Critics rail as lawmakers take up Denver-metro culture funding

Sen. Pat Steadman hopes a proposal to renew arts and culture funding in the Denver metro area will be a smooth way to begin what all hope will be a calm legislative session. But a group of cultural leaders say Steadman’s proposal fails to address concerns of racial and economic inequity in how tens of millions each year will be divvied up.

Place millions of dollars in front of starving artists and watch the hunger games begin.

That’s what happens every dozen years or so in the seven-county Denver metropolitan area when the region’s nationally-praised cultural tax district comes up for renewal, first by the legislature and then by voters.

On the first day of the upcoming 2016 session, Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman will present a bill that would send a ballot initiative to metro voters to renew the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. He told The Colorado Independent his SCFD measure is widely supported by both parties and that it will set the tone for what he hopes will be a quiet and cooperative legislative session leading up to the 2016 elections.

But over the past year, arts leaders have been feuding about SCFD’s proposal to the legislature, clashing over how millions are divvied up between cultural giants like the Museum of Nature and Science and the Denver Zoo which, as “Tier I,” recipients, receive the bulk of the SCFD tax revenues, medium-sized “Tier II” institutions like the Colorado Symphony and Opera Colorado and small, so-called “Tier III” groups like Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

Steadman says the grumblings about the SCFD proposal aren’t a substantial roadblock to the bill’s passage. While the plan SCFD sent him may not have full consensus in the arts and culture community, a vast majority supports it.

Many cultural leaders in tiers II and III worry that any decision made by lawmakers and voters will cement public policy about metro area arts funding until about 2030. Some pledge to fight the current SCFD proposal, even if doing so risks creating a messy legislative process. Their charges: SCFD’s plan favors white-led, Eurocentric, Denver organizations with multimillion dollar budgets over groups serving and led by communities of color and those outside of Denver in Adams, Boulder, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Douglas and Jefferson Counties.

Steadman signed on to take whatever proposal SCFD approved to the Statehouse about a year ago — before the fight between cultural leaders blew up.

Just months later and shortly after SCFD voted for a proposal to send lawmakers, Tier II Colorado Symphony board members, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and political commentator Eric Sondermann stirred the pot in an opinion piece in The Denver Post. They complained about inequity in SCFD’s proposed allocations and argued the proposal would dilute the amount individual Tier II groups received as more organizations joined the tier.

A coalition of smaller, Tier III groups formed Friends of Arts and Cultural Equity, a nonprofit dedicated to challenging SCFD’s status quo. Throughout the summer, FACE and the Symphony held community meetings with leaders of all tiers, trying to persuade the SCFD board to consider alternative ways of splitting up taxpayer money.

Eventually, they persuaded the board to reexamine its proposal. After weeks of debate and a long meeting where impassioned arts impresarios orated about the problems with the funding allocations, the board shrugged off its critics and voted to keep its proposal intact. Sondermann and Webb backed off, and the Symphony joined forces with the SCFD.

But FACE hasn’t stopped grabbing for a bigger piece of the pie. A statement on its website says it’s working to “iron out the wrinkles” in the current proposal. It wants 17 percent of the cut, no matter how many tax dollars SCFD brings in. Currently, the proposal would allocate 14 percent to Tier III if revenue was below $38 million and 17 percent if it was above $38 million.

Racial and economic inequity top FACE’s list of grievances.

SCFD-funded organizations led by and serving communities of color are all in Tier III, which receives the least amount of funding, said Anthony Garcia, director of the Tier III Latino theater company Su Teatro. Garcia has been working with heavyweights in the Latino community to pressure lawmakers to dig into questions of cultural equity about arts and cultural funding. He and his colleagues say organizations led by people of color shouldn’t be at the bottom of the pecking order.

Steadman, in turn, told The Independent, “I acknowledge that Tier III is where you see the greatest cultural diversity. I reject that Tier I is just for white people. Everybody goes to the Zoo.”

Garcia said the issue is not just with who goes to the zoo, but rather whom the Tier I and II groups hire in leadership positions and who serves on their boards. Scan the photos of any of their executive teams and the demographics are stark: White men drive the top funded tiers.

In their defense, Tier I’s have argued that they have programming catering to communities of color.

Garcia calls that line of reasoning “cultural appropriation.” Why not fund communities of color to represent themselves, he asks.

Steadman said the Tier IIIs are using arguments of cultural equity as political tools to leverage funding. Garcia agreed, less cynically. At the heart of racial justice are questions of economics, he noted, citing Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. who both fought for income equality.

The issues Tier III groups face extend beyond cultural equity. When it comes to how they apply for and report grants, Jay Seller of Think 360 Arts for Learning doesn’t mince words: “It’s a big pain in the butt.”

Instead of approaching SCFD directly, Tier III groups ask for money from county arts boards. An organization like Seller’s, which works across all seven counties, has to write, present and report on their work once each year per county.  He estimated each grant takes his staff about 40 hours to complete — a full week of work, which is time they could better use for programming.

Tier I groups, on the other hand, are more-or-less guaranteed funding, Seller said, and while they do some reporting to the SCFD, the board needs to do a better job auditing how these cultural giants spend tax dollars.

Steadman argued FACE is splitting hairs. Saving the Zoo is the reason SCFD was launched. “Tier III was created in this whole thing as a sort of afterthought.”

As to whether the metro area’s changing demographics warrant giving Tier III groups a larger percentage of the money, Steadman said, “They’ve been riding Tier I’s coattails all along.

“You have to question if this was just a Tier III tax, would there be a huge move to pass it?”

Photo credit: William Andrus, Creative Commons, Flickr


  1. Locking in percentages to each Tier for a decade or so without taking into account possible changes in organizational membership or their attendance seems shortsighted to me. Making Tier 3 apply to multiple county boards and allowing radical shifts in funding among the agencies of Tier 3 while maintaining a simpler process for the larger Tier 1 and 2 organizations also seems unfair. Limiting the percentage to Tier 3 (and thus increasing it for other tiers) if the tax revenue is below a target is yet another way to put more risk on the smaller organizations.
    What about the possibility of reversing the percentage, giving 17% to Tier 3 if the revenue is under the target? The larger, more professional organizations have larger support from SCFD in dollars and a wider range of funding options, so let them assume the risk.

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