Last winter, when Aspen Words was casting about for a headliner for the literary nonprofit’s annual summer benefit, the name Lucy Kalanithi surfaced. When Breath Becomes Air, the memoir by Kalanithi’s late husband, Paul, had just been released. The young neurosurgeon’s stunning meditation on life and his impending death was generating huge buzz in publishing circles. Outside those circles, however, the Kalanithis’ story was little known. (Paul died of cancer in 2015 at age 37. Lucy completed her husband’s manuscript and shepherded it through publication.)
Aspen Words’ leadership team—director Mo LaMee and creative director Adrienne Brodeur—decided to pull the trigger. Brodeur, a former literary editor, had a strong hunch the book would go big. Days after confirming Kalanithi’s appearance in Aspen (in conversation with Ann Patchett on June 22), When Breath Becomes Air hit the New York Times best-seller list and shot into the no. 1 spot. Virtually overnight, Lucy Kalanithi was in worldwide demand.
“If we had waited a couple more days, we wouldn’t have gotten her,” LaMee says. The event came together because Brodeur is stationed in New York “on the front lines of the cultural conversation.”
Increasingly, Aspen arts organizations are seeing the benefits of hiring high-level staffers who, like Brodeur, live and work from their industry’s creative hub. Theatre Aspen, Aspen Film, and Aspen Fringe Festival have all followed the leadership model of bringing on out-of-town directors who shape local programming from afar.
According to nonprofit leaders, the arrangement is advantageous for a variety of reasons. Relocating top-tier talent to Aspen can be cost-prohibitive, affordable housing is notoriously hard to find, and candidates are often hesitant to uproot family. Since technology enables a constant flow of communication between directors afield and staff here, why not have key players stay where the action is?
When Laura Thielen and George Eldred stepped down last year after two decades helming Aspen Film, the board knew the cinema experts would be hard to replace. Following a nationwide search, former Theatre Aspen managing director John Thew (who is based in the Roaring Fork Valley) was named Aspen Film’s executive director. Soon after, Maggie Mackay—a Los Angeles resident who was previously senior programmer for the LA Film Festival—was hired as artistic director.
Aspen’s ultra-savvy culture consumers have come to expect “the best of the best,” says Melanie Sturm, a Theatre Aspen board member who was instrumental in bringing on Paige Price as that organization’s executive artistic director eight years ago. Price lives in New York most of the year, where she serves as first vice president of Actors’ Equity, the professional actors’ union. A former Broadway performer, Price keeps abreast of what’s new and noteworthy in the theater world through her continued proximity to the Great White Way. She decamps to Aspen from roughly May to September; the rest of the year, she communicates with staff via phone, videoconferencing, and the almighty e-mail server.
The downsides to the arrangement appear mainly to affect the far-flung directors themselves. Brodeur and Mackay are both raising young families, and frequent travel to Aspen for strategic meetings and major events can be stressful. (Brodeur, who laments, “I don’t get the Rockies!” as a lifestyle, comes to town about six times a year.)
As for the organizations, there’s always the risk of high-level talent being lured back to the professional home turf by a better offer in a bigger market, as Aspen Film recently experienced when Mackay departed after less than a year. Still, Thew is sanguine about the possibility of a similar arrangement in the future. “While our artistic director accepted a new opportunity in Los Angeles, we remain open to going this route again,” he says. “We will be weighing the pros and cons as we begin our search for a replacement.”
The biggest winner in this straddling of worlds? Aspen audiences. For instance, LaMee notes that Brodeur is constantly rubbing elbows with writers, editors, and publishers—“having lunch or breakfast with them on a daily basis, having access to the important conversations. How would we replicate that here?”