This post is from new GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality, intentional living and lifeitsownself at Surviving And Thriving.

The Seattle Art Museum is hosting a show called “Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musee National Picasso, Paris” through 12 January 2011. It costs $20 to see the 150 paintings, sculptures, prints and photos. This is an important show and no doubt worth the freight. But since a real frugalist just hates to pay retail, I went on “First Thursday,” when admission to the museum was free and tickets to Picasso were only $12.

Yep: I saw Picasso on sale.

“Budget” and “culture” aren’t mutually exclusive. Whether you crave abstract art or an emotionally bloody Albee drama, there’s often a way to get it on the cheap — or even for free. Here are a dozen different ways to try.

  • Subscribe/become a member. If I were a member of the Seattle Art Museum, I’d have been able to see Picasso (and any other special exhibit) for free as well as enjoying discounts and special events. If I buy an ACTPass from A Contemporary Theatre here in Seattle, I could see as many shows and special events I wanted for $25 a month.
  • Watch for specials. Yes, cultural institutions have sales. For example, I could have applied my $12 Picasso ticket toward that annual membership. The Philadelphia Orchestra gives a 15% discount and waives ticket fees to groups of 10 or more. An arts group may offer a discount to season subscribers who buy early.
  • Rush tickets. On Broadway you can get rush, standing-room-only, and “lottery” tickets for as little as $20 if you’re an early riser who’s patient and/or lucky. This article at Playbill explains how. Regional companies do rush hour, too. For example, unsold seats to the Portland Opera go on sale for $10 to $20 for students, seniors, and active military personnel 60 minutes before the curtain rises.
  • Package deals. Season tickets aren’t necessarily bank-breakers. For example, San Francisco Opera season tickets can be had for as little as $96 for six performances.

Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria (good stuff starts at 2:10) — see also

  • Social buying. Groupon, Living Social, Buy With Me, and other social commerce sites sometimes offer vouchers for arts events and museum memberships at 50% off. Sign up for the ones in your area and see what floats in on those e-mail deal offerings. Note: Purchase the vouchers through a cash-back site such as Ebates, Fat Wallet, or Mr. Rebates and you’ll get rebates of up to 6%.
  • Pay-what-you-can night. This is like happy hour for the lively arts: Admission by donation at a theater company, museum or improv comedy troupe. Some theater companies have PWYC or sharply reduced tickets for the last dress rehearsal before opening night (“preview” translates to “pardon us while we work out the final glitches with the sound effects”). If you’re lucky, theater companies in your area will add one or two additional PWYC nights during a run. Some museums are always PWYC and others do admission by donation once a month.
  • Gaga for BOGOs. The Entertainment Book has buy-one-get-one tickets for music, dance, opera and theater. It, too, can be purchased through a cash-back site; the highest rebate, 35%, is found through Mr. Rebates.
  • First Friday. Or First Thursday. Or Artwalk. Whatever it’s called in your neighborhood, it’s an increasingly common custom. Cities with more than a couple of art galleries stage openings on the same night each month, to encourage people to visit many different shows. The galleries usually put out snacks and desserts, and may even open up a fresh box of wine for all the culture vultures. This makes a terrific Frugal Date Night: You get points for being classy and there’s none of that awkwardness about who pays for dinner.
  • Put it on your wish list. If family and friends know you’d really love to see “Lucia di Lammermoor,” maybe you’ll get a ticket for your birthday. Or maybe all your sibs will chip in on that six-opera season subscription; even if the tickets are way up in the nosebleeds, at least you’ll be there when the fat lady sings.
  • Student discounts. This is one of the three most important word pairings to college students (the others being “financial aid” and “Top Ramen”). Making culture accessible is a basic mission of most arts groups, but student discounts serve another purpose, too: building future subscriber bases. Get them in the door early and maybe they’ll buy season tickets after they graduate. Some programs even embrace “non-traditional” (the new college euphemism for “old”) students: Until I graduated in 2009, at the age of 52, I could pay $10 for the best seat in Benaroya Hall to hear the Seattle Symphony. But other local arts groups limited “student” discounts to people 25 and under. To which I say: Pooh.

Today’s symphony means more than Mozart! (Brandi Carlile with Seattle Symphony 11/29/08)

All right, not all of these are “cultural” per se, but sometimes you just wanna walk through a giant replica of a beating human heart or watch monkeys fling their poo. It’s an antidote to all those arias and Picassos.

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