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Vail Symposium celebrates 50 years of intellectual engagement in the valley

The Vail Symposium started as a once-yearly think tank in 1971 and has grown to provide weekly educational programs on a wide variety of topics.

The Vail Symposium began as an annual think tank to formulate goals and ideas for the future development of Vail Valley. Here, community members convene for the second Vail Symposium in 1972, titled “Agenda For Tomorrow - A New Growth Ethic”.
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Over the past 50 years, Vail has managed to transcend its image as a ski resort and become a destination that caters to a wide variety of interests and attracts a diverse group of people. This transformation is not one that many other mountain towns have undertaken, but the vision of Vail as more than a ski destination has been embedded in the town’s ethos since the very beginning.

In 1971, Town Manager Terry Minger started the Vail Symposium as an annual think tank that brought town founders, supporters and community members together to formulate goals and ideas for the future development of the valley. The very first Vail Symposium took place July 30-31, 1971, and was convened around the prescient topic, “The Role of the Mountain Community in a Rapidly Urbanizing America.”

Five decades later, the Vail Symposium remains an active nonprofit organization in the valley. What started as a once-yearly think tank has evolved into yearlong educational programming that aims to engage community members in intellectual discourse on a wide variety of subjects. The Symposium hosts a different event nearly every week of the year, bringing in experts from around the world to speak on cutting-edge topics in geopolitics, environmental science, consciousness, art, science, technology and much more.



Kris Sabel has been the executive director of the Vail Symposium since 2016. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first think tank, Sabel and his team have kicked off a yearlong celebration that will pay tribute to the history of the symposium at events throughout the year.

“They asked those important questions: how is Vail going to be more than just a ski town, how is it going to be more than Disneyland in the rockies?” Sabel said. “Out of that came the town of Vail’s first master plan, which turned into things like Ford Park, the bike system, the bus system, the Dobson arena, and all these elements that make our community unique.”

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Attendees at the second Vail Symposium convene to discuss the future of the town.
Special to the Daily

The Symposium also led to the formation of the Eagle Valley Forum, and was the platform from which President Gerald Ford made a major energy policy speech in 1976. Over the years, it has brought people at the forefront of politics, sport, science and beyond to speak in the valley.

“It’s really incredible to look back at the speakers that we’ve hosted — from Robert Redford to Tom Brokaw, Sir Edmund Hillary to Sir Ken Robinson, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell to local athletes like Chris Anthony and Josiah Middaugh and so many others,” Sabel said. “It’s also interesting to see where our speaker alums end up. We’ve had speakers promoted to some of the highest echelons of government and raised on podiums for amazing physical feats. Our speakers truly represent a spectrum of excellence that is unparalleled for a community of our size.”

The 50th anniversary celebration began July 26 with a panel discussion featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz and the founding members of the Summervail Art Workshop, who are also celebrating their 50th Anniversary this summer. Starting this week, the Vail Symposium’s summer programming will be offering a new event every week through mid-November, when they will take a short break before resuming their winter programming in December.

The modern iteration of the Vail Symposium invites experts to come to Vail and speak on a wide variety of topics that will provoke intellectual curiosity and conversation in the community.
Special to the Daily

This Wednesday at 6 p.m., the Symposium is hosting a virtual webinar on “The State of Democracy in Africa and Expectations for the Future,” led by Dr. Monde Muyangwa, the director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Next Wednesday, Aug. 25, veteran journalists Judy Woodruff, the current anchor at PBS Newshour, and Al Hunt, co-host of the 2022 Politics War Room, will be leading an in-person discussion on “The State of the Fourth Estate: News Media in America.”

The topics that the Symposium undertakes are timely, and sometimes contentious. By bringing experts and community members into a shared space, the Symposium aims to create an opportunity for deeper intellectual engagement.

“If someone wanted to, they can google it and get books and read about it, but we create a gathering place where people can come together, get introduced to something, and ask questions,” Sabel said. “We’re not an advocacy organization, and we try really hard to make sure that we present a balanced picture of every topic. Our job is just to make people more informed so that they can decide how they want to change their lives or the world.”

Historian Clay Jenkinson rounds out the month Aug. 30 and 31 with back-to-back nights impersonating Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, and September begins with neuroscientist and futurist Dr. Julia Mossbridge teaching about the science of precognition Sept. 9 at The Antlers.

Historian Clay Jenkinson portrays John Wesley Powell in 2019 at SaddleRidge. Jenkinson will be giving two performances on Aug. 30 and 31 of this year, one as Thomas Jefferson and one as Theodore Roosevelt.
Special to the Daily

The breadth of topics that the Vail Symposium covers is vast, offering opportunities for the community to engage in new ideas and gain insight and inspiration from experts at the top of their field. Claire Noble has been the program director at the Symposium since 2018, and she makes it her mission to find speakers who will bring something new to the table.

“I’m looking to create programs where we can go and hear things that we haven’t heard before,” Claire said. “People do a lot here in the valley to exercise their bodies, and then we provide an outlet to exercise their brains. We offer the opportunity for people to hear from experts in a longer format than on the evening news, and give them the chance to question the experts directly. It’s for people who are curious knowledge seekers, and it’s an intellectual outlet.”

During the pandemic, the Vail Symposium began offering virtual programming for the first time, inviting people to join free Zoom webinars from the comfort and safety of their homes. The format was a success, and moving forward the Symposium will offer about half of their programming in person and half online. All online programming is free.

“We’ve had viewers tune in from all over the world,” Sabel said. “The virtual platform has allowed us to expand, and people who live all over can now tune in whenever they want.”

Sabel has many ideas for the future, and looks forward to leading the organization into the second half-century of its existence.

“It’s exciting that we’re here 50 years later,” Sabel said. “​The Symposium is as strong now as it was 50 years ago in what it wants to provide for the community. Our mission is to provide education programs that are thought-provoking, diverse and affordable. There’s never a shortage of topics for us, there’s always something new going on.”

For a full schedule of upcoming events, and to purchase tickets or gain access to the free online webinars, visit vailsymposium.org.


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