Pletts: Put arts tax to use as endowment; there’s more than enough saved up
Once upon a time, a queen and king wanted to make a magic place, so they traveled far into the high, rugged mountains and brought friends with gold who spent it on culture.
Then, in the next time, not so long ago, not so far away, deep, deep into the same rugged mountains, a body could venture out under gently falling snowflakes, in that small village for a hot drink by a warm fire, and bump into a bard on the way. There was Jimmy Buffet and Glenn Frey and Jan Garrett and John Denver and Obadiah Jones and Jimmy Ibbotson and John Oats or a songwriter called Joe Henry or an expert fiddle player who played along. This was a magic place where original melodic words and notes rang out to the heavens.
Each one of these accomplished singers had someone in their lives who aided them. A parent, an instructor, a neighbor. There were plenty of people who called them all fools and dreamers many times. And, told them repeatedly to get a day job. But, fortunately, they ignored that folderol (trivial fuss to saints, sages, and wise leaders). For each one had someone, a mainstay in their lives who supported them, with time, with love, with money to pay their way.
And, the magic village nurtured artists, too, like Tom Benton and Paul Soldner (who founded Anderson Ranch) and Judy Haas and choreographers like Bruce Marks and dancers like Cynthia Gregory. This place is called Aspen, Colorado, and the bards and artists lived and still live here because the power of Nature herself and respect from town folks fueled them to make their art here. They all appear on the World Wide Web, exemplary to their craft.
Aspen is very different now. For many reasons, lots of different folks came here to leave what they had behind, to start anew. And, for inexplicable reasons, lots of money piled up in bank accounts with the names of Aspen people on those accounts.
And, the people voted for an arts tax called the RETT. Because they wanted to hear singing again and watch original plays and films about the love of wilderness and living a free, wild life, and, perhaps one fine day, bump into a bard or an artist or a fool or a dreamer again.
Our Real Estate Transfer Tax for the Arts was started by my friend Richie Cohen and Carol Ann Jacobson in 1979. Voters renewed it three times.
The original formula for magic was 50% to a building and 50% to the arts, which went to artists and a few people who helped them. The RETT tax was $10,848,886.00 in 2021, and residents are dismayed that less than 1% of this tax went to the arts despite our votes. And, because no operational budget for any arts group was fully-funded, it could be said that no gold went to actual art making.
We voted for the tax to go to three sources — two buildings and “supporting the cultural, visual, and performing arts.” But ,it did not, yet. What did our leadership do?
The RETT will be nearly $11 million again this year, and our city elders are holding $45 million in arts revenues from previous years. From a total of $56 million collected, long-time residents advocate for a $10 million arts endowment. This is a reasonable amount of which $1 million could be distributed the first year, with $9 million to be held at 4% interest for the next year, adding accumulated interest each year to our arts endowment.
We ask that one-third of the RETT go to the endowment each year thereafter. An Aspen arts commission of six to eight valley residents with a record of serving the arts and experience in art making and business could distribute the tax funds through an open grant process.
Aspen has an established art heritage started by Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke in 1949, but we can only cruise on past glories for so long. For “ya either got the real deal going on here or ya don’t” remarked one visitor. Visitors feel the vibe when they arrive.
It’s time to revive who we say we are. Our current City Council has our new gold in their hands and must provide the public service for which Aspenites voted. It is compulsory to follow the will of the voters — not optional. Council can form a $10 million arts endowment and commission to fund future generations now, for the tax will not be so large next year.
Please, dear reader, speak to your council, and go to your city budget meetings starting this Monday. Help direct $10 million into a public-arts endowment. Money sitting in a bank does not produce original thinkers. Spending money wisely on all the things we do already — plus brave, adventurous artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, and playwrights — does.
An Aspen public arts endowment and commission — guided by both artists and business folks — for our future, will bring creativity back to us and help put the kick back in our spirit.
Sarah A. Pletts is an international performance artist, writer and visual artist. She’s lived in Aspen since she drove her used station wagon here with $400. in January, 1978.