The arts are a major economic driver in Colorado, but not every city is benefiting equally.
The gains flow disproportionately to the seven-county Denver Metropolitan area. In 2005, Denver-area cultural facilities were responsible for more than10,000 direct jobs, and $1.4 billion of economic activity.
In Colorado Springs, a 2004 study about the impact of the 10 largest nonprofit arts and cultural organizations attributed 754 direct and indirect jobs and $85 million in economic activity.
In 2005, the Denver Metro area had an estimated population of 2.4 million, compared to 587,000 in Colorado Springs.
With four times the population, the Denver area realized 20 times as many direct jobs, and 17 times the economic impact from arts and cultural facilities.
The reason might be because of a one-tenth of a percent sales tax approved by voters in 1998 to fund the metro-area Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to qualifying nonprofits.
“Building on $38.3 million in investment through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District tax, the cultural sector returned $387 million in new money to our local economy, an impressive 10:1 return on investment,” according to a 2005 analysis by the Colorado Business Coalition for the Arts.
Voters also authorized a $62.5 million bond issue to help fund a $110 million addition to the Denver Art Museum.
This fall, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center will unveil the David Tryba-designed addition to its iconic John Gaw Meem building. But there’s one very large difference between the projects: The addition, which will cost about $28.4 million, is entirely being paid for with private money.
In Denver, the SCFD distributes $40 million annually to more than 300 organizations.
The five Tier 1 organizations — the zoo, the DAM, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Nature and Science and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts — received $21 million in 2005. The DAM received nearly $6 million.
Smaller organizations fared well, too.
The Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra’s counterpart, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, received $820,000, and the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities was awarded $1 million.
In Colorado Springs, only the city-owned Pioneers’ Museum receives public funding, which last year was about $840,000. The museum raised $150,000 from private donors.
Dave White, vice president of marketing for the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., said social factors play a key role in recruiting businesses.
“Executives who are coming from L.A. or New York are used to a big, diverse cultural scene — we can’t just sell rock climbing and fly fishing,” he said. “For example, we’re talking with a company whose CEO’s spouse is a music conductor, and she wants to be able to use her talents if they move.”
Eve Tilley, president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council, was succinct in describing the disparity.
“That’s why Denver’s a real city,” she said, “and we’re Cattle-Rattle Springs.”
Tilley said that local arts advocates put an arts tax on the ballot 15 years ago, only to see it handily defeated. She doubts that local voters would ever approve an arts tax.
“We just expect foundations and rich people to foot the bill,” she said.
Susan Greene, manager of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, worries that even flagship nonprofits suffer by comparison with other cities.
“We don’t have an endowment,” she said. “We have to raise nearly $1 million annually, and it’s not easy to do that with $100 donations.”
She said that while donations from the Springs-based El Pomar Foundation are critical for many cultural organizations, it can’t be expected to do everything.
“One year it’s the zoo, then the Fine Arts Center, then it’s renovating the Pikes Peak Center,” Greene said. “They do what they can, but they don’t have unlimited resources. It’s hard not to look at Denver, and the SCFD.”
Local nonprofit organizations that cast covetous eyes on the SCFD aren’t alone, according to Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation.
“The SCFD is the envy of every city in America,” she said. “We’re living in the shadow of the most generously funded public arts program in the country.”
El Pomar CEO Bill Hybl acknowledges both the importance of the arts and the role that his foundation plays, but he admitted that El Pomar can’t always take the lead.
“In a modest way, public funding is very helpful,” he said. “My view is that El Pomar is here to support and supplement what others do. On occasion, we’ve gotten out in front, with the World Arena, with the Pikes Peak Center, with the Fine Arts Center. But these truly were the interests of Mr. and Mrs. Penrose (El Pomar’s founders).”
But Colorado Springs isn’t the only city in the region that is wrestling with the problem of arts funding.
Two years ago, Albuquerque cut the ribbon on a 40,000 square foot addition to its Museum of Art and History. The expansion was paid for by a city bond issue, grants from the state and donations from the Albuquerque Museum Foundation.
Museum Director Cathy Wright, who for nearly two decades was a curator at the FAC, said the bulk of her budget comes from public sources.
“We get about 80 percent of our operating funds from the city,” she said. “And every year, the state budgets money for capital projects.”
Last year, Albuquerque voters narrowly rejected a cultural facilities tax modeled after Denver’s SCFD.
Wright credits El Pomar for its generous funding of the arts in Colorado Springs, with one caveat.
“It does appear to take the heat off municipal government,” she said, “which can avoid the issue of supporting institutions that are widely supported in other cities.”
Asked whether Wright’s comment had any merit, Hybl paused for a moment.
“That’s a very good question”, he said, “and one that could be asked to a county commissioner, or a City Council member.”
In Fort Collins, the city-owned museum’s operating costs are publicly funded.
Cheryl Donaldson, the museum’s director, said there are plans to put a cultural facilities tax on the 2008 Larimer County ballot.
In Pueblo Maggie Divilbiss, director of the Sangre de Cristo Arts & Conference Center, said she would welcome a local SCFD, but isn’t hopeful.
“You know, about 10 years ago we tried it, and it didn’t even come close,” she said. “The people voted against it by a big margin. And just putting on the ballot and losing could have been real negative for us. The city and county could have said ‘See, people just aren’t interested in this stuff.’”
The Sangre de Cristo receives a limited amount of public support.
“Our building is city-owned, so they pay our utilities, maintenance and some of our operating expenses,” Divilbiss said. “That amounts to about $600,000, so I have to come up with another $2 million.”
So how do you create a continuing, reliable funding source for the arts?
“You have to do it yourself,” she said. “Every nonprofit has to have an endowment. And to raise that money, you have to go to businesses. So if you run a good business yourself, they’ll support you. And if not — not.”