Highbrow on a Budget: How to Get Free Entry at Museums, Festivals and More

Arts and entertainment
People attend the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Broke? Lonely? Has a recent life change forced you to downsize?

Do something good for you — and your community by getting involved with the music and the arts scene. It’s a great way to enjoy free entertainment and enrichment, as well as an opportunity to hobnob with interesting, successful people.

As an arts and entertainment editor and writer,I’ve been fortunate to get on the list to see A-list headliners like Bruno Mars and big Broadway touring productions such as Book of Mormon.

At functions, I’ve met a mind-boggling variety of people behind the scenes who coordinate events, teach, tend bar, usher and provide all manner of assistance. One thing they all say is they love the access they get to events and how well-rounded their lives have become.

Arts nonprofits and entertainment events need patrons and volunteers more than ever. The key is to stay busy and help out as much as you can. Good karma will find you.

Here are some pointers to get you started:

1. Fly Solo

A woman attends the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Attending a play or concert alone saves you money. If you love theater, go at off-peak hours and arrive during box office rush (within an hour before curtain) when some  theaters sell tickets as low as 75%off the original price. Patrons who have extra tickets occasionally give single tickets away, too.

Don’t be nervous about it. Chances are you won’t stand out attending alone.

Rebecca Ratner, a professor at the University of Maryland, studies the benefits of recreating solo. She says that people are just too busy to accommodate others nowadays, and all types of people venture out without companions.

Plus, the more art events you attend alone, the more chances you’ll have to meet people and stumble on great opportunities. The best part:you can give something your undivided attention for once. That’s priceless.

2. Wing It at an Open Mic

If you’re an aspiring writer, poet, comedian or musician, open mics can provide a threshold to a new career or hobby.

Or, if you’re just a spectator, they offer an inexpensive, fun variety of talent (usually with a minimum food or beverage purchase). Traditional cabaret-style comedy clubs can be found in most cities, or check local bars and restaurants with a trendy night-time crowd. Open mics are often scheduled on slower, weekday nights.

For even lower-budget options, seek out local recreation centers, arts nonprofits, community theaters, coffeehouses, boba lounges, ethnic pubs and galleries… even some bowling alleys host them! For venues near you visit, openmikes.org.

You might have to endure some bores, but the winners often outweigh the stinkers.

3. Volunteer for a Local Performing Arts Venue or Theater

Courtesy of David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts

Volunteering as an usher or in some other capacity at a performing arts complex provides free access to world-class entertainment. It will fill your life with culture and inspiration and put you in touch with a community filled with creative and fun people.

Paul Bilyeu, Senior Director of Communications at the Straz Center of Performing Arts in Tampa, says volunteers at the 4,327-seat facility play an important role in its operation.

“The Straz Center is always looking for volunteers who love the arts and want to be a part of our vibrant culture, and we have a number of different volunteer opportunities in the organization,” he said. “Volunteering at The Straz comes with the added bonus of occasional access to free or discounted tickets to select performances.”

4. Orchestrate a Comeback

Opera guilds and orchestra companies need help with ushering, publicity, box office and other services, and usually offer free access to dress rehearsals, receptions and swanky affairs. You might even acquire some sophistication in the process.

The Pensacola Opera Guild, for instance, recruits help behind the scenes, in the opera offices, housing artists, volunteering during productions and assisting with the Opera’s annual fundraising events. In return, volunteers get to attend  five social events each year. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra offers each volunteer a pair of tickets to the concert of their choice in exchange for their time.  

5. Visualize Life from a New Perspective at Free Art Shows and Art Walks

Don’t be intimidated by art shows. All types attend them.

Art hops or gallery walks — a series of free gallery opening receptions with extended hours taking place in one geographical area — are often the coolest, most eclectic thing to do for free in town.

Galleries in most cities run the gamut range from decorative paintings and functional pottery to avant-garde mixed media and interactive installations. In some settings you’ll feel like a Factory boy or girl, as if Warhol himself is going to make an entrance. In others, you might chat with an old hippie about conspiracy theories and legalizing weed.

During St. Petersburg’s Second Saturday Art Walk, you can hit a pottery glass studio, see abstract paintings and pop art and even catch a band or two within a few square blocks of the city’s Warehouse Arts District.

Organizers usually post a map or schedule online so you can plan ahead to visit galleries suit your taste. Speaking of taste, free food and wine are often served, too.

6. Drop Yourself Some Knowledge at Free Lectures and Workshops

Museums, galleries and other institutions often host free lectures and seminars on art, history, philosophy and topics as far out as sexual deviance. Sometimes they’re tied with an exhibition or event series, and occasionally feature famous people.

Cornell University will be hosting a free Wednesday lecture series this summer. Author Diane Ackerman will discuss: “Everyday Heroism and The Zookeeper’s Wife” on July 12, at 7 p.m.

In Kennedy Hall. Lesley University in Boston has already scheduled an impressive slate of politicians, authors and other prominent personalities for the upcoming fall and winter semesters, including former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, reporter Cokie Roberts, travel guru Rick Steves and former U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

Check your universities, museums and libraries for schedules. It’s a great way to meet people, and it’s way cheaper than a Netflix subscription.

7. A Shift or Two of Grunt Work = a Free Day of Festival Fun

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival/Facebook

Ah, that big outdoor indie music festival is so expensive. Visit the event’s website and find out if volunteer slots are available as soon as the festival is announced (they fill up fast for high-profile events).

Sometimes volunteering for just two hours at a local music fest can get you free access to a full day’s worth of concerts. Usually there are so many volunteers, you won’t be stuck for too long on any one chore. Bigger name festivals such as Bonnaroo and SXSW require up to 10 days of shiftwork for access to showcases and parties.

Forecastle Fest in Louisville, Kentucky., July 14-16, has planned a more manageable exchange of hours for free attendance, requiring a minimum of 12 hours spread into two six-hour shifts during the fest dates. The lineup includes LCD Soundsystem, Weezer, Run the Jewels and Spoon.

8. Take it to the Street.

If you like getting in for free to concerts, many promoters will cut you a break if you help spread the word about their shows. Marketing companies, publications and promoters often recruit street teams of volunteers.

Find out who’s promoting the bands you like and hit them up on Facebook. If they don’t have a street team or procedure in process, ingratiate yourself until they give in.

One Tampa area promoter I know will ask for social networking shares in exchange for free tickets, but these types of oral agreements aren’t typically an official practice. They hinge on the popularity of the headliner and demand for tickets. In any case, it’s best to reach out early on when publicity is needed the most. Be friendly, reach out via messenger apps and share posts as often as possible. Let them know you’re available to drop off fliers, too.  

9. Blog About It

First, anyone can start an arts or music blog. Check out WordPress, Blogger and other platforms, which provide easy preformatted templates to start. Bone up on your grammar and punctuation, make it legit, learn about metatags and hyperlinks and you’ll see your written and/or photographic coverage pay off in free tickets and other perks.

Make sure you introduce yourself and your publication to venues and local promoters; create business cards to pass out.

Artists, especially the less famous ones, need all the publicity they can get. Venues and promoters will accommodate you happily once your blog is on a roll (sometimes before).

Being exposed to amazing, creative talents of all types is itso own reward, of course. ake sure you establish trust and a solid reputation before expecting free tickets or to be added to any list. Every organization has a process. Watch and learn, become indispensable. People will soon begin to remember your name and want you at their event.

Julie Garisto is a graduate of the University of South Florida and arts contributor to The Tampa Bay Times, Creative Pinellas and Alive Tampa Bay.