Denver’s Contentious Arts and Culture Funding Splinters Community

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Denver, Colorado / Geoff Alexander

August 13, 2015; Colorado Independent

Denver’s regional approach to arts and culture funding was lauded when it was introduced in 1988, but today’s cultural leaders are upset about the inequity between Denver’s five heavyweight arts bodies and the rest of the region’s nearly 300 cultural organizations, reports the Colorado Independent.

Presently, the city allots one-tenth of one percent of sales-and-use taxes to the Denver Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, or SCFD. This money is then divided among three tiers, with tier one institutions (the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Denver Zoo) receiving the majority of the funding. In fact, if voters approve new recommendations from the SCFD Reauthorization Task Force in 2016, these five organizations could receive 57 percent of the estimated $52 million in annual SCFD revenues. This would leave 26 percent of SCFD revenues for 27 groups in Tier II. The remaining 17 percent would be split among the 247 groups that make up Tier III.

Unsurprisingly, Tier II and III leaders are opponents of the recommendations and have made sound arguments for a stronger reallocation of funding. These arguments center on location, diversity, and accessibility.

First, critics of the proposed plan take issue with the fact that more than half of the funding will be presented to five cultural organizations in Denver. Because the SCFD receives contributions from seven counties (Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson), it seems unfair to funnel the majority of tax revenues to one city. Susan Honstein, chair of a cultural group, notes that the population in the region has shifted, and that other counties have grown and subsequently deserve more of the money.

Second, Tier III members have raised concerns about the institutions that benefit from most of the money. Tony Garcia, one of the Reauthorization Task Force board members and the director of a Tier III organization serving Latinos in Denver, calls the funding “a civil rights issue.” Garcia dismisses the Tier I organizations as irrelevant to the Latino community, which comprises about one third of the total Denver population. In the words of the Colorado Independent, the new recommendations “tilt too much toward white city folks with money.”

Finally, the accessibility of the Tier I organizations has been questioned. A family of four would pay $50 or more to attend the Denver Zoo or Denver Museum of Nature and Science. To see a play at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, families of four would be shelling out at least $120. Broader accessibility considerations include accessible transportation (a thorn in Boulder’s side, after their rail system was deferred to 2040 due to lack of funding) and cultural accessibility. Many in the Denver region want to support cultural organizations that are more reflective of Latino and African American residents.

Voters will decide on the fate of SCFD funding in 2016. In the meantime, Northern Colorado cultural organizations, which recently announced a plan to follow Denver’s lead in providing tax funding to scientific and cultural institutions, may want to press pause until this dispute has been resolved.—Maggie Hodge Kwan

  • Kebo Drew

    This is true of San Francisco, San Antonio and other cities. It is a question of city government funneling tax funds into cultural organizations deemed “high art”, representing western European cultural forms (we’ll leave the discussion of ballet’s origins to the side for the moment) enjoyed by the elite, which are also losing audiences (see RAND, NEA, and many more studies), vs other art forms, some traditional and others not, which are deemed “less than” because they represent and are relevant to communities that are a part of demographic change. So where is the money going to go? To “big box” opera, ballet, symphony, museum, etc. to become more appealing and “diverse” (usually one off programs for so-called “underserved” populations)? Or to organizations that are run by, for and about the communities they serve, whether it’s through more “elite” art forms (Dance Theatre of Harlem comes to mind) or traditional (many pow wows) or other kinds of art? That is the issue at hand, always. And those organizations that pretend that art is somehow apolitical (the poem “apolitical intellecutals” by Otto Rene Castillo comes to mind) are making a political statement in and of themselves. They are also denying the power of art as “cultural resistance, cultural resilience, cultural renewal” its ability to address legacies of
    inequity, inequality and injustice” (QWOCMAP) and its role in social movements of the past 500 years, especially in this hemisphere. So where do we want our money to go?

    • Martin D Robbins

      The S in SCFD stands for science. Three of the Big 5 are science-based organizations. Many of the smaller organizations are also science not art based. Please do not further the myth that this is a

    • Kebo Drew

      Will refer people to Neil deGrasse Tyson on science and whether science-based organizations have learned to be relevant.