The arts have been beary, beary good for the Mile High City.
Metro Denver was once better known for skiing and sports teams than it was for the arts. But all of that changed three decades ago, with two groundbreaking moves. First, then-Mayor Federico Peña created the Denver Public Art Program by executive order, pushing through a "1 percent for art" requirement that calls for 1 percent of the capital construction funds for public-building projects budgeted at over a million dollars to be set aside for works of art. The concept, which echoed the Art in Public Places Program created by the Colorado Legislature in 1977, became an official city ordinance under Mayor Wellington Webb in 1991. You can see the results all over town, including "I See What You Mean," the late Lawrence Argent's big blue bear sculpture outside of the Colorado Convention Center.
Also in 1988, culture lovers came up with the idea of creating a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in metro Denver, with a new 0.1 percent sales and use tax (one cent on every $10 purchase) that would go to the SCFD, and in turn to cultural organizations across the area. The SCFD proposal was approved by voters, much to the amazement of envious urban areas around the country, and thirty years later, more than a billion dollars have been handed out to organizations both large and small in seven counties, from the Denver Zoo to Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
Voters just reauthorized the SCFD last fall, on its thirtieth anniversary. But now one hallmark of the program is a thing of the past: The polar bear logo has been replaced with a more colorful, inclusive bear that's actually arty.
The SCFD was initially represented by a simple mark, recalls Floyd Ciruli, the political strategist who led the first campaign in 1988 as well as subsequent efforts. But the organization thought it needed a more creative, even cuddly symbol, so did some surveys and decided to push a polar bear, since it was easily recognizable and animals were popular. And how: In 1994 the Denver Zoo's twin polar bears, Klondike and Snow, became bigger celebrities than John Elway.
But Klondike and Snow both departed Denver in the 1990s, and last year the zoo sent its last polar bear, Cranbeary, to the Alaska Zoo for a fix-up.
The SCFD had already been thinking about updating its logo, and it was clear the time had come. "The line drawing of the polar bear has been in existence since almost the beginning," says Deborah Jordy, executive director of the SCFD. "We wanted to emphasize the SCFD now...outward-facing and accessible, fresh and new and contemporary."
The board thought about going through a process to determine what might resonate with stakeholders, then decided to play off the bear brand. "If the SCFD can't have an artistic bear, who can?" Jordy points out.
The result is colorful and inclusive (note the brown eyes), and comes with a new tagline that clearly explains the SCFD's mission: "We fund culture." In response to complaints from smaller arts groups a few years ago, that mission also includes more emphasis on inclusivity, both in SCFD staffing and grant-making, Jordy adds.
"This year we're on track to fund and distribute over $60 million; it's off the charts," she says. "It's enabled small organizations to thrive, others to expand and try innovative programs."
Since the SCFD money comes with no restrictions, it can be used for general operating support, allowing arts and culture groups to "take risks," she notes.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Did the SCFD take a risk getting rid of the popular polar bear? Even though life-sized versions had become frequent sights at civic events around town, and Jordy herself had done time in the costumes — once on an impromptu visit to museums in the Golden Triangle — she's certain the public will like the new look, which debuted on September 13.
"We're excited about new bear mascots," says Jordy. "I'd love to have a family of bears...all colors."
As for those old costumes, last replaced in 2015, they'll be put out to pasture. "We're not going to make them into rugs," Jordy promises. "We wouldn't do that."