Culture Clash

When schoolchildren visit the Museo de las Américas, one of the first pieces Jacquelynn McDaniel shows them is a contemporary painting titled "Pensamiento," Spanish for "thought." The first thing the kids notice is a large skull peering out from the dark background, she says, and they usually hate the piece because they think it's ugly. But then McDaniel, who is the museum's education coordinator, shows them that there's more to it.

"I tell them to close their eyes for a few seconds, and when they open them, I point out the fire in the painting," she says. Then she shows them other skulls that they missed at first glance; she also encourages the students to discuss the painting's possible meanings. "A lot of them end up liking it afterward. But I tell them it's okay if they don't like a piece. I just want them to leave with a more critical way of looking at art."

As the only museum in the Rocky Mountain region to showcase the artistic contributions of all Latin American cultures (as opposed to just one or two) the Museo de las Américas was incorporated in 1991 and has been teaching people how to understand art since 1994. In addition to contemporary works like "Pensamiento," its permanent collection includes Spanish colonial paintings as well as masks, textiles, ceramics and baskets from Mexico and Central and South America. The museum has featured 38 temporary exhibits in its history; this summer it will display its 39th, with some of the works of famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera -- a major showing for the small arts center at 861 Santa Fe Drive.

This month, the museum will honor its decade-long existence with various festivities, including a free day, a fiesta and several receptions. It has a lot to celebrate. In 1994, the first year that it was open to the public, the Museo de las Américas attracted 7,500 visitors and took in $75,000 in revenue. In 2000, more than 48,000 people visited, and by the end of this fiscal year, the museum will report more than $800,000 in revenue.

That number, a measure of the museum's remarkable growth, means the Museo may qualify for a significant increase in the funding it receives from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

The SCFD was created in 1988, when voters in the six-county metro area agreed to tax themselves 0.1 percent on every retail purchase, or one penny on every $10, to help the region's cultural institutions. For the purposes of distributing the tax dollars, local organizations were divided into three tiers.

The "Big Four" -- the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Zoo, the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Botanic Gardens -- make up Tier I and together receive 59 percent of the cash, which amounted to $21.8 million last year.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Children's Museum, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Opera Colorado and fourteen other nonprofits are part of Tier II, which gets 28 percent of SCFD funding, or $10.4 million.

Tier III, which is made up of more than 300 smaller, community-based organizations, such as the Museo de las Américas, the Adams County Historical Society, the Boulder Bach Festival and the Art Students League of Denver, splits 13 percent of the money, or $4.8 million.

Although Tier I is closed to new members, an organization can move up to Tier II from Tier III if it has been open for two years and meets a certain income requirement that fluctuates yearly depending on the economy; this year, Tier II organizations need to show $858,000 in revenue to qualify. Making the jump is big news. If the Museo, which gets about $32,000 a year from the SCFD, moves into Tier II, it would qualify for anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000.

The Museo's founders are elated at the prospect of collecting more than three times as much money as they do now, but they are also one of a growing number of organizations in tiers II and III who believe that the SCFD's funding structure is unfair and outdated.

When the sales-tax measure passed in 1988, Colorado was emerging from an economic bust. No one could have predicted then how quickly things would take off. The state grew by a million people over the next decade, and with those people came more tax revenue: $14 million was collected during the SCFD's first year; $37 million was collected last year. But while Tier I is a closed group, meaning the Big Four have been able to reap the rewards of a good economy without having to share their revenue percentage with anyone else, the number of organizations in Tier II has jumped from seven to eighteen, and Tier III's membership has grown from 180 to about 300.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon