Aspen Times endorsement: Voting for 2A will help arts community continue to flourish |

Aspen Times endorsement: Voting for 2A will help arts community continue to flourish

Aspen Times Editorial Board

For centuries, the visual, cultural and performing arts have offered a different window into the world and they serve as an important creative outlet that allows connection among us all regardless of our differences.

The arts in Aspen, or for that matter everywhere, could use some more love, particularly the many cultural, visual and performing arts organizations that have suffered as a result of the pandemic.

That is why we are asking voters to approve ballot measure 2A in November. With its passage, 2A would remove the $100,000 annual cap on grants the city provides cultural and arts nonprofits in Aspen through collections from the Wheeler Opera House real estate transfer tax.

The question comes to voters when the national headlines are all too common and the reasons too familiar — museums and arts institutions are losing resources to balance their budgets, governments are decreasing funding for arts education, and unemployment rates among artists have skyrocketed since the first quarter of 2021.

Aspen has not been immune to the trend. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dissolved in March, citing the pandemic’s shut down of performing arts for the past year and half as the culprit, along with pre-pandemic concerns about the nonprofit’s economic sustainability.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklórico program still offers children free, after-school instruction in Mexican folkloric dance, and the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is operating in multiple locations across the valley.

Still, it is with great pride that we can say we have a summer classical music festival, an art museum, a film festival, a think tank that plays host to numerous cultural and arts events, and a wealth of other like-minded organizations.

And even as Aspen becomes more exclusive, locals can still enjoy access to offerings from Theatre Aspen, Aspen Music Festival & School, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the Aspen Art Museum, Dance Aspen, and the Aspen Institute.

For sure, there is programming that is out of many working locals’ price range, but these organizations also have kept their doors open to Aspenites with complimentary and discounted offerings, and have allowed locals other ways to participate whether it is through volunteering or employment. They’ve also done outreach programs for our youth and schools, handed out local scholarships, and are vital community members.

Locals can enjoy world class music on the lawn at the Benedict Music Tent for free, as well as subsidized performances at the Wheeler, and entry to a world-class film festival for $25 or less. There are free live streaming of some of the world’s most impressive thought leaders, free exhibitions and events at Red Brick Center for the Arts, and a world-renowned contemporary art museum with no admission fee.

Many of Aspen’s arts organizations have big budgets but their profit margins are thin, or they have endowments that are not as well funded as they once were.

The leaders of these organizations have vowed to put extra funding from the passage of 2A into more community-based events and programs.

We’ve also been in the throes of a pandemic that has seen winners and losers. We can put Aspen home sales in the W category, evidenced by nearly $9.5 million in real estate transfer taxes the city collected for the Wheeler Opera House in 2020.

That 0.05% tax, which buyers of free-market properties within city limits pay at the close of sale, also has made the Wheeler a winner: Its RETT fund currently stands around $40 million, and will surely mushroom with the pace of property sales this year.

We understand why nonprofits are rallying to get 2A passed next month. Economic trends being cyclical, the real estate frenzy won’t last forever, which explains why they want to capture as many RETT dollars as they possibly can, as soon as they can. That’s not a money-grab; it’s planning ahead.

To pass, question 2A needs 60% of Aspen voters to say yes, based on ballot language from the original RETT citizens approved in 1979. That’s a tall order even for a town that historically passes tax questions supporting schools, the hospital and the environment. Not to mention the fact that they often are divided with many elections decided by just 1 or 2 percentage points.

And in the hurry to get 2A to voters with Aspen City Council approving an ordinance that put it on the ballot by a 3-2 margin the question came out lacking key details.

The question not only asks to remove the $100,000 cap, it also seeks the “capital and operational support of the Red Brick Center for the Arts.”

Yet, nowhere does the question say how much money would go to the city-owned Red Brick, which houses local nonprofits such as GrassRoots TV and Aspen Public Radio, as well as artists’ studios and other cultural nonprofit organizations.

And nowhere does it say how much or what percentage of the RETT would go to the Wheeler.

The Red Brick currently receives financial support from the city’s general fund. By eliminating that revenue source for the Red Brick, the city has said it would use the money to pay the remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater. The financially challenged Aspen Film would still be on the hook for paying back its debt to the municipal government but just not as quickly as it’s scheduled under a deal brokered between the entities in 2007.

All of that said, question 2A relies on the faith of Aspen voters in their current and future Aspen City Council members, who are the final arbiters of where Wheeler RETT money goes to nonprofits.

The Wheeler’s advisory board will weigh in as well and the council should listen to those who understand the arts to help fund the arts.

It’s a big ask of the electorate, but we support 2A because the pros outweigh cons. The Wheeler fund is flush, so let’s share the wealth.

How about Aspen arts organizations reap some of the success of local real estate sales? The community has certainly reaped the benefits of having these organizations in town.

Just look at the findings from the Arts & Culture Economic Impact Study, which was recently conducted by RRC Associates and the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business in collaboration with Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

The study was based on 2019 — pre-pandemic, but telling nonetheless — and showed that arts and culture made up 12.4% of all of Pitkin County’s economy that year. The study also estimated that arts and culture directly or indirectly supported 2,831 jobs — for $167 million in labor income — in Pitkin County and generated approximately $451 million in economic output.

This all goes to show that from whatever personal or collective gratification we might experience from the arts, it’s also a serious business in Aspen.

We’re asking voters to seize the chance to give the business side of Aspen’s arts scene a lift. Aspen is beyond fortunate to have these organizations — big and small. Let’s not take the arts for granted; let’s give bigger grants to the arts. You can do that by voting yes on 2A.

The Aspen Times editorial board is comprised of publisher Samantha Johnston, editor David Krause, managing editor Rick Carroll, reporters Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason and copy editor Sean Beckwith.

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