Getting to 1%

Better support for the arts is Boulder’s ticket to a vibrant community

Is it OK that Boulder doesn’t spend even half of 1% of our annual budget on arts and culture at a time when that segment of the economy is struggling? Or fully fund our cultural plan?

For those of us who’ve been here for a while, it’s easy to be nostalgic about an earlier time in Boulder. The early days of the Mall Crawl, the Kinetics, the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade and other events were just plain fun, silly and creative. There was more live music, more spontaneous creativity, because there were more creatives living in Boulder. 

As Boulder becomes more of a tech and tourism town, the issue of how to develop and protect a vibrant creative community becomes more pressing. Multiple studies have proven that art and music are critical components to early childhood development. Similarly, studies repeatedly demonstrate the economic benefits of a robust creative community. From increases in restaurant and hotel revenue and direct support through seat taxes, to the obvious benefits to any company that wants to attract and retain top tier employees, the arts are economic drivers that support our community directly.

The arts are also a pathway to diversity and inclusivity that, frankly, Boulder needs more than most other college towns. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that, in the city’s most recent budget, arts and culture were not part of the long list of priorities used to justify a substantial budget increase. The city’s Office of Arts and Culture does a great job with what they’re given, but Boulder, known worldwide as a creative community, doesn’t put its money where its mouth is. The city’s own promotional literature lists cultural organizations that it uses to tell a story about how cool Boulder is, but then can’t support those same organizations because there isn’t enough money. Or, more accurately, funding for arts and culture is not seen as a priority, a nice-to-have, not a must-have.  

Of course, there are other reasons why the creative vibrancy I remember from decades ago isn’t as strong including our addiction to our devices and the availability of entertainment options at home. 

Is it OK that Boulder doesn’t spend even half of 1% of our annual budget on arts and culture at a time when that segment of the economy is struggling? Are there ways in which we might support affordable housing options for creatives? Or fully fund our existing Cultural Plan? Or make sure that we have the performing arts facilities that would bring a more robust creative community together? 

Of course all of those things are possible, but not unless we make them a priority. Other cities spend more on arts and culture than we do as a percentage of budget. That’s partly because Boulder made a commitment to buying open space a long time ago. But it’s also because city council has relied on the arts community to do what it’s always done: to keep making stuff—be creative. 

Great cities are measured by their culture. Boulder has an opportunity to reinforce and reinvigorate the creative community by investing in it, not by paying lip service and hoping for the best. It’s time to shift our priorities and recognize that a vibrant economy is inextricably linked to having a creative and cultured city. It’s time for transformational funding that ensures the organizations that have already made Boulder home can stay here and grow, raise their sights and raise their game so we can all be proud of the variety and breadth of what local artists are doing. 

Dedicated, transformational funding is available starting in 2024 with the expiration of a small sales tax that currently just goes into the city’s general fund. Of course, there is never enough money to do everything, and city staff will cite a long list of urgent needs. But don’t forget that we just passed a huge infrastructure tax that was supposed to catch up on the backlog of projects that needed support, all at a time when federal infrastructure dollars are most likely headed our way, too. 

A vibrant creative community is often supported by philanthropists, and while there is some of that going on here, we apparently rank dead last in the state of Colorado in terms of arts giving as a percentage of wealth. We’re at the bottom. We can do better, and it starts with us. If we think it’s time for a shift, let’s get together and be creative. Let’s fight for the soul of our city. 

First, let city council know how much you appreciate what they already do for the arts and that you would support their efforts to do substantially more. Second, let the City Manager know that you would support a dedicated (existing) sales tax that would allow us to make a BIG difference.  

The pandemic was devastating to many of our cherished arts organizations. Now is the time to remember what made Boulder so special, what attracted us in the first place, what has kept it interesting as the town has gentrified. Let’s get to 1% for the arts.

We can afford it.  

Nick Forster is a co-founder of Create Boulder, a professional musician, record producer, arts and nonprofit entrepreneur, and radio host/producer. He is most widely known as a longstanding member of the award-winning bluegrass band Hot Rize, and as the host and founder of the musical and environmental radio and podcast program eTown, based in Boulder.