America likes good entertainment. In 2008-2009 the stock market, car sales and home construction were down, but movie sales went up. Broadway enjoyed a banner year – offering the theatergoer a total of 75 different shows during the 2008-09 season. Over the past four years many cultural arts institutions are struggling due to cuts in endowments as well as corporate and government funding, but attendance appears to be more than holding its own. That is a good thing. An artist needs an audience to create and maintain great art.
Whatever the economy, there will always be lots of folks who want to do more things cultural, but do not think that they can afford it. They read about $25 museum admissions and $250 Broadway tickets – and quickly conclude that American culture and their pocketbook do not jive.
Our quick response to this: Not!
Yes you can drop a couple of C-notes to see the best theater, classical music, jazz and dance, but you do not have to. You can pay full admission price at every museum you visit, but you do not have to. You can pay $10 every time you want to watch a movie, but you do not have to.
Over the last few decades, tickets and other cultural arts related costs have increased significantly (well above the inflation rate in New York), but so has the number of available discounts and other cost cutting methods. Plus the Internet makes its simple to both learn about these discounts and take full advantage of them.
The Ground Rules
Before we start let’s cover some ground rules:
You cannot see everything. Nor should you try – you will just feel overwhelmed. As long as what you are seeing (or hearing) is in your opinion worthwhile that is all that matters. You are out to have a stimulating good time, not to increase your “most concerts attended” cocktail party chatter. If following our advice allows you to enjoy twelve arts activities a year instead of six, then we will add you to our win column.
Do not spend more than you can afford. Every city we discuss in the upcoming chapters offers excellent art choices for under $30 (especially when you factor in various discounts). Have a budget and stick to it; you can do a whole year of wonderful things (even in New York) for the $500 you didn’t spend on Book of Mormon tickets.
If someone, no matter where they lived, asked us for the best Arts America tip, our answer is simple – go to the websites of your favorite cultural institutions (museums, theaters, dance groups etc.) and sign up for free email alerts. More and more non-profit (as well as profit) organizations are seeing the huge advantages of email marketing over snail mail. Email is cheaper (and greener) to send, and it is instantaneous! A theater that is offering discount tickets to a slow selling matinee now uses email (as opposed to snail mail or phone calls) to get the word out. Museums hosting inexpensive events or special showings are turning more and more to email – and only email.
Initially, do not sign up for email from more than a dozen organizations or you will be overwhelmed. Also learn the features and capabilities of your email program especially regarding junk mail management and message sorting.
Do not equate size and price with quality. Over the years we have seen many many productions of “Guys and Dolls” – from high schools to Stratford to Broadway, but by far the best was a very small production in North Hollywood. The theater held 80 people and sets were minimal. But the acting, singing and costumes were first-rate. A lot of good art happens in small places.
Never avoid a cultural arts offering because you feel that you do not understand enough about it. Most performances or exhibitions require little or no background to enjoy – and if you do want to learn more before you go there are a lot of inexpensive available resources (which we discuss in Genres). If after a few tries you decide some cultural art happenings are not your thing that’s fine – but at least you are making this preference based on experience and not fear.
Maintain a current art news network. Knowing what is available as soon as you can is three-fourths of the battle. Under each city we list a few sources for current art news information including newspapers, websites and magazines. These suggestions are strictly a jumping off point; with very little effort you will find many others (especially blogs) that may be better suited to your particular needs and interests.
While this may be the only book (that we know of) about enjoying the Arts in America – there are hundreds of excellent guidebooks that will help you save on travel costs in every city that we discuss. So Norma and Jeff will just pass along a few tips that work for them.
Jeffrey Compton and his wife Norma almost never stay in hotels – but prefer to rent private homes or apartments, almost all of which they find on Craigslist. For the price of one medium priced hotel room (sans hotel taxes), they get a multi-bedroom apartment or house with a full kitchen, laundry facilities and usually several nice places to write. (The writing of the book that led to this website began on a porch in Southern Vermont overlooking the Berkshires and ended in a Los Angeles garden cabana.)
The next concern is food, so Norma will ask the locals (including the landlord) for tips on where to shop – and usually there is a large supermarket with good prices nearby. They keep an eye out for sales and at checkout ask if they have to join the supermarket club to take advantage of special deals. Some run the sale through a house account; others make customers fill out a form and take a card – but either way Norma and Jeff usually save 10-20%. They do not use a Costco or Sam’s Club as the quantities are too large for two people on a one or two week trip.
Many cities do not require a car. If they do, then rent one. Jeffrey makes a reservation as soon as he can – using both multi-company car rental sites and sites for the individual companies – and then double checks the prices every two weeks up until the day before they pick it up. Frequently a better deal will show up. If you go this route, avoid pre-paid reservations through Hotwire et. al. – as you cannot change them. Also, check with your credit card company to see if they offer upgraded car rental protection. For example, Jeffrey gets an excellent collision policy from American Express that is $20 per trip versus $15 a day from the rental company.
If you tend to use only one or two airlines (or Amtrak), then take the time to learn in depth how their frequent customer programs works – to the point where you know more about them than the clubs’ personnel. Also find the credit cards that give you the most miles per dollar spent – especially if you pay off your cards every month and do not have to worry about the interest rate.