The city of Aspen approved awards for a brand-new arts grant program this month.
The “Asset and Acquisition Assistance” pilot grants will help six Aspen arts organizations purchase new equipment and/or update their physical facilities. The grant awards, which the Aspen City Council approved during a regular meeting on Aug. 8, amount to $241,812, nearly all of the budgeted $250,000 available for the program.
The recipients include Aspen Art Museum ($50,000), Aspen Film ($33,500), Aspen Historical Society ($9,000), Aspen Music Festival and School ($50,000), Aspen Public Radio ($50,000) and Theatre Aspen ($49,312).
The city’s deputy director of strategy and innovation, John Barker, whose office oversees the grants program, said the money will likely hit award recipients’ bank accounts in the next two weeks.
Local organizations are looking forward to using the new funds.
Aspen Film, for instance, will use its grant money to purchase a “mobile studio,” an array of technology a film crew would need to shoot film and audio on location. The studio will include cameras, lights and sound equipment, as well as accessories like cables.
Aspen Film plans to use the studio both as an educational tool for students in its film camps and as a way to record, light and film speaking events.
Operations and production manager Erin McVoy said the technology will give the organization more flexibility and self-reliancy. Aspen Film previously has partnered with the Colorado Film School in Aurora, using its cameras, microphones and other film equipment, as well as instructors. McVoy said the arrangement limited Aspen Film’s equipment access according to the Film School’s academic calendar.
Aspen Film also will use the studio to enhance speaking events that it hosts at the Isis Theater, which it purchased in October. McVoy said Aspen Film wants to use the theater as a space to hold speaking events with visiting film professionals. In some cases, McVoy said students will be able to interview guests at the events.
But the Isis, a movie theater, is not set up for those kinds of events.
“[The Isis] is not designed for conversations or Q-and-As yet. The lighting in there is not good for having a conversation. It's not flattering. And there is only one microphone that can be plugged into the theater,” McVoy said.
With its new mobile studio, Aspen Film plans to host and record more speaking events and interviews at the Isis in September.
McVoy said Aspen Film will also be able to lease its equipment to other local organizations, increasing the broader community’s resources for filmmaking and film education.
Aspen Film’s marketing and communications manager, Aaron Koehler, said that generally, the value of the new educational tools is in showing young people how to leverage the power in their voice.
McVoy agreed, saying, “There's a lot about self confidence, and kind of also getting that kind of working on your ability to tell your own story and find your voice.”
“They can start to gain traction in this world, move mountains. Even if they don't become filmmakers, they can take these same techniques and apply them to other industries to help advance their careers and maybe make a better place to live,” Koehler added.
Jed Berstein, producing director at Theatre Aspen, also expressed that the grants will allow his organization to achieve new capabilities. Theatre Aspen will use its award to buy new audio systems for its venue, the Hurst Theatre.
Bernstein said the theater, which is technically a large tent, has some drawbacks when it comes to sound design.
“One issue is that there's no orchestra pit, and the stage is very shallow. So there aren't too many places to put musicians … and the fabric surfaces are not ideal for sound, because you want sound to bounce off walls, rather than to be absorbed by the walls,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said that with new speaker systems and microphones, the venue can overcome some of those difficulties and deliver a better experience for theater goers.
“Generally, it gives us more options — better fidelity, better balance between the orchestra and the singing and speaking. Those are all aspects of a better sound experience to the audience,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said that Theatre Aspen is getting ready to launch a capital campaign for a new theater, where it intends to transfer its new sound systems in the future. Since the equipment will likely become part of that new venue, Bernstein said the grant is “particularly valuable” for the organization right now.
Other award recipients also are boosting their technological profiles.
The Aspen Art Museum is upgrading its gallery lighting to LED technology, the historical society is installing an electrical hookup for the historic Zupancis barn, Aspen Public Radio is rebuilding the KAJX tower and antenna, and the music school is upgrading WiFi at Aspen Meadows facilities, including the Benedict Music Tent.
In all, the city received seven applications for the new grant. The city’s grant steering committee, which reviewed the applications, gave six of the applications unanimous support.
The only application not approved, submitted by the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, was ruled out because its project did not meet the grant program’s criteria, according to center’s director, Lissa Ballinger. Ballinger said the center attempted to receive funding for equipment it had already purchased, which was technically not allowed under the grant’s guidelines.
The grant is one of three ways the city is leveraging increased available funds from real estate transfer tax collections. In 2021, Aspen voters approved a ballot measure allowing RETT funds, historically limited primarily for use at the Wheeler Opera House, to be used to aid “the cultural, visual and performing arts” generally, in addition to capital and operational support of the Red Brick Center for the Arts. In the same year, a hot real estate market brought in huge RETT revenues for the city.
In addition to the Asset and Acquisition Assistance pilot grant, the city has decided to increase funding for its existing arts and culture grants and establish an Aspen artist fellowship (budgeted at $60,000), which would support individual artists in Aspen. Awards for the 2023 arts and culture grants were approved earlier this year, and the council is scheduled to approve awards for the artist fellowship in September.
City staff originally recommended that the council designate about $750,000 for the new grant program, though the number was ultimately reduced by two thirds. The grants were only allowed to cover up to two thirds of a total project cost, with a $50,000 grant award limit, requiring applicants to show that they had the remaining third on hand. The city stipulated that it would either award all or none of applicants’ requests.
The grant was the first city grant that restricted applicants to the Aspen area (technically the urban growth boundary). Other city grants are available to organizations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.
Because it is a pilot program, all of this could change in the future. The council could adjust the funding amount, guidelines and applicant criteria going forward.
One concern expressed in council is that the grant favors large, established organizations over smaller ones, which may have greater “need” for funds.
Mayor Torre said it didn’t “sit right” with him that some “multi-million dollar organizations” had received funding through the grant program, while other smaller organizations were seeing reductions in awards from other grants.
Barker, who was present at the meeting, responded, saying, “What we’re trying to do, through council direction, is to make the most positive impact in the community that we can with our grant program, and as of right now, that does not take into account need. It just takes into account who is asking for funding, and who is using that funding for the best possible use in our community. So, that can be both wealthy organizations and organizations with fewer resources.”
Austin Corona | Aspen Daily News I August 22, 2023