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James Doeser: Are ticket giveaways for teens the best use of arts funding?

The Italian government will give all young people aged 18 years and below €500 towards the arts. But will this really level the playing field of access to culture? Photo: Shutterstock
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Earlier this summer, the Italian government announced a radical initiative: every Italian celebrating their 18th birthday before December 31 will receive 500 from the government to spend exclusively on arts and culture.

It launched in September and is now in operation. The money is funnelled through an app that requires the user to verify their identity and age. Their account is then loaded up with the credit they can spend (through the app) at various cultural locations.

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’.

The Arts Council and other funders are in the business of getting as much high-quality arts experiences to as many people as possible. They do this by supporting theatremakers to develop work, investing in buildings and spaces, touring projects to get the stuff to your doorstep, and subsidising ticket prices so it costs as little as possible to attend.

The UK system is not a defensible mode of arts subsidy: one where everybody pays and the privileged benefit most

I’m sadly obsessed with the history of cultural policy. The uncanny similarities between this year’s Culture White Paper and its 1965 ancestor (along with the Warwick Commission and much other research) show that this hasn’t really produced an arts sector that enfranchises everyone, despite the best intentions of policymakers. Countless initiatives (and millions of pounds) have been spent trying to shift the demographic profile of arts audiences and workers in the sector. They have remained stubbornly white and well-off. Our current system is not a defensible mode of arts subsidy: one where everybody pays and the privileged benefit most.

What if we introduced something like the Italian scheme?

I love the sheer simplicity of the 18 app at the core of the Italian approach. It has been pitched in some quarters as a ‘cultural basic income’ – analogous to the idea of a ‘universal basic income’ – and there is something to be said for that. At the heart of UBI is the abolishing of all benefits, all the dehumanising and expensive bureaucracy: just give everyone the money they need to live a modest lifestyle. Let people earn whatever they like to finance the bonus material of life.

Unfortunately, it’s a hugely unpopular idea, with people locked into immoveable notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ and the even crazier idea that there is something noble in work. Perhaps something more virtuous, like culture, is an easier sell?

The Italians are relatively agnostic about what constitutes ‘culture’. Whether your ticket at the Naples UCI cinema is for the latest Sundance selection or you are choosing to catch up with Alvino, Simone and Teodore in the new Chipmunks movie, it seems both experiences can be purchased using the 18 app. However, culture is a word with ill-defined boundaries, and it will be interesting to see what happens when someone channels their inner Silvio Berlusconi and attempts to pay for their trip to a theme park or lap-dancing club via this mechanism.

The rhetoric of cultural enfranchisement around the scheme is something to be applauded, as is its experimental and open-minded approach. The scheme’s architect (Tommaso Nannicini) has said that “it [is] a reminder of how crucial culture is, both for personal enrichment and for strengthening the social fabric of the country.”

Nannicini is an economist who only this year stepped into his role with the Italian government. As someone who dabbles in social science myself, I’m overjoyed that he’s got a chance to experiment and put some theories to the test.

But don’t fear, this chap is no pointy-headed pen-pusher. On his website, Nannicini stands in front of a bookshelf with one item given pride of place: not a leather-bound volume of JM Keynes, Vilfredo Pareto or Adam Smith, but a still from the film The Big Lebowski. This is a perverse reason to feel very optimistic. Especially when you consider that his boss, the culture minister Dario Franceschini, is no cultural lightweight either, having been a writer of some renown in his early years in politics.

If you’re a rich kid whose parents gave you the means to swan into Theatreland, why should we all pick up the tab?

The focus on 18 year-olds slightly dims my enthusiasm for the project. Not because I’m a bitter old 30-something – well, not entirely for that reason – but due to the intractable problem of equity and arts funding. Simply being aged 18 doesn’t make you poor, and if you’re a rich kid whose parents equipped you with the means to swan through Theatreland and into your seat in the stalls, why should we all have to pick up the tab?

You may remember A Night Less Ordinary, an Arts Council-administered scheme to offer free tickets to under-25s. It still survives in some places. That was a ‘supply-side’ version of the 18 app. In the end, it greatly benefited those who needed it least: well-off and well-educated students living in theatre-rich towns and cities.

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.

Italy’s political system is typically chaotic, and for many people Matteo Renzi’s government has over-promised and under-delivered. Italy’s flagship cultural policy is in the hands of a Lebowski-loving economist and a culture minister of literary renown.

What hope is there that this will work? At this stage we’ve no idea, but after 50 years of the same old ‘supply-side’ interventions, how about we try something a little different?

Over to you, Italy.

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