Boulder moving forward with $250,000 in grants for arts, cultural facilities

Boulder is set to dramatically increase the funding it doles out through the city‘s arts commission, at least this year — funding that some of the city‘s largest arts organizations said is urgently needed.

Commission members, in coordination with city staff and at the direction of city council, are finalizing the details on a one-year, $250,000 pilot program to which the city‘s cultural facilities will be eligible to apply.

Last October, weeks before council approved the 2019 budget, Councilman Bob Yates pitched using funds they‘d previously not known would be available to bolster the arts commission‘s $675,000 in regular grants. The additional $250,000 pool of money is meant to support facilities-based culture and educational organizations that provide education or engagement experiences in culture, science, art and health.

This month, the matter came before council again, and council members on March 5 affirmed their support for the grant and expressed an interest in reexamining it in the next budget cycle. The arts commission is slated to release grant applications next month, with awards to be announced in July.

“The city council saw an opportunity for a benefit to the community, and they immediately thought of the arts organizations that we have,” said arts commission chairman Mark Villarreal. “I think that speaks well of everybody.”

At council‘s March 5 meeting, though, he also noted the grant had been assembled quickly and without enough coordination with the commission.

The grant also sparked frustration, he said, among some community organizations that do not own or lease their own facilities because they felt it dissolved growing cooperation between organizations with facilities and those without.

“There wasn‘t a coordinated effort between us and city council as far as how this got put together, and so it‘s a good first step,” Villarreal said, adding that he‘d like to see more coordination if this grant continues in the future.

One example of an organization that will not qualify is the Boulder Philharmonic, which spends about 10 percent of its annual budget to rent the University of Colorado‘s Macky Auditorium.

“We could have an interesting discussion about whether $900,000 is enough, and I‘m happy to have that discussion,” Yates said, adding that more money for the arts is good for everybody.

Villarreal said he hoped that, if the grant continues in the future, they would examine its equity, but that the increases in funding in recent years have been phenomenal.

“The arts commission, city council, everyone‘s trying to figure out where we could get funds from and trying to be more creative and get more things funded that the community really wants,” he said.

The leaders of the organizations that are slated to receive the funding expressed enthusiasm for the grant and described the challenges they face to survive in Boulder: competition for funding, high operating costs and razor-thin margins. They also described facing lower city funding than their peer organizations in other cities — something Yates acknowledged, too.

“If you compare us to our peer cities up and down the Front Range, we are way, way behind,” he said.”… We‘re catching up on what we need to do a little bit more.”

eTown, for example, pays $60,000 a month in payroll and operates with less than a 2 percent margin annually.

Chautauqua spends more than $1 million a year on maintaining and preserving the buildings and grounds, all while losing money on its events.

“Any recognition that we could use support … is really welcome,” said Shelly Benford, executive director of the Colorado Chautauqua Association. “What people don‘t recognize is that these kinds of things don‘t really pay for themselves.”

Ticket prices don‘t cover the cost of operating the auditorium, so lodging operations help to subsidize that, Benford said. Increasing ticket prices is not a viable option because community members would then be priced out of events, she said.

“That‘s not what Chautauqua is about,” Benford said. “We want to be inclusive and diverse.”

Angelique Espinoza, interim director of the Museum of Boulder, said the grant would help address a hole in the museum‘s operating budget that had previously been filled by a regular city allocation and support a community institution.

“We are in a great position for the future, but the opportunity to compete for the grants in this fund are critical for our ongoing operating expense plan,” Espinoza said.

Yates said the money would help to do that, and is designed to serve area residents rather than tourists.

“This is about making cultural amenities available in the Boulder region, both in the city of Boulder and in the region surrounding Boulder,” he said.

Beyond that, he added that the money has a good return on investment.

According to a 2016 evaluation by trade group Americans for the Arts, 1.3 million people visited cultural attractions in Boulder, fueling 968 full-time equivalent jobs and introducing a nearly $70 million economic impact.


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