I recently spent a Sunday in St. Louis, a rising multicultural city with a legacy of wealthy benefactors from its glory days in the late 19th century. In the morning, we strolled in the magnificent, many-rotunda-ed Tower Grove Park in the Shaw neighborhood, so named as a tribute to Henry Shaw, a wealthy industrialist who gave the land for the 150-year-old park.
Then on to a nearby coffee shop, vibrant with young people. Then to the St. Louis Art Museum, a relic of the 1904 World’s Fair. The museum, fitting the ethnic composition of the city, is rich in German art, has a striking modernist addition, and (best of all) has been admission-free from the year (1904) it was founded. It is kept free by a generous countywide arts tax, donations, and endowment. The museum is set in the glorious Forest Park, where the Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis fair was held. Again, all free, including the Zoo.
It occurred to me that making some of Seattle arts free, thus improving access for young people and those of limited income, would be a worthy imported idea to both help the arts (struggling post-pandemic) and to broaden audiences. And to help with the downtown revival. Instead, we tend to price such attractions to milk tourists and boost memberships.
It turns out that Germany, France, Italy, and Spain now have programs for free tickets aimed at young people. A typical stipend is 200-500 Euros aimed at 18-year-olds, who have two years to spend the grants on tickets, books, art courses, and musical instruments. The grant program is focused on smaller arts groups and prevents teenagers from blowing the entire grant on rock concert tickets.
These programs are described as “cultural start-up capital.” They are easy to administer, since the recipients choose how to spend the money. The cost to Germany will be 100 million Euros per year, and that will reach 750,000 18-year-olds in 2023. That may seem like a lot, but consider that the entire German cultural budget is 2.3 billion Euros a year. I would imagine that in Seattle a goodly portion of the expense would come from foundations bent on improving cultural access and diversity.
My deeply satisfying day in St. Louis concluded with a rousing concert in Powell Hall by the St. Louis Youth Symphony. Ticket cost: $10 each. No charge for the good idea for funding the arts! Meet me in St. Louis, Louie!