‘Where creatives come to die’

Boulder arts community feels duped by city budget process

Danielle DeRoberts works on a piece for the 2024 Street Wise mural festival. Street Wise is one of the 38 local organizations asking Boulder to restore city funding for arts and culture. Credit: Tyler Dittlo

By Toni Tresca and Shay Castle

When voters decided to give more money to the arts in Boulder, they did so enthusiastically: 75% approved 2023’s Ballot Issue 2A, surrendering half of a general sales tax and greatly increasing funding for arts and culture programs, organizations and initiatives. 

But the City of Boulder plans to keep some of the tax revenue that supporters expected to flow directly to artists and venues, a move leaders say is necessary to pay for essential services such as fire and police. While arts funding is still increasing by more than $1 million and the city says supporters were forewarned, many feel the promise of 2A has been broken.

“We assumed that when the people voted in favor of transformative arts funding, the city would respect the voter’s decision,” says musician, CEO of eTown and Create Boulder board member Nick Forster. “The decision to fold all funding into the dedicated tax is an abrogation of the city’s responsibilities and in direct contradiction of the will of the voters.

“It was our mistake to trust the City of Boulder.”

Compromise and consequence

It started with a petition. Create Boulder, a coalition of community leaders, artists and advocates, had long been unhappy with how little of the municipal budget went to the arts: less than half a percent each of the past four years.

They set their sights on an expiring sales tax, used to fund Boulder’s basic operations. After collecting the requisite signatures in short order, organizers won the legal right to ask voters to repurpose the tax, dedicating it to arts and culture. 

It would create a stable, reliable and much bigger source of funding for the arts. But it would also take millions of dollars each year out of the city’s largest source of discretionary funding. The general fund pays for critical services like police, fire, attorneys, tech and administrative functions. Without the tax, the fund would be overdrawn within a year, city finance staff projected.

“The city got nervous,” Forster says. “That’s when the city manager mentioned they might be doing a competing ballot initiative to fund fire and police department infrastructure. It was essentially a fear-mongering counter-campaign. They were going to say, ‘Don’t starve our city services that are responsible for keeping us safe.’”

So city officials struck a bargain with petitioners: Drop your ballot measure, and we’ll split the tax revenue with you 50/50. Unsure of their chances at victory — especially if the city put a competing proposal on the ballot — Create Boulder agreed. 

The compromise is what ultimately went to voters. Organizers felt it was a win: The arts would see an infusion of cash, and the city would be able to maintain the financial solvency of its most important pot of money.

“It was a guarantee that our initiative would pass and that we’d have a substantial increase in funding for the economy in Boulder,” Forster says. “This $3.6 million from 2A was going to be a transformative increase in the amount of funds available to arts organizations and artists in the City of Boulder. We presumed, wrongly, that arts funding would still get a percentage of the general fund.

“In hindsight,” he says, “we shouldn’t have taken the bait.”

“It was our mistake to trust the City of Boulder,” says Nick Forster, CEO of eTown, pictured here performing with Jaime Wyatt on Feb. 25. Credit: Lauren Hartmann

‘Cut in half’

During a meeting early this year with Matt Chasansky, manager of Boulder’s Office of Arts and Culture, Create Boulder learned that the city planned to stop putting any general fund dollars into arts and culture: The funds from 2A would cover internal city expenses such as salaries for the arts and culture staff and updating the 2015 Community Cultural Plan

“The city manager and budget office decided that the $1.8 million that was previously allocated [from] the general fund would be redirected,” Forster says. “That $3.6 million, which was going to have a significant impact, has been effectively cut in half.” 

In response to this news, Create Boulder sent a letter on March 4 to Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, Boulder’s city manager, signed by 38 Boulder arts and culture organizations. The letter urges city officials to listen to “the will of the voters” and maintain the Office of Arts and Culture’s general fund support at the level it has in previous years.

“I wouldn’t have minded so much if the council, in the middle of their budgeting process later in the year, said, ‘Well, we’re struggling to find money, so can we dig into the arts?’ That would be one thing, but Nuria just initiated this,” says Jan Burton, a Create Boulder board member and former city councilwoman. “That is really out of line with the intent of the petitioner and the voters.”

Nothing in the ballot language mandated the tax revenue be added to current spending; it only specified that the money brought in by the sales tax be split evenly between “arts, culture and heritage purposes” and general fund purposes. 

dittlo Rob Hill works on a piece for the 2024 Street Wise mural festival. Because Boulder intends to fund arts and culture solely through the revenue raised by a dedicated tax, less money than anticipated will be funneled to artists and organizations.
Credit: Tyler Dittlo

It was never definitively stated whether the sales tax revenue would be added to the existing arts budget or would replace general fund revenue as the sole arts funding mechanism. The official position — shared with the press and the public — was that final funding was to be decided.

“I had very clear conversations with Create Boulder” during last year’s negotiations and budgeting process, says Rivera-Vandermyde. Mayor Aaron Brockett and three other council members contacted for this story concurred. 

“We told them at the time there can’t be a binding process” for allocated general fund revenue, Brockett says. “I very strongly heard that hope [from] the advocates, but I also heard the city say, ‘Hey, we can’t promise, so it could be less. That decision would be made in the future.’”

Councilmember Lauren Folkerts agrees with those recollections. “The arts organization did make a clear request,” she says, “but in our communication about putting that item on the ballot and the compromise we struck with them, we were clear that was not a promise. There will be a future council that will make that decision.”

That’s still the case, Rivera-Vandermyde says. City council can still ask for more funding for the arts.

“If they want us to do something differently, we will find a way,” she says. But, “we will have to make other cuts. There are consequences.”

Rivera-Vandermyde says the previous council — six members of which are still serving — operated with the knowledge that continued general fund allocation to the arts could mean cuts to other services or, at the very least, limits on new programs or spending. 

Budget projections presented to council last year showed that splitting 2A with the arts put the general fund at a deficit in 2025 and 2027, and those estimates were based on a scenario in which 2A was the sole source of arts funding. It was stated publicly at an Aug. 3, 2023 city council meeting, in response to a question from Councilman Mark Wallach.

“Are you assuming that the base funding … that is currently received by the arts community remains, or that the … funding that will occur from the initiative will be covering it all?” Wallach asked.

“We were assuming with the current arts and culture budget being a part of that 50%” sales tax split, then-budget officer Mark Woulf responded. “Half of that … tax would be inclusive of current funding and new funding.”

That exchange was the sole source of public information for the city’s underlying budget assumptions, which could account for the confusion among arts organizations and members of the public, Boulder’s director of communication and engagement Sarah Huntley says. 

“Some of the foundational conversation, maybe some stuff was being talked in shorthand [or] had occurred in a different setting,” Huntley says. “The nuance might have been lost on folks who were not part of those conversations.”

Politics as usual

City arts spending hasn’t changed yet — the existing sales tax doesn’t expire until the end of this year, and the split with arts doesn’t happen until 2025. If 2A remains the bulk of government spending on arts, the 2025 budget will be an estimated $3.6 million, double 2024’s base budget. But it’s about $1.8 million less than what arts organizations expected.

“$3.6 million would have been transformational if you had given it primarily to nonprofits, in addition to the $1.8 million from the general fund,” Burton says. “But now it just means a little increase for a lot of organizations.”

Kids participate in an activity at The New Local, a nonprofit gallery and collective. Founder Juliette Marie-Bird says Boulder’s arts reputation is a place “where creatives come to die.”
Kids participate in an activity at The New Local, a nonprofit gallery and collective. Founder Juliette Marie-Bird says Boulder’s reputation is a place “where creatives come to die.”
Credit: Bridget Dorr

Organizers from Create Boulder argue this is a continuation of the city’s practice of using the arts to score political points while failing to provide tangible support. As Burton notes, local nonprofits did all of the campaigning for 2A, even though half of the money goes into the city’s general fund. 

“By working with city council over the years, things got a little better, but at some point we realized the arts were always going to be the last to be funded and the first to be cut,” Forster says. “It’s just not a priority for the council, and it’s especially not a priority for the city budget office. This is a city that has a $513.5 million budget. Not all of it is discretionary, but it’s still a big number, so to spend under a million dollars on grants for the community on an annual basis is embarrassing for the city.”

City officials balk at the suggestion that they have millions of dollars to distribute at will. In 2024, 68% of that was tied to specific departments or programs; 54% of sales tax was. The roughly $196 million general fund is technically discretionary, they say, but it’s already overtaxed because so many of the city’s critical functions rely on it. 

“I cannot find other money,” Rivera-Vandermyde says. “Arts are important, but so are basic needs [like] rental assistance, housing and human services and so forth. We have to squeeze every dime we can, maximize every cent we have so that we’re putting every dollar to good use.

“The need is great. The resources are finite.”

City staff contend that 2A doesn’t capture Boulder’s complete contribution to arts and culture. Communication and engagement projects often include artist contracts, and city facilities are used to house organizations such as BMoCA. 

“I get [that] the arts community has felt they have not gotten their fair share,” Rivera-Vandermyde says. At the same time, “it’s not fair to compare this community with others in the region. This community has made decisions on where to spend their money: open space, as an example,” which in 2024 accounted for 9% of the entire city budget. (The open space department does not receive any general fund money; it is entirely funded by dedicated sales tax revenue.) 

Boulder is not unique in Colorado. The state’s spending on arts and culture ranks among the lowest in the United States, according to the National Assembly of State Art Agencies

While states like Missouri and Minnesota contribute tens of millions of dollars, Colorado set aside just over $3 million in 2023 and 2024. Our per capita arts funding is just 53 cents, putting us in the bottom three states for government arts spending. 

“Folks behind the 2A initiative, people like Jan Burton and Nick Forester, have the right to be incredibly upset by this,” says Mark Ragan, managing director at Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC), which was one of the 38 organizations that signed Create Boulder’s letter to the city manager. “We had 75% of the citizens tell the city to take that money and put it behind the arts. 

“The city wants to eliminate the funding from the general fund and the spirit of the agreement that was negotiated between Create Boulder and the city, and that feels like a double cross to me.”

Boulder’s Paint the Pavement is one of many programs and organizations that will be funded from the estimated $3.6 million a dedicated sales tax is expected to bring in, rather than the $5.4 million the boulder arts community expected to receive from the city.
Boulder’s Paint the Pavement is one of many programs and organizations that will be funded from the estimated $3.6 million a dedicated sales tax is expected to bring in, rather than the $5.4 million the arts community expected to receive from the city. Courtesy: City of Boulder

Preparing to fight

Boulder’s budget won’t be finalized until early December. But the conversations that form the bulk of the city’s spending plan are happening now.

City council’s first look at next year’s finances is a May 9 study session. The main discussion will center around 2023’s year-end revenue and a financial forecast from CU Boulder, but city staff say they are prepared for the possibility of 2A coming up.

Mayor Brockett says arts organizers have been in touch with him regarding the 2025 allocation; three other council members contacted for this story said they haven’t been lobbied yet but are aware of the concern in the community. While Brockett says he is “interested in some additional general fund support” for the arts, other elected officials echo city staff’s concerns about a constrained budget. 

“It will be really hard to allocate additional funding beyond that when we’re going to see budget cuts in other areas,” Councilwoman Folkerts says. “Especially as the federal COVID relief funding goes away. We have a lot of unfunded housing and human services [needs].”

Those in the art world are hoping they can turn things around. Following what Forster describes a “contentious” discussion with Rivera-Vandermyde that “ended amicably” on March 26, Create Boulder plans to try this decision in the court of public opinion. 

To protest the potential elimination of general fund spending for the arts, they intend to gather supporters and organizations who are prepared to call the city, write letters to the council, write op-eds in newspapers and attend council meetings. 

Weigh in on the City of Boulder’s budget goals: bit.ly/boulder-budget-BW

Note: This online questionnaire pertains to seven high-level areas of spending, rather than detailed or department-level funding questions.

Artist graveyard

Forster believes the current level of philanthropic and government support will not sustain the art scene as it exists today in Boulder. That’s why Create Boulder was formed, he says: To use collective action to keep the arts ecosystem from collapsing. 

“It was to stay the tide of a mass exodus of artists from Boulder,” Forster says. “Our strategy was twofold: Get Boulder to spend more money, because city funding has been woefully inadequate for years, and encourage private philanthropy.”

“The financial pressure is really intense,” agrees Marie-Juliette Bird, founder of The New Local, a nonprofit gallery and collective for women-identifying artists that opened in November 2022. “Some days I’m up at 3 a.m. thinking about how I’m going to pay rent.

“I think it’s important for people to understand [that] if they want a vibrant arts community downtown, the community needs to step up and support it.”

Bird sees the passage of 2A as two steps forward and the city’s plan to eliminate general fund spending as a step back. “Some days I feel really encouraged; we have positive things happening, and some days I feel really discouraged — it’s not a linear path.”

A longtime Boulderite, Bird has seen many artists come and go. She thinks the new wave of energy and organizing could be the thing to turn the tide, but lingering in the back of her mind is the city’s reputation not as a birthplace of creativity, but as a graveyard.

Sitting in her not-quite two-year-old gallery on West Pearl, she offers a grim assessment: “People say Boulder is where creatives come to die.” 

Editor’s note: Boulder Weekly’s publisher, Francis Zankowski, is a board member for Create Boulder. He was not involved in the reporting or production of this story.

Correction and clarification: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the amount of city funds going directly to arts organizations.


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