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Aspen opens arts-and-culture grant applications with bigger-than-usual budget

Aspen City Council is considering its options as it attempts to come up with a robust policy to regulate short-term rentals.
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio

The city of Aspen now has a larger budget for grants in the arts and culture sector.

In just two years, the city of Aspen has more than doubled its budget for arts-and-culture grants to provide more support to community organizations.

In the past, the city’s arts-and-culture grant program had an annual budget of about $400,000, according to John Barker, a senior strategy consultant with the city’s strategy and innovation office. That increased to about $600,000 for 2022, and for this grant cycle, it’s at about $900,000. Applications opened Thursday and will remain open through Jan. 5.

Providing the community with such "significant new support," Barker said in an interview, "is really, really exciting."

Barker said the bigger budget will help close the gap between the amount of money organizations request from the city and the amount the city can actually give out.

“Historically, program requests have exceeded program budget by a wide margin, and we've just been unable to provide the level of support the community has desired,” Barker said. “And we're hopeful moving forward that we'll be able to provide a higher percentage of all requests that are deemed eligible and proper for support.”

A grant committee reviews the applications, and the City Council decides how to allocate the available funds.

Barker said the committee of community members scores each request based on clear grant review criteria provided to all applicants.

“This is truly a community supported program,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “The success of this program is a result of the hard work and dedication of many resident volunteers who lend their time and expertise to the review process.”

What are the four main criteria?

“Community impact, alignment, innovation and feasibility,” Barker said in the interview.

The city’s strategy and innovation office now oversees the arts-and-culture grants, as well as the grant programs for health and human services and other community nonprofits.

Patrick Quick, director of the strategy and innovation office at the city, said, “We really see these dollars as an investment back into the community." It also supports the city’s “mission and vision,” he added.

“We look at this as: Are we in alignment together with these organizations that are supporting cultural and arts vibrancy in the community?” he said.

City staffers don’t decide who gets money, though. It’s up to the City Council to make the final call on how the grant pool gets doled out.

And these days, the council has more money available for arts-and-culture grants thanks to a decision voters made last year to expand the use of an existing fund for arts and culture.

The fund started almost 40 years ago, when Aspen voters in 1979 passed a half-percent real estate transfer tax, or RETT, that would mainly fund the Wheeler Opera House. Most people called it the “Wheeler RETT” fund.

Over time, the tax brought in a lot more money than the Wheeler was using.

So, last year, Aspenites voted to expand the purposes of the fund for more arts-and-culture uses when they said “yes” to ballot issue 2A. Barker said the fund is now called the Arts and Culture RETT fund.

The city can still use the money in the fund to cover costs at the Wheeler. But now, new revenue for the fund also goes to other purposes, including operations at the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

Barker says the entire budget for the arts and culture grant program is currently supported by the Arts and Culture RETT fund.

So, can grant applicants thank voters for the extra $500,000 available in the grant pool this year?

According to Barker, it’s hard to say.

“Ultimately, all funding is determined by City Council, so I can't speak to exactly what they would have done (if the measure hadn’t passed),” Barker said. “But I can say certainly there would have been less funding available for us to give back to the community.”

The deadline to apply for the city’s arts-and-culture grants is Jan. 5.

“We encourage everyone to apply at any point — no one's going to get any sort of extra points for applying early,” Quick said. “But we do encourage everyone to apply as soon as they can.”

Also, keep an eye out later in 2023 for two new pilot programs that support local arts and culture.

Barker says the upcoming Aspen artist fellowship has a budget of $60,000 “so that we can provide meaningful support to local artists here in Aspen.”

And an “asset and acquisition support program” has an initial budget of $250,000.

“That provides support for innovative materials and innovative facilities for arts and culture organizations that are based in the Aspen city limits,” Barker said.

Quick said those programs will be on a different cycle likely to start later next year.

The city, which offered in-person grant-application training Thursday, will offer virtual training at 11 a.m. Friday via Microsoft Teams.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.