PERRY: Last chance to put our art into making cultural district tax work for everyone

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All this happy talk about the whole state “unanimously” agreeing to hand over a lion’s share of zoo and museum district cash to deep-pocket Denver cultural venues is giving me serious art burn.

This week, the culmination of months of meetings on what to do about renewing the region’s Science and Cultural Facilities District tax was in the state Senate. There, a committee of Republicans and Democrats unanimously agreed — and how often does that happen? — to recommend asking voters to renew and extend the 30-year-old SCFD tax another 15 years.

Overall, this is a really good thing. I was part of the original hype team back in 1988 when the 1-penny-on-10-dollars-purchase tax became a surprising reality. The tax and the district were created to save Denver’s failing zoo and sagging major museums. As an added bonus, some money was supposed to get spread around to the then-Denver Symphony Orchestra and a smattering of small theaters, galleries and dance groups across the metro area. What was expected to be massive voter eye-roll became reality.

The district now collects upward of $50 million a year and has allowed Denver’s botanic gardens, zoo, art museum, science and history museum and performing arts complex to rival others across the nation. Not only that, but this inspiring tax has also saved what is now the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and it’s made all the phenomenal regional dance and theater possible. Those regional attractions include some of the area’s top theater houses and companies right here in Aurora, including the Aurora Fox Arts Center, the Vintage Theatre and the John Hand Theater. I never dreamed back in 1988 that the tax would be able to do so much.

So what’s the problem?

Greed. Denver’s Big Five, which have benefited from the tax the most by getting 65 percent of the take, have since become world-class attractions. Where in 1988 they could barely snag money from local patrons, they now are big enough and savvy enough to bolster serious ticket prices with national and international grants. Meanwhile, the money spreading out to smaller venues and projects has become increasingly harder to get as more and more new venues and groups create more need for SCFD subsidies.

This is not too much of a good thing. The plethora of cultural arts programs and venues is more a response to the welcome demand. Colorado is growing up, and we like our arts. A lot.

The bottom line is, Denver’s large institutions have only received more money each year and will continue to do so without fear of having to share with new Tier I projects. Meanwhile, while formula tinkering funnels more money to Tier II and Tier III projects, there are more of those each year than ever. And these are organizations that don’t have the resources to beat the bushes and grants for funding dollars. The margins here are already razor thin.

Not only does the Denver-centric refunding formula favor only the Big Five, it contains no mechanism for making changes if things really go south in the next couple of decades. The money is the money is the money, no matter what. If the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities were to undergo a major expansion or if Aurora were to create a massive Western History Museum and Performing Arts Complex, there’s no way to funnel money toward new, regional projects, nor do Denver’s Big Five want to see it happen.

The refunding bill could easily give more power and flexibility to the SCFD board, made up of representatives from across the region. There’s no good reason not to make that change now, before the measure goes to voters and becomes the law of the land of arts for decades.

Kudos to Denver venues for creating world-class programs. But step away from the trough and let others in so that other remarkable projects have a chance to not just stay alive, but grow in the same way all that money allowed them to grow as well. Give the SCFD board flexibility in funding for the future. What could be more artistic and more Colorado at the same time?

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]