Aspen short on money for the arts |

Aspen short on money for the arts

ASPEN ” The dwindling pool of funds that supports Aspen nonprofit arts organizations has prompted the city’s elected officials to contemplate whether to dole out taxpayer money to fledgling groups.

The Aspen City Council on Tuesday informally discussed how to handle and fund arts organizations’ requests for grants in the future. The upshot of the meeting was a decision to form a new mission statement for the Aspen Arts Grants Review Committee, on which to base any more allocations.

The more pressing issue is that there is not enough money to go around and, when requests come in for 2009 this fall, the committee wants to know where it stands on funding.

“We’re running out of money,” said Kathryn Koch, chairwoman of the arts grants review committee.

Council members agree that the city government can afford to give more money to local arts organizations. The 2008 city budget is approved at $84.4 million.

“This council is supportive of the arts and we’ll look at how to generate the revenue,” Mayor Mick Ireland said, adding that the committee’s mission statement written in 1996 should be re-examined before city funding occurs.

This year, the review committee awarded $392,200 to 18 organizations. The grant requests totaled $487,600, nearly 25 percent more than what was available.

The city has funded arts, nonprofit and human service groups since the 1970s, mainly out of the general fund. The Wheeler Opera House has been responsible for funding 100 percent of the arts portion of the annual not-for-profit grants requests since 1999.

“Where we put our resources as a government you can see a tremendous disparity,” said Councilman Dwayne Romero, who voiced his support Tuesday for additional funding for the arts.

All arts grants funding comes from the Wheeler Opera House’s half-cent Real Estate Transfer Tax and the opera house’s operating revenue. But RETT funds are limited to only $100,000 for local nonprofits every year, and the Wheeler’s operating revenue is limited.

“It’s reached the point in our frustration that we don’t have enough money,” said Brian O’Neil, a Wheeler board member who also serves on the review committee.

This year’s allocation is a 6 percent increase over 2007’s funding pool of $370,000 and that year was 6 percent over the 2006 allocation, per the City Council’s direction, Koch said.

“Available funds from Wheeler sources are not growing at 6 percent per year and there are no funding sources identified to provide revenue to support new grant applicants,” Koch wrote in a memo to the council.

“For the 2008 cycle, this means that the Wheeler must find $292,200 in non-RETT operating revenue,” Koch continued.

That money will be derived from rents from the Wheeler’s two lease spaces ” Bentley’s and Valley Fine Art, which amounts to $220,000. Ticketing fees at the Wheeler generate $17,000 in revenue; theater rentals bring in about $30,550 and artists’ merchandise brings in $2,000.

But with Bentley’s being renovated next year, which will require the bar to be closed for three to six months, the loss of revenue is estimated to be between $32,000 and $64,000.

This year, the arts grants review committee was asked to consider a record number of applicants and fairly distribute the available money. As presently administered, each arts group is given equal consideration, no matter if it is a group in its early years, in its middle growth phase or a mature community institution with a healthy endowment, Koch wrote.

The committee asked the council for guidance in deciding how much organizations should be given and whether past allocation percentages should continue, among other requests.

Council members questioned whether established, well-funded nonprofits should be subsidized by the city.

In other municipalities, public money for the arts is primarily used to provide a reliable basis of funds during a group’s fledgling and growth years. After they become a well-supported institution, civic support is curtailed. That philosophy assures that public funds go where they are needed the most, Koch wrote.

Over the past 11 years in Aspen, the arts committee has reviewed a core of 16 arts groups. Of the three new groups requesting funds this year, two of them have been in existence for five years, Koch reported.

Arts funding could be sustained at the current level by having the city’s general fund make up the difference between what the Wheeler can provide through the RETT and its operating revenue.

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