be involved in, perhaps, but not surprising given Aspen’s long history of cultivating the arts. Moreover, as SkiCo expands its summer operations, Kaplan and Zuckerman are eyeing ways to integrate art year-round. “We want to find more unexpected canvases,” says Kaplan. “I can’t say more than that. Otherwise, they’d be expected.”

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