Bright Idea: A Universal Gift Card for Arts & Culture

 “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”  In that spirit, AUDIENCE WANTED dedicates this summer to stirring up a potpourri of creative notions & half-baked thoughts around the purpose of growing audiences for the arts & cultural sector.  Suspend practicality & judgment for the moment.  We are just brainstorming here – with an emphasis on BIG thinking and CREATIVE efforts.  

Together, let’s see if we can amass an absolutely HUGE number of wild & crazy ideas.  Got a Bright Idea to contribute?  Write it up in less than 500 words (along with a brief self-introduction) and send it to:


A Universal Gift Card for Arts & Culture

I’d like to buy you the gift of an arts & cultural experience.

Problem is, I don’t know if you’d prefer discovering the edgy theatre company, the symphony orchestra or a day at the art museum.  True, many arts & cultural organizations offer their own gift cards, but why should I have to lock you in to just one organization’s offerings?

Why can’t I purchase a gift card that can be used at any of your city’s arts & cultural attractions?

Here in Phoenix, where the brand represents the breadth of the arts & cultural community’s offering, why can’t there be a “ShowUp Card” whose $’s can be redeemed (both in person and on-line) at a wide range of arts organizations and cultural destinations?

Having researched this question over the years, I’ve discovered that there exist two types of gift cards:

  1. Closed Loop – such are the cards of Target, Starbucks, Home Depot or any other individual merchant of any size.  There’s typically no fee associated with buying such a card, because once purchased, the $’s are trapped into that particular merchant’s orbit (i.e. that’s the closed loop).  The company will make its money when the $’s are ultimately spent.
  2. Open Loop – such are the VISA or MasterCard or American Express cards you can buy at the Mall.  They are often creatively branded to encourage you to spend the $’s with a particular group of merchants but the truth is that the $’s can be spent anywhere that VISA, MasterCard or American Express is accepted.  The issuer of such an Open Loop card must assess a service charge, because there exists no expectation that, once bought, the card will be spent at any particular merchant.  If I buy you this kind of card, you’re just as able to purchase groceries as to go to theatre.

What I imagine:  A “closed loop” gift card that functions among an ASSOCIATION OF MERCHANTS!  Imagine the power of an entire community’s arts & cultural organizations being able to sell $’s into a commonly accepted gift card that exists specifically to engage even more arts & cultural experience – and locks those $’s into the orbit of companies offering theatre, music, dance, art, festivals, culinary and cultural attractions.

The “closed loop” system is inadequate for the arts & cultural sector’s needs where we commonly believe that someone who attends one organization’s performance can and should becomes a prime candidate for ANOTHER organization’s participation subsequently.

And if I buy you a $50 card – and you spend only $46 – then haven’t I also just given you a $4 head start on your NEXT purchase.  Isn’t that encouraging!?!

With the arts & cultural sector’s natural focus on “growing the pie” rather than “fighting over the size of the slices,” isn’t it also natural that we should be the innovators of a new collaborative function of gift card?


Hey!  I know we’re only brainstorming here, but if this is an idea that you’re already doing (or if you know somebody who has the power to make it happen) please get in touch:

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  1. says

    Hey, Matt, this idea gels perfectly with some ideas we have been covering with the Phoenix Fringe Festival and Performance in the Borderlands. We were discussing creating an alliance of Valley arts presenters (mostly smaller, non-resident companies) that could bring focus to fundraising, audience development and infrastructure (ticket sales, ad buys, printing, etc.) expenditures. An idea like this would match perfectly with that. “Buy a $50 pass from [name of organization/initiative here] and select 5 shows from more than 50 presenters!”

    We should chat in person about this. Buy you lunch next week?

    Also, does this idea connect to Culture Pass? Do we put a few of these out into libraries, too?

  2. says

    Matt, as you know, Leonard Jacobs and I have begin “discussing” this on facebook:

    Leonard: Not just a bright idea, it’s a logical, sensible and wonderful idea. Of course, it would require the US to have a cogent, connected and coordinated arts policy. I shall leave you alone for a full five minutes so you may indulge in pure, unmitigated laughter.

    Linda: I think it would require cooperation among arts and culture providers; no policy needed.

    Leonard: On a national scale, it would require one, I feel. If the NEA said that it supported the idea, even with no resources, that, for me, constitutes policy.

    Linda: I was thinking it would be, as Matt Lehrman writes, “an association of merchants,” that would have a regional focus, built on the kind of platform Matt build here for

    Leonard: That would certainly be fine. Here’s the dream, though: You’re in AZ and I’m in NYC, Boston, Bangor or Kalamazoo. No regional commonalities there, but you should be able to give me such a gift card and I should be able to give a card to you and have it work regardless of location. This is really a national idea but we haven’t any conditions in terms of national cultural policy to implement this idea nationally. (Can you tell I love this idea? I do!) So I guess my real point is that we ought to have such conditions in place to make it national. Regional is great. National is much greater.

    Matt then chimed in: Leonard, I’m delighted that you’re excited about this at a national scale, but I don’t understand why you think this requires NEA involvement and/or a “coordinated arts policy.” Why can’t this be a business initiative either for – or on behalf of – those organizations that want to participate?

    Leonard: And just to be clear, I’m not saying this require NEA involvement. It can require, in fact, any number of organizations, companies, enterprises, merchants and/or institutions that want to create it. I’m saying that a local gift card is fine but a regional gift card is even better, and a national gift card — just take a second, just imagine a national gift card for arts and culture — is even better than that. So I immediately think, OK, what are the circumstances, what are the conditions, under which a national gift card for arts and culture could be proposed and developed and implemented. Lots of institutions could take the lead, or it could be purely a commercially driven idea. I’m daring you — and me, and Linda, and all of us, and our whole national tendency as Americans working in the arts to confuse decentralization with parochialism — to imagine something truly national in this regard. A situation in which arts and culture is defined in such a way that a universal gift card could be given from one person in one corner of the nation to another person in another corner of the nation, distance be damned. How would we achieve this — how would I persuade you not to roll your eyes and claim that such an idea is madness, pie-in-the-sky, unachievable — without a coordinated arts policy of some kind in the US? What tools do we have, what apparatus exists, that could propose and develop and implement this idea. Well, the NEA came to mind. It could, however, be every Chamber of Commerce in the country. It could be five of the ten biggest retail food chains. It could be two of the seven biggest broadcast networks. It could be Americans for the Arts. It could be state arts agencies. It could be other grass-roots efforts not yet created. That’s all I’m saying. (I’m happy to move the conversation to your blog, but I’m not sure I know how to cut/paste all this.)

    Linda: American for the Arts meeting starts tomorrow; Perhaps you both can discuss it there! (i can’t go).

    • says

      You know what entity could pull something like this off without too much of a stretch? Amazon. They would take their percentage, of course, but it would probably be worth it in terms of the amount of time and effort building an appropriate infrastructure would cost. Amazon already provides the background for Kickstarter and a number of other crowdsourced, crowdfunded and distributed projects.

  3. elaine barclay says

    check out the “Discover Jersey Arts” card. not a credit card, but it is a free card that entitles you to all kinds of discounts and freebies at a huge number of New Jersey (primarily) arts related venues. costs nothing to become a member, just fill out a form. not exactly what you are talking about, but i think it is a relative piece. when added to the very informative and interactive website, the discounts inspire me to check out places that i wouldn’t have ever even heard of before.