Major gifts lag for Denver arts institutions

By Ashley Kasprzak, JVA Consulting

As a longtime supporter of arts education, visual arts, public art, plays and dance in Colorado, I was struck by a headline in a Denver Post article on Sunday, September 12, that read, “When it comes to the arts, where is Denver’s money muscle?”

Post writer Kyle MacMillan wrote that other cities like Des Moines, Kansas City and Minneapolis have had markedly better success with capital campaigns than Denver. He is correct that those cities have had success, yet many Denver cultural institutions have done a superb job of attracting support. The Denver Art Museum, for example, had a number of key foundational elements in place that helped it achieve its capital campaign goals, including:

  1. A written and publicized vision and strategy
  2. Lead contributors
  3. Concrete outcomes
  4. Healthy bottom line that indicated sustainability

To me, the last point seems to be an overriding factor in the lack of success that Colorado Symphony Orchestra had in its own efforts to raise a  $30 million match for a $60 million bond to renovate the Boettcher Concert Hall, efforts that the project’s administrator (quoted in the Post) says are “definitely on the back burner at this point.”  While the Symphony Orchestra has a beautiful Web site and every program I have seen/heard has been stimulating and quite enjoyable, their fundraising efforts may have been hindered by their bottom line.

What are the barriers to the organization’s fundraising? My instinct is that there are two: 1.) Coloradans care about many causes and are increasingly prioritizing their giving and supporting human services during the recession, and 2.) There’s a lack of certainty about the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s direction. Almost everyone agrees that it needs a better performance space with improved acoustics. To accomplish that feat, it needs a written strategy that is public. This should attract more supporters (major and mid-level donors) for the capital campaign and help when there are periods of operating shortfall.

Of course, it is likely that there are factors that have hindered the Colorado Symphony Orchestra beyond its bottom line—the Post article points to other factors that have bolstered funding for the arts in cities like Minneapolis such as a much larger number of Fortune 500 companies (namely Target and General Mills) that make significant contributions. The presences of old-money families with ties to these companies has also created a tradition of giving, a tradition that is not as well established in newer-money Denver. The article also points to the fact that Colorado institutions have received more public funding, suggesting that donors have been less inclined to give because they perceive there to be less need.  The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) is a major source of public funding in metro Denver and is an extremely successful model that supports a variety of programming from grassroots efforts to major institutions in the seven-county Denver area.

Weigh in by telling us why you think giving to arts organizations has lagged in Colorado. And tune in next week for the view from Minneapolis, from JVA’s Katy Snyder.

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