Aspen officials designing new arts funding framework

Aspen City Council agrees on how much to fund individual artists but wants more information how spending affects historic Wheeler Opera House

Lights are adjusted over Teresa Booth Brown’s pieces of art for the new Red Brick Arts Center show on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Eight months after voters approved shifting revenue from a real estate transfer tax dedicated to the Wheeler Opera House to local arts and culture programs, Aspen City Council is moving forward with plans on how much and where to spend it.

Council on Tuesday during a work session agreed to expand its arts and culture grant program and increase funding beyond this year’s $600,000.

The increased funding will occur across two new programs: The “Aspen Artist Fellowship” and the “Asset & Acquisition Support.”

The fellowship will be a one-year pilot program and will award 10 to 15 grants to support individual artists and creatives.

Council agreed that $60,00 should go toward grants under this program.

The program is intended to invest in the creative efforts of artists and includes an opportunity for collaboration in an established cohort, as well as youth involvement.

Mayor Torre suggested the $60,000 allocation, which all four of his fellow council members agreed to.

“That’s a $4,000-per-grantee kind of a thing,” Torre said. “This is part of the reason to even do the arts grants; it’s to get monies to artists, not just the big organizations.”

Sarah Roy, director of the Red Brick Center for the Arts, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s investing in them because we believe in what they offer for our lives,” she said. “These artists in our community are the ones teaching our kids piano lessons, teaching at Theater Aspen camp, they are the ones performing in our local theater productions and all of that is the joy and the value that we receive back from them.”

Council couldn’t agree on funding for the asset and acquisition program, saying they need more information about how it’s intended to work.

Currently it’s designed to help nonprofit organizations with their facilities and provide the tools and equipment necessary to enhance their buildings and infrastructure.

That could range from remodeling an instructional room to meet modern standards to the purchase of essential equipment for operations.

Some council members expressed concern that larger organizations will apply and receive monies they want to go to smaller nonprofits. They also support matching grant money from would-be applicants.

“We don’t want to be giving out more money to well-established organizations that can supposedly take care of themselves,” Councilman John Doyle said.

City Manager Sara Ott said staff will come back to council in two weeks at another work session with financial models that suggest how much to increase grants for the overall arts and culture program, as well as the asset and acquisition division.

“I am fully supportive of starting small and more restrictive on (asset and acquisition),” she said. “Get a feel for it and then you can loosen because it’s a lot harder than pullback, so we can work with that to put something together.”

The two new programs will operate under the city’s overall arts and culture grants division that was established over a decade ago, according to John Barker, the city’s senior management analyst.

The new programs and increased funding wouldn’t be possible if Aspen voters hadn’t overwhelmingly passed Ballot Measure 2A.

The question required 60% of the Aspen electorate to approve it, per the original ballot language from 1979 when city voters passed a 0.5% real estate transfer tax to fund the historic opera house, as well as a cap of $100,000 in annual grants to local arts organizations.

Current and previous councils have debated for the last decade or more about asking voters to reallocate money going into the Wheeler fund, which has ballooned in recent years with the unprecedented real estate boom.

As of last fall, the fund was at over $40 million.

Historical RETT collections have totaled around $4 million annually, according to Barker.

In 2021, RETT collections totaled $10.8 million and through May of this year, $4.9 million. That is a 37% increase over the same period in 2021. Additionally, in accordance with the language of the approved ballot measure, the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which previously received $30,000 annually from the grants program, will now receive support from RETT collections with an estimated annual contribution of $250,000 for operating expenses in addition to capital project support in future years.

Barker said it’s important to implement programming that can be maintained in times of less robust real estate activity while preserving capacity to support the primary uses of RETT funding, the Red Brick and the Wheeler Opera House in addition to expanded grants funding.

“We need to make sure we are designing a program that is sustainable over the long term in varying economic conditions,” he said. “Our funding collections are well above average but we don’t want to design a program that requires 2021 and 2022 collections in order to be sustainable.”

Since 2018, the city’s arts and culture grants program has had an annual budget of $400,000, $100,000 of which comes from RETT proceeds and the remaining comes from Wheeler Opera House operations and tenant rentals.

Barker said requests have consistently and significantly outpaced the program budget.

“The arts and culture grant division specifically is the most popular city program by request,” he told council. “It regularly receives the highest dollar amount in requests in any of our three primary divisions and it supports organizations all about the valley which historically has been between Aspen and Rifle.”

For the 2022 grant cycle, council allocated an additional $200,000 of available RETT funding collected in December, creating a grant funding pool of $600,000.

Given the projected robust RETT collections in 2022 and the community expectation that more funds will be made available to this program, staff and the grants steering committee suggested a funding pool increase between 33% and 100% of 2022 levels.

In 2021, requests totaled $827,450 and in 2022 it was $970,706.