Community, Features, Print April 5, 2021

Just Wanna Have Funds: Did the Colorado Arts Relief Grant Support the Organizations it Intended?

by Gabe Allen

On the first Monday of December 2020, the Colorado State Senate adopted Bill 20B-001, which created a $7.5 million pot for struggling arts and entertainment organizations and professional artists around the state. Just two months later, on February 8, the recipients of the Colorado Arts Relief Grant (CARG) were announced. 

In 63 days, Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), a division of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, created a set of criteria, launched an application, administered the selection process and allocated $7.5 million (just under $6 million to organizations and businesses).

“We were given the charge to distribute the funding as quickly as possible,” a CCI spokesperson wrote in a letter to BandWagon.

This hasty allocation of public funds was met with cynical speculation from independent venue owners who were not awarded money. 

“Happy to see my pal Scott Campbell got a much needed $340,000 for his 3 struggling venues after he offered to buy Hi-Dive back in August,” Curtis Wallach, owner of Denver’s Hi-Dive, commented sarcastically on a February Facebook post (It should be noted that Scott and Gwen Campbell’s venues are booked in alliance with the AEG corporation, who arguably monopolize talent buying in the state and beyond, but that the Campbell’s have since returned a portion of the funding that their businesses received).

Until now, the controversy over the grant has remained purely speculative. No one has pointed to specific evidence of nepotism or neglect on CCI’s part. But, thanks to the Colorado Open Records Act, BandWagon was able to obtain a copy of the scoring rubric used to evaluate grant applicants.

The picture that has emerged through reviewing the rubric and corresponding with CCI, is one of an organization that was moving very quickly with good intentions. But the question remains: did the criteria that CCI used match the stated intent of the grant?

The original senate bill called for the funds to “prioritize arts, culture and entertainment organizations whose venues are determined to be at the highest risk of permanent closure.”

To evaluate this metric, CCI staff reviewed three-year financial summary and profit and loss statements from 2019 and 2020 for each applicant. A perfect score on the “severity of loss” section of the rubric was given to an organization with a physical venue, 50% or more loss in tickets and at least one business loss, zero to three months of available operating funds (dubbed “Level 4, Severe Financial Distress”) and little to no access to other funding. 

Critics of the grant’s allocations to media conglomerates may point out that “access to other funding” was only evaluated in terms of other grant money. If the application had inquired into the likelihood of financial help from the organization’s affiliate network or stakeholders, the outcome may have been different.

In its own guidelines, CCI stated “Priority will also be given to venues that have significant artistic, cultural impact and/or historic relevance to the local community.” Although the rubric took into account the number of years the organization had operated, “cultural impact” was primarily evaluated based on each applicant’s narrative questions. Here CCI introduced a subjective measure into its process.

CCI’s guidelines also stated that priority would “be given to organizations and businesses that are owned by or that support historically marginalized communities.”

One of the narrative questions asked the applicant to discuss inclusiveness, but the rubric seems to have left out this metric. Although criteria gives a score for the organization’s ability to serve its “defined intended audience,” it does not mention inclusivity or diversity. 

The final element of CCI’s guidelines that we evaluated was its claim to “consider equitable distribution of funds across the state.” The largest shares of the pot went to Denver County (24.2%) and Boulder County (16.8%), but these larger portions are reflective of a much higher concentration of arts organizations. Funding went to more rural areas as well, including Delta County (0.5%), Chaffee County (0.7%) and La Plata County (1.7%). 

In reviewing CCI’s allocation criteria, it seems that the organization aptly covered the basic directives laid out by lawmakers. It distributed much-needed funding rapidly to organizations in need. 

On the other hand, it seems that the evaluation process was inadequate to truly meet CCI’s stated goals for the funding. “Marginalized communities” were an afterthought in the evaluation criteria, and CCI failed to take into account the viability of an organization beyond its revenue stream and cash on hand.

As public funds are continually funneled towards aid during the pandemic, organizations like CCI have to make a compromise between assiduousness and speed. The cost of getting money out quickly may be that some high-need recipients slip through the cracks.