Richard Carter, Artist & Aspen Museum Cofounder, on Creating the Community You Want

Emilie Trice | April 6, 2022 (Updated September 20, 2022)

Richard Carter reflects back on 50 years of making art and the road(s) less traveled.

CBCA lifetime achievement honoree Richard Carter is a well-known artist and cultural activist in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, which includes the idyllic mountain towns of Carbondale, Basalt, and…Aspen.

If Aspen seems inhospitable to working artists, that’s because—these days—it is, no doubt. 

But, Richard arrived in the 1970s when Aspen still had a mighty “freak” undercurrent, courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson (who ran for sheriff in 1970 and almost won) and his brethren of misfits. Simply put, before it was full of private jets and billionaires, Aspen was full of hippies, drop-outs, and iconoclasts (and, for a short time, one very famous serial killer).

Since the onset of the pandemic, Aspen has gentrified at an eye-watering clip. "The median home sale in Aspen ... has reached an astounding $9.5 million with the average sale price reaching an epic $11.4 million," according to an article in the Aspen Daily News from 2021, which further clarifies that, "This represents a roughly 82% increase in Aspen home prices over the past two years." Locals are cashing out—and moving out—and they’re all being replaced by a certain type of multi-multi-(multi-)millionaire. 

Richard fondly recalls the halcyon days in Aspen when he worked for graphic designer and Bauhaus icon Herbert Bayer. It was his trips up to Bayer’s Red Mountain studio that ultimately inspired him to cofound the Aspen Art Museum, originally housed in a renovated hydroelectric plant down by the Roaring Fork River.

Since then, Richard has also been active with a number of local arts nonprofits, including the Anderson Ranch (known for its renowned artist residency program) in Snowmass, The Art Base in Basalt, and The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW), among other organizations. He’s also continued to create and exhibit his own art—working eight or nine hours a day, seven days a week, in his Basalt studio.

His work is in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum, the Kirkland Museum, and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, as well as in the corporate collections of Bank of America, IBM, Prudential, and AT&T, among many, many others. 

Richard’s art is both geometric and organic—he mines the laws of physics for his visual language and is heavily influenced by geology, various forms found in nature, and the cosmos. He actually titles all of his artworks based on the book Annals of the Former World, written by Princeton professor John McPhee (which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1999). 

McPhee later penned the following remarks about Richard’s work, writing:

“Richard Carter’s work is so absorbing to look at, trying to discern what was in his mind as he transliterated palatial effects, the structure of geophysical hotspots, magnetic anomalies, and so forth, he reminded me of Paul Klee, not at all in an imitative way, just in the imaginative way that Klee turns stratigraphy into items befitting the walls of a museum.” 

We talked to Richard about how to create and maintain a thriving artistic community—in spite of rapid gentrification—and what he’s learned through the process.

As told to Artwork Archive’s Emilie Trice, edited for length and clarity.

Richard Carter's studio in Basalt, Colorado. Image courtesy Richard Carter.

Take calculated risks and be open-minded

I did not study art at university. I studied on my own—basically, the library was my resource for art books. It wasn't really a great art library. I think the first art book I read as a freshman was Man Ray's autobiography, and then I would read Art in America every week.

I started in engineering, but I really couldn't cut the math. So I just wound up doing general social science and, since it was the 1960s, I studied a lot of things. You could do that then.

The work I was interested in was constructivism—I don't know why, but it just struck me. I was painting on my own. After college, I had a very strange job with Pfizer for a year. And I just hated life.

So my wife and I came out to Aspen in April of 1971. And there was nobody here. There wasn't a stoplight. There wasn't a sidewalk. There were lots of empty lots with rusted cars in them. Aspen then was really great.

Seek out meaningful mentorship

I had a lot of luck. First of all—asking for introductions was a really smart thing. I was really up against it in New York, because all the young artists had an art school cadre around them—right—and I didn’t. But I was introduced to Herbert Bayer’s studio assistant, and I went and interviewed with him and he hired me.

But, of course, I'm nervous as hell, because I'm not a trained artist, in the sense that I didn't go to art school. But, I showed him my work, and he liked it, so he just said, “I don't care if you’re trained or not, you'll learn by what we do.” 

Getting attached to him was a huge thing for me. Suddenly, I had this validity of working, for a “real artist”— you know, a real Bauhaus artist. My work was sympatico with his. I loved working for him, and it was really a great job. 

I also started working in film accidentally in the mid-80s. I was living in San Francisco at the time, temporarily, and I was totally broke—I mean, really struggling. A friend of mine who was an art director came to town to do a commercial and she called me up and said “I'm desperate for some help. You want to work? I'll pay you 100 bucks a day,” which was great in 1984. So that's how I got into the film business. 

As years went by, I started working for other people, but there were a lot of assholes in that business—directors, especially producers, just really bad people. But, then I got a job in the early 90s with Christopher Guest

I ended up spending 35 years working for Christopher Guest and I wouldn't work for anybody else after that, because the guy was so nice and so even-tempered, as well as being a great director and comedic genius—and we just had so much in common. 

My advice is just try to gravitate to people who can help you and make you feel good at the same time. 

I believe in mentorship, I sponsored a mentorship program at The Art Base here in Basalt. We take high school juniors every year and pair them with a local artist to develop a serious piece of work.

Working with Bayer gave me credibility. Working with Christopher Guest in the film business changed the entire job for me. Suddenly, when I walked in the room, I was treated like a human being. 

So yes, you know, bathing in the glow of good people sometimes can really help. 

Left: Richard Carter, OROGENY, 2021, Mixed Media on MDF, 36 x 30 inches  Right: Richard Carter, RIFT, 2021, Mixed Media on MDF, 54 x 48 inches. Images courtesy the artist.

Embrace entrepreneurship

Before the pandemic, I had a pop-up next to the Aspen Art Museum. A lot of guys have been in there, but I was the first one to do a pop-up in that space back in 2019. I called up the lawyers—who are friends of mine, actually, and own a lot of my work—and I said, “Hey, that space is empty. I need to do something. I don't have a gallery in town anymore.” So they put me in touch with their guy, and he said, “Well, what do you want to spend?” 

I said, “I want to spend $3,000 a month for three months.” He said, “How about $4,000 a month for four months?” So, I agreed to that and it turned out to be a completely fabulous thing. I did really well there and had three separate exhibitions in that space.

But, cut to 2020, and the New York and London galleries invaded Aspen— it was just incredible. And they paid around $24,000 a month for the space. So, they'll probably be in there this summer, too. 

Everything's being bought out. Everything's turning into rich trash. It's hard to go to Aspen frankly, and now we’re feeling it in Basalt—everything going for way more than it's worth. 

You know, I've been here a long time. And I've done a number of pop-ups, and they've never failed. They've always been unbelievable, actually. And the great thing is, I get rid of a lot of inventory. So they've worked for me, but I spend a fortune doing it, which is why you don't want to run a gallery. You want a dealer to do it for you. I'm willing to pay 50% of my sales to just not to have to deal with that.

But, I also hired great people and I remodeled the place. I mean, I did a number on it. I did a lot of advertising and threw lots of parties. So, in the end, we did really well. But it’s exhausting.


Create the (art) community you want

With the Aspen Art Museum, I honestly just felt that it would be better for me if there was an art museum in town. I mean, I want to live in a community that has these things. And there's a lot of people that feel like that once you get talking to people. And so, you know, there's a certain selfish motive to improve the community—because you're part of the community. 

So you know, the same thing goes for TACAW. I'm not really a performing arts person, necessarily. And yet, you know, I wanted a place to be able to go to hear music in the mid-valley. So people don't have to go to some venue in Aspen and pay extreme prices to hear terrible bands. So, now we have a music venue in Basalt, and it's fantastic. It does a lot more than music, actually. We have a broad spectrum of things we do. 

I don't meet as many out-of-towners as I used to, though. Aspen always brought really interesting people into town because of the Institute and various other organizations, but now it’s all billionaires. For example, I have a real interest in physics. Not that I know anything about it, but the visuals of physics have always been part of my work. So I know a lot of guys at the Physics Institute—I can't understand what they're talking about, but it's great to be around them. 


Understand the work is never finished

I'm 76 years old now, and I have other things going on—but, you know, when I look back on it all, I have to wonder, “What was I thinking?” It’s the same with my painting. You know, I look back at earlier works that were really a pain in the ass. I don't know how I ever got through that. 

But, at the time, it was just a challenge. And you feel like you can do it and everything will be better if you do.

Learn more about Richard's work by clicking here.


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