More Thoughts About Culture Vouchers

In the last few months, I wrote about how the EU was offering free Euro-rail passes to 18 year olds this summer to encourage them to broaden their horizons. Two years ago I wrote about the Italian government giving €500 culture vouchers to 18 year olds.

Just this week I read a CityLab piece about another voucher program that people who are at least 18 years old can participate in –voting and political campaigns.

Based on the success Seattle has seen with their Democracy Dollars program other cities like Albuquerque, NM and Austin, TX are looking into handing out campaign finance vouchers as a way to get a broader segment of the community involved with the political system.

…eligible residents vouchers totaling $100 to donate to the local candidate of their choice. Candidates who opted in to the program had to agree to strict guidelines on how to spend the money they received. The idea behind the pilot was that giving the equivalent of money to constituents who don’t usually have the resources to support their candidates—pensioners and the homeless, for example—would spur greater political participation.

These stories got me thinking that having a similar voucher program that people could use to donate to their favorite arts organization might inspire a broader range of the community to become involved with arts organizations. It may even help bring funding to organizations that have been marginalized or don’t have the resources to apply for formal grants.

According to the CityLab article, studies conducted on Seattle’s program did see participation by a more economically diverse segment of the community. However,”…voucher use was greater for older, white, and middle- and high-income voters.”

Surveys have shown similar results during free admission days for museums. Rather than attracting people who don’t normally visit the museum, most free admission days are patronized by those who are already visiting the museum.

The fact that voucher use was greatest by older, white, middle/high-income voters doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential to involve a broader range of people. It just may take more time and effort to help people feel empowered to participate.

“Yet low-income voters who did participate said they appreciated the opportunity: “It feels like I’m more a part of the system,” one voucher user told the Seattle Times in 2017. “People like me can contribute in ways that we never have before.”

While I express optimism that vouchers would help spread funding around to arts and cultural groups that don’t normally receive it, I imagine some government entities might require groups to officially register as approved recipients. This type of requirement potentially poses the same barrier to organizations as needing a grant writer.

It obviously doesn’t need to be that way. The Italian government’s voucher scheme was intended to be used for a wide range of things like buying books, taking classes and admission to events.

Though admittedly since they distributed the funds via an app, being able to accept the voucher funds may have required registration and paperwork. On the other hand, just as cell phones and tablets have lowered the barrier to being able to accept credit cards through a simple swipe, the same app that displays a voucher’s QR code could also be employed to scan codes and accept payment. All of which is probably less work than writing a grant.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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