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THE ART OF THE DEAL

This is not a pretty picture.
In a matter of weeks Denver City Council members, whose average aesthetic tastes tend to John Denver songs and paintings of big-eyed little girls, will suddenly find themselves in charge of handing out three-quarters of a million dollars to arts groups--every year. Suddenly it's Christmas in July.

Although this burden seems to have landed almost overnight, it's actually a load that someone else has been carrying on behalf of Denver County for the past six years.

Back in 1988, with visions of polar bears dancing in their heads, voters in six metro counties approved the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which imposed a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax earmarked for the arts. The initial ballot measure called for 65 percent of the funds collected to go to "tier 1" groups, the area's four big cultural institutions--the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens--whose public funding had come under increasing scrutiny by the scrooges in the state legislature. The next 25 percent of the loot was designated for "tier 2" groups, the then-seven arts organizations whose annual budgets and audience sizes had reached a certain critical mass. And the last chunk of money, a paltry 10 percent, was intended for "tier 3" groups, smaller arts organizations.

It was up to the counties to distribute their share of the tier 3 money, and the SCFD legislation called for commissioners to set up county cultural councils in order to do so. All but Denver did.

At the time, Denver was going through one of the high-drama power struggles that occasionally rock the arts. Enter the Denver Foundation, a longtime nonprofit with a record for apolitical public service. That organization volunteered to take on the task of coordinating Denver's tier 3 grants with the SCFD office, and even came up with some money to help do the job. Since the vote establishing the SCFD allowed only three-quarters of 1 percent of the money collected to go to administration, the SCFD office needed all the help it could get. It seemed like the happiest of compromises.

In the ensuing years, of course, the SCFD has been the target of the whining that frequently accompanies multimillion-dollar giveaways. Rarely, though, have those criticisms focused on the Denver Foundation's work. Instead, they're usually leveled by an organization in one of the first two tiers against another that seems particularly unworthy of making the cut. Fights over tier 2 funding, which last year amounted to about $4.2 million, have been particularly bitter: The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities quibbled when the Denver Center for the Performing Arts was allowed to count Broadway touring shows in its numbers; and there was plenty of grumbling when the Cherry Creek Arts Festival was allowed to join the culture club last year, collecting about $60,000.

But relatively little of this rancor trickled down to tier 3, and the Denver Foundation just kept doling out the dough. It contributed considerable administrative overhead, as well as a director, to its "City Arts III" program, and up to eighty volunteers waded through the grant applications every year. Between 1989 and 1994, Denver's tier 3 groups received 342 grants totaling over $3 million, according to SCFD statistics. And last year's haul was the largest so far: $608,431.

The boffo box office promises to continue this year. Sales-tax revenues are still rising along the Front Range, and last year voters not only renewed the SCFD tax but approved a split that will result in tier 3 groups getting 13 percent of the take rather than 10 (the tier 1 quartet is dropping to 59 percent). That could add up to a fast $750,000 for Denver.

But don't applaud yet. On Wednesday the Denver Foundation is scheduled to deliver its annual report on City Arts III to Denver City Council. But with it will come a letter informing council that the foundation's board has voted to give the program back to the city as soon as possible.

The stage is set. Denver City Council has only a few options for how it can handle the money, and not much time to implement any of them. It can pray that another nonprofit volunteers to take over, but such saviors are few and far between.

Or councilmembers could establish their own cultural council. But this scenario requires that they come up with a way to cover the cost of the grants-making process, as well as handle an even stickier problem: how to make the council's composition something other than a political paint-by-numbers game--a festival funded in council district 1, a mural in district 2, a show in district 3...

Waiting in the wings is an even more dangerous prospect. The Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film has grown threefold since the days when Federico Pena was mayor, and its six-member staff has a head start on running a large project. Then again, several of those staff members are mayoral appointees--and a certain First Lady's avid interest in the arts has already garnered Wellington Webb bad reviews.

Two years ago, when Wilma Webb chaired the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, she called for more minorities in the city's public arts program--and the discussion rapidly degenerated into an ugly racial argument that had nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics. The episode was an insult to the city's vibrant arts community.

Councilmembers may not have much in the way of aesthetic taste, but their survival instincts are sound and their memories are long. When they get the bad news from the Denver Foundation this week, they'll suddenly have millions of dollars to play with--and no direction.

It's showtime.

 
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