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Tale of the Arts In Two Cities

All eyes are on Denver and Louisville, Ky., as innovative funding efforts find success

By M.S. MasonArts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1998


If there is any key that unlocks the doors of prosperity to the culture of a city, it seems to be cooperation among arts organizations. The usual competition for the elusive donation dollar may never disappear, but a better approach, say many arts professionals, may lie in a new spirit: "The tide that raises all boats."

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With the National Endowment of the Arts up to its knees in hot water, more and more civic-minded citizens are searching for alternatives not only to stabilize the arts but also to help them flourish in their own communities.

Many cities have found creative ways to protect their cultural facilities. Denver and Louisville, Ky., for example, two cities most outsiders might not think of as centers of culture, have found very different methods to encourage artistic excellence. And communities elsewhere are watching closely.

Louisville, which boasts one of the best children's theater companies in the country, Stage One, and one of the finest regional theater companies, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, will soon celebrate 50 years of its modest but stable Fund for the Arts. And on Nov. 8, Denver celebrates the 10th anniversary of its innovative arts tax, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) - ushered in by a popular vote in the six-county metro-Denver area in 1988.

"People perceive of the [arts and science institutions] as regional assets here," says Allan Wallis, associate professor of public policy at the University of Colorado, Denver. "In some metro areas, there is a conflict between the central city and the suburbs. But one of the ingenious things about the SCFD is the three-tier system: Communities outside the downtown area [in six counties] benefit from the tax, not just institutions in Denver."

The three-tier system works like this: The largest portion of the $26 million yearly income goes to four major institutions - the zoo, botanical gardens, natural-history museum, and the art museum. Tier 2, consisting of 14 institutions with budgets over $750,000, receives according to budgets and attendance. Tier 3 consists of small arts centers in the six counties, small theater companies, the Denver Film Society, and other, miscellaneous groups.

Tourism is big business in Denver, but just as many locals as tourists take advantage of the city's cultural offerings, says Mr. Wallis. "Assumptions are sometimes made that tourists come in from outside a community to use the arts and scientific facilities and should therefore pay for them," he says. "But a survey was done in the metro-Denver area that showed two things: The institutions were heavily used by residents, and they were perceived by residents to be significant assets."

Those who think of the arts as "elitist" or dismiss them as tangential to the life of a community are missing the hard facts, according to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. In 1996, the CBCA backed a study to prove that the arts matter not only to that intangible "quality of life," but also to the economic life of the city. (Another study is nearly complete, which is even more positive.)

The CBCA found that attendance for scientific and cultural events far outstrips that for professional sporting events (sports attendance, 4.7 million; SCFD attendance, 7.1 million a year, as of 1996) - and Denver is wild about its sports.

In the CBCA study, the 99 institutions under the SCFD's patronage created an estimated $520 million economic impact. Bringing in $8.4 million to the public coffers in payroll, seat, and sales taxes, SCFD also kept 4,000 people employed, earning $51 million. In fact, if all the 99 SCFD institutions were counted as a single employer, it would be the 11th-largest nongovernment employer in metropolitan Denver. CBCA's study further shows the indirect economic impact exceeds $285 million yearly.