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Denver's success: raising money and consciousness for the arts.

It was an interesting lecture in Denver by Beverly Sills, diva emerita and well-known spokeswoman for the arts, that alerted met to the fact that we in Colorado may have done something unique. She was conducting a question-and-answer session after her wonderfully witty description of her life and career. Someone asked about her years of fund-raising for Lincoln Center institutions, and she began to speak passionately and earnestly about the need for government support for the arts. Sills lamented the lack of funds for youth education programs and the fact that free performances for schoolchildren at the center were limited to perhaps one each year.

I began to suspect that she and her counterparts in New York City - indeed, probably the whole country - had not heard about Denver's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). I raised my hand to ask whether she had heard about it. When Sills answered that she had not but was eager to hear of any plan providing public support for the arts, I explained, it as briefly as I could. What follows is a slightly expanded version of my description of SCFD and its success in raising money.

In 1989 we local supporters of the arts convinced voters in the Denver metropolitan area, which includes six surrounding counties, that everyone would benefit from a very small sales tax specifically designated to support the arts. The SCFD consists of a special tax district that had to be approved by voters. It imposed a sales tax of one penny per ten dollars spent in the six-county Denver area. The voters approved, and the result was so successful the tax has passed the acid test of a second vote to extend it. The funds generated are specifically designated to support the arts. It is a true grass-roots effort by the people to find a way to support the many diverse cultural activities that they enjoy. The SCFD is headed not by appointed government bureaucrats but by civic-minded volunteers, as well as by representatives of the many organizations involved; they follow and administer the law as it governs the collection and distribution of funds.

Tier I of the SCFD is comprised of what we call the "big four": the Colorado Natural History Museum, the Denver Botanical Gardens, the Denver Art Museum, and the Denver Zoo. These four receive the lion's share of the tax because they provide services for the greatest number of patrons.

Tier II is made up of the organizations that meet criteria set up by the statute. Inclusion in this tier is determined by a strictly applied formula involving non-profit status, budgets, and paid admissions. Funding levels are tied to patronage.

In 1989 we started with only seven arts organizations in Tier II. Now Tier II includes such groups as the Colorado Symphony, Colorado Ballet, Denver Center Theatre Company, Opera Colorado, Central City Opera, Arvada Center for the Arts, Cherry Creek Arts Festival, Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, the Children's Museum, and Cleo Parker Robinson New Dance Theatre.

Speaking for Colorado Ballet, the arts organization I know most about, I can report that we have been able, since receiving SCFD funds, to do several of the things Sills considered most important: we are sending dancers into schools for special programs and sending packets of information ahead to teachers to prepare the children. We are also able to provide dance activities for the Denver and surrounding suburbs' parks and recreations services during summer months. Most exciting of all is that during the run of each concert we are able to bus schoolchildren to see fully produced stage performances. To date we have entertained students from each of the school districts of the six counties involved in the SCFD.

In fact, SCFD has enabled all of the Tier I and 11 organizations to provide many services to the public free of charge. We also have Tier III, which supports small-budget community groups that, in turn, create more interest and support for the larger ones. Tier Ill started with a roster of fewer than 100 participating organizations but now supports nearly 200 - more than doubling opportunities for people to enjoy their arts and cultural groups on a local level. In short, support has generated more support, and audiences and art patrons are increasing at a much greater rate than before we had the SCFD. It now funds an amazing variety of activities, from ceramics to opera.

This year the SCFD has collected and distributed more than $20 million in the Denver metropolitan area, with its population of around one million. It has spurred the growth of the cultural and artistic scene here. It has made all of us - ordinary citizens and politicians alike - aware of the importance of the arts, that the arts are good business, and that they are worthy of support. Each year we grow, and Denver gains.

The success of the project should be of interest to all who want to encourage the growth and support of their cultural institutions through their own electorate. To learn more about our SCFD, you may write to:

Scientific and Cultural Facilities District

c/o Jane Hansberry

P.O. Box 46106

Denver, CO 80201

And, thank you, Beverly Sills, for inspiring these thoughts and giving me an excuse to set them down.
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Title Annotation:Denver, CO arts sales tax
Author:Parker, Freidann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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