A Brief History of the Aspen Institute

"The history of Aspen is the history of American culture at the mid-century and after."
-James Sloan Allen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture, 1983

  • Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke (1896-1960), chairman of the Container Corporation of America, first visited Aspen, Colorado in 1945. Inspired by its great natural beauty, he envisioned it as an ideal gathering place for thinkers, leaders, artists, and musicians from all over the world to step away from their daily routines and reflect on the underlying values of society and culture. He dreamed of transforming the town into a center for dialogue, a place for “lifting us out of our usual selves,” as one visitor to Paepcke’s Aspen would put it.

    To make this dream real, in 1949 Paepcke made Aspen the site for a celebration of the 200th birthday of German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The 20-day gathering attracted such prominent intellectuals and artists as Albert Schweitzer, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Rubinstein, along with members of the international press and more than 2,000 other attendees.

    That year, Paepcke created what is now the Aspen Institute. He was a trustee of the University of Chicago, and his participation in its Great Books seminar, led by philosopher Mortimer Adler, inspired the Institute’s Executive Seminar. The seminar is a forum based on the writings of great thinkers of the past and present. Through reading and discussing selections from the works of classic and modern writers, leaders better understand the human challenges facing the organizations and communities they serve. “The Executive Seminar was not intended to make a corporate treasurer a more skilled corporate treasurer,” said Paepcke, “but to help a leader gain access to his or her own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling.”

    In Their Own Words: Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke and the Birth of the Aspen Institute
    A film by Greg Poschman, 2009.

    The Aspen Institute also gave rise to the Aspen Music Festival and the annual International Design Conference. In 1951, it was the sponsor of a national photography conference attended by the country’s most accomplished photographers, from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange to Ben Shahn and Berenice Abbott. During the sixties and seventies, the Institute added other new organizations, programs, and conferences in an effort “to extend the meaning of humanistic studies.” They included the Aspen Center for Physics and a range of programs that concentrated on education, communications, justice, Asian thought, science, technology, the environment, and international affairs.

    In 1979, Corning Glass industrialist and philanthropist Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. donated to the Aspen Institute a thousand-acre parcel on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The location, which now hosts the Aspen Wye River Conference Center, has played an important role in regional and international history dating back to Maryland’s colonial times. Its three distinct facilities near the Chesapeake Bay provide another setting for Aspen-style reflection and dialogue.

    Milestones: Events in the History of the Aspen Institute

    Leaders: Presidents and Chairmen of the Aspen Institute

    Aspen Institute events have attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors, and Nobel laureates over the years, enriching and enlivening the Institute as a global forum for leaders.

    Today the Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute has campuses in Aspen, Colorado, and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also maintains offices in New York City and has an international network of partners.

    Who We Are
    The Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas. Video, 2018.