Tale of the Arts In Two Cities

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

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."

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.

Back in 1988, things looked bleak for tourism in Denver. The unemployment rate was at 5.8 percent. Overbuilding during the boom of the late 1970s and early '80s had left a 26-percent downtown-office vacancy. And cultural institutions were struggling. So a group of citizens raised the idea of a small increase in sales tax. SCFD's 1/10th of 1 percent tax (1 cent for every $10) has brought in nearly $200 million since its inception - and cost each citizen about $1 a month. Because it is so comprehensive it has remained popular, although there is some discontent among arts professionals who would like to see the grant formula adjusted.

The Foothills Art Center, housed in a converted church and parsonage in Golden, Colo., has directly benefited. Its director, Carol Dickenson, says that "Restoration, upgrade, and maintenance have been very expensive - couldn't have been done without SCFD funding. This is a conservative arts community. But we also needed to do bigger, more comprehensive, more avant-garde shows. We have been able to do both, to serve a huge number of people."

Asked what he likes best about the SCFD style, John Lucci of Cleveland's Community Partnership for Arts and Culture points to Denver's encompassing design. "The three-tier system is great, because everybody, arts and scientific facilities, gets some. It's much more inclusive than most programs. A comprehensive approach like that could help stabilize institutions in our region. The small and the large organizations all move forward together."

"It's like having a substantial endowment," says Alice Sperling of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. "But another important thing about it is that the SCFD has fostered cooperation. In most other cities, arts organizations tend to be in competition." Ron Henderson, director of the Denver Film Society, which presents several minor and one major film festivals each year, says, "It has enabled us to partner with other organizations like the Denver Art Museum and the Mizel Art Center for outreach and innovative programming."

The SCFD also allows arts institutions under its wing to provide free and discounted tickets.

Louisville's approach, too, fosters active cooperation. "There is a history of arts organizations working together," says Moses Goldberg, director of Stage One. "The fund forces us to get our financial act together."

The all-volunteer giving program doesn't have the kind of moneymaking clout the SCFD tax does, but 33,000 employees from 200 companies pitch in a little each month (sometimes only $1). Most of them are blue-collar workers. Louisville has one of the largest per-capita arts-giving bases in the US, according to Americans for the Arts, an independent arts-advocacy group in Washington. With modest corporate support, large donations and bequests, the Fund brings in $5.8 million a year for the arts, generating $85 million for the local economy.

All arts organizations contacted praise the fund, and they also speak enthusiastically about cooperation among organizations.

"The fund has created monthly meetings for administrators of all our organizations," says Alexander Speer, executive director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. "We meet and develop task forces. The fund has put on three-day arts-leadership workshops, brought in Harvard Business School types in arts management, and made us all take a look at the planning process."

Like Denver's arts institutions, Louisville's share databases. And in both cities, arts groups often support one another. Debra Hoffer of the Louisville Ballet says the Fund allows her company to hire the Louisville Orchestra for some performances.

One of the valuable lessons Louisville's arts-giving teaches, Ms. Hoffer says, is that people want the arts for their children.

"We have a common commitment here," says Allan Cowen, president and chief executive officer of Louisville's fund. "We want the best experience for children. It's probably Southern civic pride in the best Southern tradition. There is an inherent belief here that you have to make the community as great as it can be."

* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is: masonm@csps.com

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