Does The SCFD Really Put The Free Into ‘Free Days’?

October 20, 2016
Photo: Girls Scouts At Molly Brown House
Denver Junior and Brownie Girl Scouts (left to right) Valerie Perez, 10, Ginger Frankel, 7, Aunelise Tovar, 10, Fiona Frankel, 10, Zelda Bierhaus (background), 9, and troop leader Lisa Cancella visit the Molly Brown House Museum Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. 

Everyone likes free things. Every once in a while, some Denver-area cultural institutions open their doors free of charge.

They’re called “free days.” Many organizations say they’re able to do this because of the money collected through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

The district, which began in 1989, generates funds from a 0.1 percent sales and use tax in seven counties. It’s on our minds because voters in those counties will decide in November whether to renew it through 2030.

The money goes to more than 270 nonprofits, some of which heavily tout their free days. For example, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science hosts its next free day on Monday, Oct. 24. Friday evenings are free at the Clyfford Still Museum. Every first Saturday is free at the Denver Art Museum.

That brings us to a comment we received, embedded below, that points to some confusion over the true source of funding for some free days.

So we asked around, and here are some things we found out.

Some SCFD Groups Get Additional Funding For Free Days

We took Robert Chase’s comment to the Denver Art Museum, which let in 288,432 guests for free in 2015. The museum does not track individual visits made possible by SCFD, says Kristy Bassuener, the director of communication and public affairs. That’s because free access is offered courtesy of multiple funders like Toyota and the Reiman Foundation.

That also includes SCFD, which provides general support for operations.

“It enables us to provide world-class programming, it enables us to preserve our collections, and it enables us to provide access to the public in a way that we might not be able to do without these dollars,” Bassuener says.

Here’s the thing: There’s no specific amount of SCFD funding that is tied to free admissions at the Denver Art Museum. But the cultural tax district does help make them happen, Bassuener says.

If voters don’t extend the cultural tax district in November, she doesn’t think free days would go away, but adds that the staff would have to discuss it.

As for the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, a spokesperson says that Target’s corporate sponsorship is solely responsible for free nights on the first Tuesday of each month. SCFD funds, along with other support, help make other access programs possible, from Joy Park Free Nights in the summer to the museum’s low-sensory mornings.

Why Offer Free Days?

On the one hand, free days can entice first time visitors. The organizations also hope to reach people who otherwise couldn’t afford tickets. That includes Girl Scout Troop 67497, which attended a recent free day at Historic Denver’s Molly Brown House Museum.

“I have every free day marked for everything in and around the city,” troop leader Lisa Cancella says. “It’s amazing that we can do this for free, because our troop is a new troop, so we haven’t earned any money yet. So if we didn’t do this by free days, we wouldn’t be able to afford to come and do all these things and earn our badges.”

Don’t worry, the girls got their historic home tour badge.

Does SCFD Require Groups To Host Free Days?

No, the district does not require free days. But it turns out that free admission has been a part of the cultural tax district since the beginning.

“Organizations have to decide for themselves what works best,” SCFD executive director Peg Long says.

This flexibility means that these accessibility efforts result in different schedules and take various forms, from a free singular event to discounted ticket prices to select shows.

SCFD Orgs Make Up Their Own Free Day Rules

For example, the Molly Brown House let in around 100 people for free one Saturday, but there was a catch. You had to be from one of the seven counties that make up the cultural tax district to get in at no cost.

“We know it’s going to be busy, we’re going to be sold out early,” Molly Brown House visitor services coordinator Aileen Waski says of free days.

So be sure to check beforehand when making plans to cash in on a free day. Also keep in mind that some of the organizations listed on the SCFD free day calendar don’t typically charge admission.

That includes the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood, which has five free days listed in October. But you can see the outdoor collection any time and visit the indoor gallery with no ticket required Tuesday through Saturday. The same goes for the Aurora History Museum, which has three SCFD free day listings in October.

Some People Don’t See Eye To Eye On Free Days

The free days are a publicity stunt for SCFD, the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara says. The president of the Denver free market think tank -- which opposes the cultural tax district -- says many working class people can’t afford to take time off to attend these free days.

“It’s rather patronizing,” he says. “Maybe the thing to do is let them keep their money, and if they choose to go to the zoo, that’s what they can do with their money.”

Even though SCFD does not require free days, the cultural tax district stands by their merits.

“It’s very pervasive, it’s very genuine,” SCFD’s Peg Long says. “From my perspective, it’s giving back to the community. It’s making sure that the public experiences a return on its investment.”

CPR and other public media outlets do not receive SCFD funding. You can find a list of organizations that do here.