The slope at Buttermilk, a ski park in Aspen, Colorado, is home to the extreme sports competition the Winter X Games and, on average, 300 inches of snow per year. In addition to intense weather and feats of athletic prowess, skiers this year will also be privy to candy-colored flowers, Day-Glo-blue skies, and a variety of smiling creatures: the ski-lift tickets have been designed by Takashi Murakami.
The Japanese artist, known best to the American public for collaborating with Louis Vuitton and marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a flower, now joins Mark Grotjahn, Karen Kilimnik, David Shrigley, and others who have designed lift tickets in collaboration with the Aspen Skiing Company and the Aspen Art Museum. The lift-ticket program is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, which explains the participation of an artist as major as Murakami. Before any of these artists were commissioned, the lift tickets at Buttermilk were plain—two-by-three-inch “blank slates,” as Paula Crown, an owner of the Aspen Skiing Company, explained.
A little over ten years ago, Heidi Zuckerman, the director of the Aspen Art Museum, came up with a remedy to their ordinariness. “I saw people walking around town with these lift tickets, and they just looked like a generic mountain landscape,” Zuckerman said. “It seemed like to not use that space for commissioned work by an important artist, it would be a missed opportunity.”
Zuckerman approached Crown with the idea of asking artists to design the tickets. The response at the Skiing Company was overwhelmingly positive, and in 2005 Yutaka Sone became the first artist in what would become an ongoing collaboration. Sone’s wintry design is filled with bursts of light that abstract the image, making it more exciting than just another picture of a person flying down the slopes.
The choice to work with Sone, who also threw oversize dice down the mountain as a performance that year, was a way of linking art and business. As Crown explained, that connection has always been important to the ski company, whose founder, Walter Paepcke, commissioned Willem de Kooning and Jacob Lawrence to do packaging graphics for the Container Corporation of America. “[Paepcke] knew that art and design were integral to the success of a company,” Crown said. “I think art and business go together, and I think it’s essential that they go together…. Art can’t be an add-on. It can’t be a second thought. It has to be integral to the process.”
According to Zuckerman, the museum and the Skiing Company’s collaboration also has an educational component. Zuckerman recounted inviting the sound artist Susan Philipsz to create a work for Buttermilk and pitching it to Mike Kaplan, the ski company’s CEO. “What is this?” Kaplan asked when he heard Philipsz’s work for the first time. Zuckerman explained performance and sound art to him—an informal lesson about contemporary art, and a sign that the collaboration was serving its purpose.
“One of the great powers of art is . . . [that it] really opens up the possibilities of self-knowledge of the world—a broader life experience,” Zuckerman said. “That kind of openness to adventure is something that captures who we are in Aspen.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “Ticket Masters.”