Let’s talk about the metro area’s theatrical tragedy, back in 1986, when you wouldn’t have recognized the region. Denver was dying.
Not only had the Great Colorado Oil Shale plan gone belly up a few years earlier, but the gusher of Big Oil money, which raised a crop of skyscrapers in Downtown Denver, evaporated when the nation’s black gold bottomed out at $9 a barrel.
Denver became a ghost town. Home values sunk like a rock just after the last skip on a pond.
And the arts and cultural scene? What arts and cultural scene? There was the mostly community theater at the old Bonfils theater on East Colfax Avenue. A handful of community theaters across town and in the suburbs. The fading Elitch Theater with some summer stock. A new Boettcher Concert Hall housed the seriously financially struggling Denver Symphony Orchestra. Denver had begun to create the Denver Center for Performing Arts, but with the collapse of oil sucking money out of the city and the state, the future looked bleak. Venues like the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens were becoming sketchy, third-rate venues, beginning the spiral down of declining patronage and ticket revenues.
Then, a determined band of politicians and civic leaders did one of the smartest things ever done in Colorado. They asked voters to create the Science and Cultural minuscule District, funded by a minuscule minuscule sales tax of 1 penny on ever $10 dollars of purchase in the seven-county metro area.
It not only saved Denver’s big cultural-arts draws, it has allowed them to flourish. Really flourish.
The metro area’s SCFD has been more successful than most of us back in 1988 ever dreamed it could be. In fact, it’s been too successful for Denver’s big venues, at the expense of myriad other programs and opportunities.
The SCFD raises about $50 million a year in revenues dedicated to programs for the arts and sciences in the metro area. Back in the day when fading dioramas filled with ratty stuffed animals at the history museum were behind dusty glass, and you could drive by the botanic gardens and not even know they were there, it made total sense to give Denver’s big and ailing venues two-thirds of the take. Besides the symphony, the venerable Colorado Opera and a couple of other programs, that was about it.
By design, the “big five” still get two thirds of the pot. Slightly smaller programs, and local theaters, festivals and programs split the other third.
But where Denver venues used to be about the only games in town, they pale in both quality and quantity of productions, shows and festivals offered up all over the metro area. In fact, SCFD reveals that as many people see smaller, “Tier III” productions as they see productions from Denver’s big “Tier I” venues — but they get a fraction of the pot that we all pay into.
I’m not dissing the world-class stuff cranked out by the DCPA, where shows just as good as those on Broadway and London stages come to us, but the off-DCPA stages are every bit as good, and in many ways better, than what off-Broadway venues offer up.
While the cultural arts district can claim unparalleled success, by design, the tax funding it will expire next year. So now it’s time for the metro area to ask voters to re-authorize our brilliant SCFD at the 2016 election — but it must come with changes.
The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, The Aurora Fox Theater, Aurora’s Vintage Theater, Denver’s Avenue Theater, Lowry’s John Hand Theater, The Parker Arts Center, Lakewood’s Edge Theater, Aurora’s Vintage Theater, The Bug Theater, The Evergreen Players and more produce dozens of shows each year that not only rival productions at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, they often surpass them, charging patrons a fraction of DCPA ticket prices.
The quality and variety of theater now showing almost daily in the Aurora-Denver metro area is truly astounding, and it was made possible by the SCFD.
It is not, however, sustainable. The rising cost of these productions, which actually pay few humans few dollars, just keeps getting higher. They need a larger share of the SCFD kitty to keep their important and rewarding work coming, and to keep ticket prices low enough to keep this vital art form accessible to as many people as possible.
Theater is a but a small part of the two lower tiers of the SCFD. Arts, gallery, museum and dance programs, and wide range of festivals and classes, serve up the arts and sciences to hundreds of thousands of people every year. Few government programs in the region have done as much for as long.
It’s time for Denver’s big five to step up and offer to wean themselves off the SCFD cash. Each of these entities now have the political and cultural clout to replace and extend SCFD dollars with private and corporate donors and patronage.
At the same time, a larger portion of program funds needs to shore up the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and other Tier II programs. But a much, much larger share of SCFD dollars must go to solidifying the Tier III venues and projects. These are opportunities that bring theater, dance, science, music and more so very up close and personal to so many people. It’s these very programs that make culture a real part of the lives of so many.
I don’t think anyone knew at the time that the SCFD program would sprout such a rich and varied garden of cultural programs and opportunities in the metro area. But it would border on criminal to not change the funding formula of the SCFD before going back to voters to reflect a Downtown, a metro area, an economy, a population and a cultural scene that is vastly different than what was here when the district was created in 1988.
Metro area leaders and voters did the right thing in 1988. Now it’s time for Denver’s big venues and their supporters to do the right thing by giving other vital efforts a chance at the same success. Change the funding formula.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]