Cultural leaders squabble for a bigger cut of metro Denver arts and culture money

Dozens of groups are balking at how metro Denver divvies its regional arts and cultural tax revenues, saying the newly proposed funding structure voters will consider in 2016, which isn’t that different than the prior one, tilts too much toward white city folks with money.

A growing chorus of critics says the plan to reauthorize the seven-county, 1/10 of 1 percent sales and use tax shortchanges most groups funded by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in favor of five Denver-based arts and culture heavyweights led mostly by white men — the Denver Zoo, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Denver Art Museum.

Leaders of those top five funded institutions in turn argue that spatting over how the tax revenues should be divided up risks the possibility that lawmakers and, ultimately, voters cold lose trust in the SCFD and kill taxpayer cultural institutions altogether.

The tug-of-war is creating rifts within and between metro Denver’s arts and cultural, philanthropic and political worlds that are expected to deepen as the SCFD board prepares to send its proposal to lawmakers next session so they can decide what goes to the voters in 2016.

The squabble’s also prompting a regional debate about whether tax dollars should do more to incubate smaller newer cultural institutions, fund larger organizations across the region, or continue fueling the growth of the five City of Denver giants.

Political analyst and Colorado Symphony board member Eric Sondermann told The Colorado Independent, “To say we need to keep on keeping on with the same model after more than a quarter century strikes me as shortsighted and not terribly imaginative.”

The SCFD has been around since 1989 and earned national praise as a model for funding regional arts in the wake of federal and state cultural funding cuts. Revenues from the tax district have helped fund Denver Art Museum exhibits like Passport to Paris, new plays at the Center for the Performing Arts like Legend of Georgia McBride, and the Zoo’s unique status as one of four institutions in the world with Occupation Health and Safety Assessment Series 18001 certification – something tots admiring elephants might not care much about but workers are certainly glad to have in place.

Voters in the seven counties, Boulder, Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson and Broomfield, reauthorize the tax periodically. So far, during elections in 1994 and 2004 it has twice survived the tax-bashing tendencies for which Colorado voters are notorious.

The leaders of tier I organizations say voters would reauthorize the tax because of their loyalty to the five biggies. Not surprisingly, leaders of tier II and III organizations say voters will no longer tolerate the majority of the money going to overpriced Denver institutions. These less-funded leaders say the money should be distributed to organizations with affordable ticketing, throughout the counties, and between the region’s diverse and growing cultures.

From the regional, one-tenth of 1 percent of sales-and-use taxes, the SCFD has raised $13,961,152 in its first year and $37,398,424 by 2000. Around $52 million is predicted this year and by 2030, the year the next SCFD period would need to be renewed, most are guessing the total would be around $87 million a year.

The program, as currently structured, hands out the revenue to more than 300 groups and institutions ranging from the Egyptian Study Society that hosts monthly slideshows and talks for an elite group of Egyptophiles to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where buses unload hundreds of thousands of children each year to chase each other around mummies and a model of an Egyptian temple – not to mention dinosaurs, spacemen and a planetarium.

The taskforce recommendations aim to give a larger percentage of money to tier II and tier III groups, but the increase is miniscule.

In the new proposal, if tax revenues are over $38 million, the five big marquis institutions snag 57 percent of SCFD revenues. The 27 tier II groups, such as Colorado Symphony and the Children’s Museum of Denver, divide between them a much smaller portion of the revenues – 26 percent. And 274 tier III groups, such as Su Teatro and the Molly Brown House, share 17 percent of SCFD revenues. As tiers II and II continue to grow, each organization’s percentage of the total will decrease.

If taxpayer revenues are less than $38 million, the split is even worse for tiers II and III: 64 percent will go to tier I, 22 percent to tier II and 14 percent to tier III.

Naturally, tiers II and III have long been sore about the funding structure. Although the proposed allocations are slightly better for these groups, many say the percentages are not big enough. Critics objections heightened in May when 11 board members voted on the Reauthorization Task Force’s recommendations. Only 1 of the 11 voting board members opposed the new allocations. One member was absent.

The recommendations raised funding for small and medium-sized groups by only a few percent each, not nearly enough, critics say, to meet their concerns. Critics want the SCFD to reconsider the suggested allocation formula before sending it to lawmakers in January – a deviation from the SCFD board’s presumed next step: working with a bill drafter to write a bill reflecting their vote.

In July, about 80 leaders of both big and small SCFD-funded groups gathered at Su Teatro, the theater company run by Tony Garcia, one of the few Reauthorization Task Force members to vote against the recommendations before they went to the board in April. Garcia, whose Tier III organization serves Latinos in Denver, has been especially critical of the SCFD for favoring white-led organizations over those run by ethnic minorities.

“I view this as a civil rights issue,” Garcia told The Colorado Independent. He finds it frustrating to watch Tier I organizations struggle to achieve cultural relevancy in the Latino community when SCFD could just give more funding to organizations like his.

“Why are these guys trying to create a bilingual staff when we already have a bilingual staff,” Garcia said.

Most of the few SCFD board members present at the July 15th meeting stayed mum. The group that convened had no decision-making authority. The goal, facilitator Bill Fulton wrote in an email, was “to explore different views on where the SCFD reauthorization process currently stands and what might lie ahead.”

The SCFD board majority says groups were given four years to air their concerns. Over 350 volunteers donated more than 2,500 hours to figure out ways to address changes brought up by the public and by organizations.

After those years of work, it’s too late to bring up reallocations, argued Tier I leaders at the meeting. Especially, when the proposal is just about ready to be drafted into a bill and sent to lawmakers, a cumbersome necessity in a state where taxes have sunshine clauses and must be brought to the legislature before the public ever gets to consider reauthorization.

But critics of the plan say the issue of allocation hardly came up and that the task force was charged with looking at solely “incremental change.”

“Incremental doesn’t mean insignificant,” Garcia said. “What we’re working with is insignificant.”

Some used the July meeting as a chance finally to be heard – but nobody’s sure if the SCFD board is actually listening.

Boulder County voters are cautions about the SCFD tax, said Susan Honstein, former Chair of the Louisville Cultural Council. Many Boulderites soured on regional taxes after they supported RTD’s Fasttrack and found that their county’s rail system would be put off until 2040 due to lack of funding, while Denver’s transportation system boomed.

Other counties have grown and deserve a bigger cut of the money, Honstein said. “The districts have changed a lot in 25 years and Denver is not as dominant in terms of the population.”

“We have to have something that’s palatable to all the voters in the district,” she said. “The district has grown population wise and you have more people who are getting their arts and culture at home.”

Coming to Denver is no longer a necessity for people outside the city, and while Honstein likes the flagship Tier I organizations – after she spoke with The Colorado Independent she planned to take her grandchild to the Museum of Nature and Science – she fears voters won’t support a tax that doesn’t benefit them and their immediate communities directly.

At the July meeting, a group called Friends of Arts and Cultural Equity proposed an incremental shift in how the revenue is split, saying that by 2030, Tier III should get 20 percent, Tier II should get 30 percent and Tier I should be weened down to 50 percent.

Several Tier III leaders asked why not a 30-30-30 split.

Boulder County arts leaders talked about divesting from SCFD and proposing a Boulder County-based tax.

Supporters of the current plan said members of the arts and cultural community have to present a unified front against the inevitable anti-tax onslaught of Colorado’s small-government politicos.

Not everybody thinks sticking together is the answer. At the July meeting, Sondermann suggested that if SCFD doesn’t recut the pie, Tier II and III groups should sidestep the district and put forth their own funding proposal to lawmakers. Several leaders expressed worry that that so-called nuclear option likely would threaten the success of the SCFD to win voter reauthorization.

Members of Friends of Arts and Cultural Equity, who have already hired a lobbyist, share a similar take: “We seek a consensus with the SCFD Board so we can approach the legislature with a united front. However, should inequities not be addressed by the board, we will seek amendments to legislation,” according to the group’s proposal.

Some credit Sondermann with instigating the grab-a-thon after penning a letter to The Denver Post with former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb criticizing SCFD’s plan.

“If they’re not going to see the light, let them feel the heat,” Sondermann said of the SCFD board. “You’re not going to get another bite at this apple for another decade or more.”

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons, Flickr.