Aspen council discusses arts, culture grant expansion | Arts

The  Aspen City Council gave direction on Tuesday to expand the arts and culture grants program to allocate more funds to local artistic efforts.

The expansion, made possible through the passage of ballot item 2A in November, will allow a greater portion of Real Estate Transfer Tax funds to be allocated to local arts and culture entities, including the Wheeler Opera House and the Red Brick Center for the Arts. In addition, two new grants divisions — an Aspen Artist Fellowship and an Asset and Acquisition Assistance Support division — will be created.

“The passage of this measure was a true community effort,” said John Barker, senior management analyst for the city’s strategy and innovation office. “We have three different programs that are all designed to stimulate the different areas of our community to provide the most meaningful support that we can.

“That being said, it’s important that fiscal responsibility isn’t the highest priority, and so we need to make sure that we’re designing a program that is sustainable over the long-term and various economic conditions,” Barker added.

Staff asked the council for direction on whether they would support the two new divisions in addition to the expansion of the grants program. Staff proposed a budget between $40,000 and $60,000 for the fellowship, which would be a pilot program providing direct monetary support to Aspen’s artists and creatives. Council members were supportive of allocating $60,000 in an effort to give money directly to artists rather than to large companies. 

“I would go to the top of that range,” Mayor Torre said. “For me, this is part of the reason to even do the arts grant, is to get money to the artists, not just the big organizations.”

Council members had more questions about the Asset and Acquisition pilot program, which staff said would provide funding for facility and equipment upgrades that have a community benefit and help applicants get the most out of their facilities. Staff proposed between $500,000 and $1 million for the program, but the council did not come to a firm agreement, saying they did not have enough information. 

City Manager Sara Ott suggested moving forward with the other two pieces of the proposal, which will be revisited in a future work session during a policy discussion, and working on the asset and acquisition piece more slowly.

Staff also proposed expanding the grants program to between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year. Torre suggested starting at $900,000 a year to start small and figure out how well that number worked over time. The rest of the council generally agreed, although Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he would like to see some flexibility. 

Staff also asked council members if they would like to see other arts and culture support that was not mentioned and they said they would like to find a way to inspire more community connection. Councilman Skippy Mesirow said this felt particularly important to him after the Fourth of July holiday. 

“It was everywhere in town — the dancing, the performances, the lights, the live music — it was amazing, and you could feel it in the air, and everyone I talked to felt like Aspen was back,” he said. “Free displays of public art feels really important for the individual artist. I would just give them that charge — how can you add a bit of delight, joy, fun, connection to all areas of our community? — and set them free.”

The city council will revisit the arts and culture grants programs in more detail in future policy and budget discussions.