For Aspen’s arts and culture landscape, 1979 was a turning point as the city of Aspen purchased dilapidated buildings around town and turned them over to citizen task forces led by scruffy, young and arts-minded locals.
Those task forces brought to life pillars of today’s arts scene. They took the old powerhouse and turned it into the Aspen Art Museum, and they saved the historic Wheeler Opera House from its blighted and abandoned state in the Carter years (nicknamed “the pigpen” according to a May 1979 Aspen Times report). The efforts of that time, and wider initiatives launching institutions like Aspen FIlmfest, built Aspen’s year-round culture offerings into what they are today and built on the foundation of postwar pillars like the Aspen Institute and Aspen Music Festival.
To fund the massive renovation of the Wheeler, the city asked voters to approve a .5 percent transfer tax on real estate sales. It set aside up to $100,000 in grants for other Aspen area visual and performing arts organizations, which were blooming in that moment as a new generation took leadership of Aspen’s cultural programming.
At the time, this real estate transfer tax (RETT) was expected to bring in $300,000 to $400,000 annually, according to Times reports.
The measure passed, local real estate sales went stratospheric in the Reagan era, and boomed to unimaginable heights in the billionaire-minting decades to come, creating an unexpectedly steroid-infused revenue source for the Wheeler: Over the past ten years, the RETT has generated an average of $4 million to $5 million annually. There are now nearly $40 million in cash reserves for the Wheeler, which has had several RETT-funded renovations over its decades as a year-round venue.
But that $100,000 cap on grants for local arts? It’s still $100,000, not allowing city leaders to support other arts organizations as robustly as they could with RETT proceeds.
A group of today’s local arts leaders are hoping to change that with a ballot measure in this fall’s election. They are asking city voters to vote for measure 2A, which would remove the cap on Wheeler grants and expand RETT support of the arts. It won’t cost local voters anything, supporters note, unless they are buying a free-market home in the city. It also won’t touch the nearly $40 million in the Wheeler coffers, which are designated for Wheeler operations and capital improvements.
“For more than 40 years, the real estate transfer tax has been a recognition from the city and from the voters that the arts are crucially important to what makes Aspen Aspen,” said Aspen Music Festival and School president and CEO Alan Fletcher, who is among those leading the charge to pass 2A. “This ballot question maintains that, it maintains its focus squarely on preserving the Wheeler. But in 1979 there was this fairly artificial cap. In 1979, no one could have envisioned the amount that would be collected.”
The measure also broadens the kinds of cultural organizations who can receive Wheeler grants beyond just visual and performing arts (making the Aspen Institute’s seminars eligible, for example). It would additionally fund the city-run Red Brick Center for the Arts from Wheeler RETT collections, rather than from its current source in the general fund and asset management fund. But lifting the $100,000 cap is the focus of the burgeoning 2A campaign.
“This was the original intent of the RETT in the fist place,” said Aspen Film executive and artistic director Susan Wrubel. “We’re just asking for it to be updated to modern day dollars.”
1979 TO 2021
Aspen voters approved the Wheeler RETT in 1979 and have twice reaffirmed it (most recently in 2016, extending its life to 2039).
“It was a slog to get it passed,” recalled longtime gallerist Tom Ward, who sat on the original Wheeler task force. “There was just enough recognition of the importance of the arts to Aspen that it was able to pass. We are so lucky to have it in the arts in this community.”
Voters had rejected a similar ballot initiative in the fall of 1974, which had asked for a 1% real estate transfer tax to pay for the “planning and construction of a community cultural center or other governmental buildings.” Contemporaneous reports in the Aspen Times credited the defeat of that measure to strong opposition from the real estate industry.
Ward’s group and Mayor Stacey Standley, in advance of the 1979 vote, recruited prominent Aspen real estate agents Wendy Morse and Mickey Cohen to publicly support the RETT, according to the Times, joining the arts and real estate sectors in a rare common cause.
Their endorsement pushed it over the edge, narrowly winning approval in the May election that also saw Herman Edel win for mayor and saw other ballot measures defeated that would have expanded the downtown pedestrian mall and funded a downtown beautification initiative.
Turnout was much better than expected, drawing 63 percent of Aspen’s 2,025 registered voters to this off-year spring election, as locals rallied to the cultural cause.
While the cap on grants is $100,000, in practice, the Wheeler in recent years has given $400,000 in annual grants (see sidebar “Who Gets Wheeler Fund Cash?). That money comes from the $100,000-limited RETT money for grants and $300,000 from other Wheeler revenue sources like ticket sales and rent from private businesses in the building.
RECIPIENT – 2018, 2019, 2020
5Point Adventure Film – $1,500, $0, $1,000
Anderson Ranch Arts – $6,000, $6,000, $0
Aspen Art Museum – $15,000, $35,000, $37,000
Aspen Chapel Gallery – $0, $2,000, $2,500
Aspen Choral Society – $5,000, $5,000, $5,000
Aspen Community Theatre – $7,000, $10,000, $10,000
Aspen Dance Connection – $1,500, $2,500, $2,500
Aspen Film – $35,000, $30,000, $35,000
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – $85,000, $66,000, $66,000
Aspen Words – $25,000, $25,000, $27,000
Bauhaus 100 (Aspen Institute) – $15,000, $15,000, $0
Jazz Aspen Snowmass – $31,500, $31,500, $32,000
Aspen Music Festival – $85,000, $85,000, $85,000
Pegasus Repertory Theatre – $3,000, $3,500, $3,500
Red Brick Center for the Arts – $30,000, $30,000, $30,000
Roaring Fork Music Society – $500, $1,000, $3,000
The Art Base – $2,500, $2,500, $4,000
The Arts Campus at Willits – $0, $2,000, $2,000
Theater Masters – $3,000, $3,000, $4,500
Theatre Aspen – $43,000, $45,000, $50,000
SOURCE: City of Aspen Finance Department
The city’s grant committee last year recommended – and the Aspen City Council approved – cash grants for 20 organizations, ranging from $1,000 to the Carbondale-based 5Point Adventure Film Festival to $85,000 for the Aspen Music Festival and School. Committee member and Wheeler board president Chip Fuller said that they can never help everybody as much as they would like to.
“We always have more requests than we can give,” he said. “We can never meet all the need.”
Fuller noted the loss the community suffered this year when Aspen Santa Fe Ballet shuttered its dance company due to the pandemic’s business disruptions, lamenting that the Wheeler grants couldn’t do more to keep it going.
Though mail ballots will begin arriving in city voters’ mailboxes next week, some stakeholders remain on the fence about the question. The campaign to pass it just launched this week.
The new measure does not provide specifics about how much money should go out in grants and does not specify a minimum balance for the Wheeler fund, two issues raised in contentious Aspen City Council deliberations about putting 2A on the ballot. Those numbers are to be decided by the Aspen City Council with recommendations from the Wheeler’s advisory board.
“That’s a design, not a bug,” councilman Skippy Mesirow said during council discussion of the measure. “This model was designed to keep flexibility open.”
But those unknowns have given some stakeholders pause about supporting the measure, as have concerns about the competence of the current city council, who split 3-2 in voting to bring the measure to the ballot in a haphazard public process that included Mesirow video-conferencing in and voting on the measure at the tail end of a meeting after not taking part in the council deliberations.
Ann Mullins, who this year retired elected office after eight years on city council, noted that the council has been discussing making changes to the Wheeler RETT since she was starting on the council in 2013. A landscape architect and longtime supporter of the local arts, she said is voting for 2A but wished the current council had put it on the ballot for 2022.
“I think we should have given it another year to put together a great ballot question, answer questions about the Red Brick and other elements, and we could have pre-empted a citizen petition,” she said.
The petition she refers to is the efforts – though none successful yet – to place a ballot question re-appropriating Wheeler reserves for other community needs such as school theater facilities, childcare, stormwater treatment, affordable housing and mental health resources. A failed citizen initiative last summer, current council members have noted, created a sense of urgency among city officials to get something on the ballot this fall.
Ward and his gallery have not signed on as supporting the measure, while the “Arts for Aspen, Aspen for Arts” campaign has launched in recent days with a list of supporting organizations and hundreds of individuals. Ward said he and his co-director Michael Bonds will discuss an endorsement.
CAN IT WIN?
The measure requires 60% approval to pass. Will city voters go for it? Polls commissioned by the city about the Wheeler RETT question have not been encouraging to supporters.
A survey of 200 city voters in mid-August found that 61% supported the measure when informed of the pro and con arguments. That would win the day, but the survey – conducted by Utah-based Frederick polls – found that Aspen’s most frequent voters were less supportive of the measure, making for an uphill battle in a likely low-turnout, off-year election. And the more information provided to those surveyed, the less likely they were to support it.
“This suggests that if turnout is small and the electorate becomes as informed before voting as they did in this poll exercise, then the ballot is more likely than not to fail the 60% threshold,” the report reads.
Council member Rachel Richards warned her colleagues of proceeding into those electoral headwinds with the measure, fearing it could fail and hurt future chances of passage of a similar funding for the arts.
“The real danger we are talking about with a failed question is a greatly reduced investment in the arts going forward,” Richards said before voting against placing the measure on the ballot.
Local arts leaders are hoping they can rally voters to cross the 60 percent threshold. The “Aspen for Arts, Arts for Aspen” campaign launched this week with a website, with yard signs and voter outreach via phone soon to come. Traditional door-to-door campaigning is also expected to begin soon.
While reaffirmations the Wheeler RETT has passed twice, voters rejected the only other time the city asked to use the funds in a way not outlined in the original 1979 approval: a 2003 ballot measure that would have used RETT funds to purchase the Mother Lode restaurant building adjacent to the opera house, creating the opportunity to expand the Wheeler into a larger arts center. Councilmember Richards noted that this failed measure was also a late addition to a ballot in an off-year election.
“If the question fails, what we may learn is that the public would rather use the money somewhere else,” Richards warned. “I don’t want that to be the interpretation of a failed question.”
ACCELERATING THE ARTS
The dollar amounts attached to Wheeler grants over the past 40-plus years have remained relatively small, but their value is immense and impact is apparent.
At the Aspen Music Festival and School, grants like the $85,000 of recent years pays for the popular AfterWorks music lessons for local children and helps provide instruments (and snacks) to all. Wheeler RETT grants helped stage the community-wide Bauhaus 100 celebrations of 2019 and provide crucial support for small organizations like the Aspen Choral Society and its annual “Messiah” tour up and down the valley and Aspen Community Theatre’s yearly musical production.
The nonprofit Aspen Chapel Gallery, Tom Ward’s current endeavor, has received Wheeler grant support in recent years. In 2020, it landed a $2,500 grant, which constitutes a significant 3% of the budget for the gallery, which in recent years has partnered with local nonprofits for each of its art exhibitions and donated proceeds to them.
More grants to smaller organizations or new start-ups could give a boost to new players on the Aspen scene, fresh voices, or spark new initiatives from the old players. Ideally, it might feed a post-pandemic cultural flowering like the one that began transforming Aspen in 1979 along with the original Wheeler RETT.
There are no strings attached to the grants in the new or old Wheeler RETT, meaning they are not necessarily to be used to directly serve the people voting for them. “Arts for Aspen” proponents are attempting to assuage concern that 2A is another tourist-serving amenity in a resort town that is struggling to manage the size of its crowds in the summer culture season. In practice, arts leaders noted, the grants committee has awarded applications that specify local-serving programs.
“Every organization does a whole host of community programs,” said Aspen institute vice president of community programs and engagement Cristal Logan. “Community is at the top of our priority list. This is a yes for arts, culture and community.”
Supporting the arts, others noted, is a fundamental value for Aspen.
“We complete the mind-body-spirit notion of Aspen,” Aspen Film’s Wrubel said. “It’s a powerful part of our community.”
Though the dollar amounts of the grants are not huge, arts leaders noted that they are essential to larger fundraising efforts.
Getting grants from the local government serves as what Ward called “a Good Housekeeping seal of approval” from the local government, which serves as an accelerator for individual gifts and larger grants.
“It’s not a gigantic amount of money for us,” said Fletcher, noting the Wheeler RETT grants make up about .5 percent of the Music Fest budget. “But to our donors and to our board, it is super important to be supported by the city, ““It has great importance to us to be able to say, ‘Yes, we get a regular grant form the city and the city understands and values us.”
If the cap were lifted, the city could value them yet more. As Jazz Aspen Snowmas founder Jim Horowitz told the city council in August: “The one thing that all the arts groups agree about is that this question need to go to voters and that the cap needs to go away for a hundred thousand million reasons.”
Ballots will be mailed to all active registered voters in Pitkin County on Friday, Oct. 8, though only city of Aspen voters will decide on the Wheeler RETT question. Election Day is Nov. 2.
The off-year election also includes school board seats for the Aspen School District and Roaring Fork School District, the Pride of Aspen land exchange for city voters and statewide ballot measures including a sales tax increase on marijuana.