Recently James Doeser wrote about a program the Italian government started where they granted a culture voucher worth €500 to anyone who turns 18 before December 31.
It can be used to buy books, pay for entry fees to parks, museums and archaeological sites, and instead of cash for theatre, cinema and concert tickets. The euros in the app are spent by the young people and the arts organisations then reclaim this money off the state.
There is something wickedly disruptive as well as very elegant about this idea. If it works, it will have a profound impact not just on Italian cultural policy but also how other governments around the world approach the issue of arts funding.
Whereas a voucher scheme like the one underway in Italy is an exercise in ‘demand-side’ economics, the vast majority of our cultural policy in the UK is on the ‘supply side’.
While Doeser generally applauds the program as a way to avoid giving additional benefits to people who can already afford them, (it is pretty well recognized that free admission days are attended by people who already attend, not new audiences), he notes some potential issues:
While ‘supply-side’ interventions have their shortcomings, ‘demand-side’ ones are not without complications. There is a host of interesting effects that a scheme of this sort might unleash on the cultural marketplace: ticket price inflation; the prospect of resale (if I am an arts lover and can get €300 of your unused credits for, say, €100 in cash, then we’d both be better off if we can do this deal); and finally whether there will be low take-up and the Italian government is operating like your gym, confident that people will not use their entitlements.
Of course, I got to thinking about how this might be implemented in the U.S.
Ideally, teens would use the money to indulge their curiosity and expanding their horizons buying books, going to museums, taking classes/lessons, buying paint, visiting historical sites, etc,. But the reality is that they may just use the money to pay for additional months of Netflix subscriptions and buying music from the same people they already are without expanding their experience.
There might be a temptation to specify what the money can be spent on that aligned to a definition. However broad the definition was, it would still delineate what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. My only consolation would be that as restrictive as the arts community’s definition of what constituted arts and culture might be, it would still be orders of magnitude broader than that of the politicians authorizing the funding.
Politics aside, allowing the funding to be use for all the activities the NEA defined as arts participation their 2012 survey of public participation in the arts would provide some excellent insight into what types of activities people were actually engaging in. Every time a voucher number was used, it would provide useful data about people’s actual practice rather than their self-perceived practice.
True, if people had a sense that their use was being tracked they may only use it at a museum rather than when they indulged their guilty pleasure marathon viewing of The Three Stooges movies. While their self consciousness may slightly skew the results, it may engender a growing appreciation of arts and cultural activities that may not fully manifest until 20 years later when they are in their 40s.
Certainly, the program could just serve to further enrich big corporations like Apple, Comcast, Google, Time Warner, Disney, etc and not help non-profit arts organizations much at all.
While we can watch what happens with the Italian program, the reality is our cultural norms differ to a large enough degree that we basically can’t use their experience to project what might happen in the U.S. It comes down to something of a thought experiment about how much we trust U.S. teens (or all citizens if you wanted to expand the program) to spend money exploring. How much tolerance would we have for people who didn’t spend the money as we thought they should?
Yes, I know this doesn’t even factor in that there are hundreds of thousands of teens out there that have a much more dire need to use even a $50-$100 subsidy for food, shelter and medical care.
And yes, there is also the fact that right now the goal of most arts advocates is to have federal arts funding equal $1 for every citizen so $50 is a pipe dream. Since the population of 18 year olds is only a small segment of the population, the grant could be more than $1, but it would likely still divert a lot of funding from somewhere else even if the federal budget were raised.
But ignoring the fact that the current federal arts budget is far from sufficient and that social services for teens and families are also lacking in comparison with places like Italy, would it freak you out to think about what the 18 year old population of the U.S. would likely spend $100 culture voucher on?
Parents will likely recognize that the title of today’s entry is inspired by “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie…” While the kid in the story is run a little ragged in the book I bet most arts organizations would be thrilled to have an audience as engaged and participatory as the mouse.