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Residents of Western states see benefits in an arts tax

After voters in Denver and surrounding counties approved a tax to support the arts in 1989, several Western states are following Denver’s lead, and the small arts tax is yielding big results.

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    Family science day at Denver Botanic Gardens.
    Scott Dressel-Martin/Courtesy of SCFD
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By going to the polls to create a tax for the arts, metropolitan Denver sparked imaginations across the West. Voters in Denver and surrounding counties in 1989 approved a sales tax of a tenth of 1 percent, or a penny on every $10 spent, to support museums, theaters, dance companies, and institutions such as the zoo. 

It’s “public patronage of the arts,” says Peg Long, director of the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), which oversees fund distribution.

State and federal budgets have regularly cut arts funding during tough times. But in a reverse trend, voters in several Western states are slowly following Denver’s lead by committing to a small arts tax that continues to yield big results.

Art “makes you whole,” says Judy Mercer, a retired elementary school art teacher and a regular visitor to the Denver Art Museum. It and the natural history museum, zoo, botanical gardens, and performance hall complex together get two-thirds of SCFD funds.

Salt Lake City area business leaders who had been looking for an arts-funding formula decided to try something similar to the Denver initiative. Salt Lake County voters in 1996 approved a tenth of a percent sales tax and created Zoo, Arts & Parks, which funds more than 200 organizations.

Voters in Tempe, Ariz., approved a tenth of a percent sales tax to build an arts center in 2000. Don Fassinger, manager at the Tempe Center for the Arts, says future proposals for the tax might include other beneficiaries.

Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, approved by voters in 2008, increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent for arts and culture as well as wildlands and parks. Minnesota State Arts Board director Sue Gens says citizens saw their state’s “body and soul” in the amendment.

Ahead of a Denver reauthorization vote next fall, the SCFD board has proposed a small increase in the share of funds for grass-roots organizations in an increasingly diverse region.

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