Letter from the Director: A Tale of Two Cities – Denver and Seattle

Local students at MOHAI on field trip © 2014 Daniel Sheehan
Local students at MOHAI on field trip © 2014 Daniel Sheehan

(RVSP for Cultural Access Washington (CAWA) Coalition Meeting – Thursday, January 15 at 4 PM)

No, this isn’t about Super Bowl XLVIII. And it isn’t about our joint predilection for recreational activity.

This is a tale about how one community embraced a slight tax increase to support its cultural organizations, large and small, and the resulting impact of that investment in transforming the City of Denver and it surrounding counties. It’s the story of thinking regionally, not parochially; of acting collectively for the betterment of the cultural ecology and for the citizens of Denver and the surrounding counties. The impetus for this effort was the total elimination of state funding for the arts in Colorado in 1982.

The Denver Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) was authorized by a vote of the public in 1988, during the worst regional recession in decades. The 1988 vote was extraordinary for three reasons. First, it was counter-intuitive that citizens would vote for a tax increase in such dire economic times. Second, most pundits doubted the public’s willingness to support culture with tax dollars. Third, the vote established a regional approach to funding cultural organizations, the majority of which were located in the core city.

In November on 1988, more than half a million voters said, “yes,” (by a ratio of three to one.) The tax has been re-authorized twice in the intervening years with the percentage of voters approving the tax extension increasing each time.

In 1988 the new tax generated $13 million for distribution to eligible organizations in three tiers, for the most part defined by budget size and attendance. In 2013, the SCFD awarded $40 million to a list of grantees that has more than doubled in the past twenty years.

From the SCFD website:

“The distribution budget for scientific and cultural organizations in the seven-county area is approximately $40 million annually. And we’ve discovered that funding on that scale, delivered to a local area, makes a profound impact. As a result, the Denver Metro area is now in the national spotlight and has been elevated in stature to a world-class cultural center.”

In 2013 alone, Denver metro area residents made over 14.6 million visits to organizations funded by the SCFD and 8,174 schools visited SCFD organizations. No, there aren’t more than 8,000 schools in the District. The number indicates that schools in the District made multiple visits to cultural organizations.

Before its authorization, some argued that the SCFD would disincentive private giving to arts and culture. In fact, the opposite occurred. Private giving to the arts in Denver and surrounds grew to its current level of $120 million. It turns out that business giving and private philanthropy like to be associated with success.

Not a bad return on investment.

Denver and Seattle have a lot in common. The population of both cities is around 600-650,000. The Denver metropolitan population (taking into account the population of surrounding counties) is about 2.5 million. King County’s population is 1.9 million. Both have seen dramatic population growth in the past decade and a half.

That leads to the obvious question: are SCFD’s, or similar entities, possible in communities in Washington State?

For the past seven years now a statewide coalition of arts, heritage and science organizations has been seeking authorization in the state legislature for a voter approved ballot measure that would allow counties in Washington state to create Cultural Access Authorities which would dramatically increase opportunities for K-12 students, and for that matter every resident of the state, to engage in arts, heritage, cultural and science experiences through a .1% sales tax increase. Just like in Denver. It would enable organizations to expand programs, stabilize operating budgets, increase employment in the arts and collaborate more effectively on marketing and promotions.

Cultural Access Washington would benefit all arts, heritage and scientific organizations in the state. Contrary to the belief of some, it is not only about the largest cultural institutions. In fact, a better case can be made that smaller community-based organizations will benefit from CAWA disproportionally in comparison to large institutions.

Passing a bill in the legislature that authorizes counties to put a tax measure on the ballot will not be easy. It wasn’t easy in Denver. But Denver was successful, because the cultural organizations raised their collective voices and worked together. We can do that here!

I invite you all to attend a meeting at 12th Avenue Arts on January 15th at 4:00pm to discuss the bill. RSVP here. It is particularly important to have small and mid-size groups represented at the meeting to dispel myths that have arisen over this effort. No matter what your organization’s budget is, no matter what arts discipline you work in or where you’re located geographically, CAWA is good for you. 

But it won’t be successful without your help. Join CAWA leadership on January 15th to learn how.