I have often railed against the practice of giving complimentary performance tickets to lots of people who feel they deserve them. Too many arts organizations, especially those in foreign countries, make a habit of handing out large numbers of free tickets to donors, friends, government officials and virtually anyone who asks for them. Ironically, these 'comps' are typically offered to those who can afford to buy a ticket, rather than to bring those unable to pay into the theater. This practice always leads to the same problem: people come to expect free tickets and refuse to pay for performances now or in the future. As a result, the earned income enjoyed by these organizations is substantially less than it should be. (Many of the beneficiaries of these free tickets come to think of the performances as valueless and refuse to become donors as a result!) There are times when free tickets are justified: when they are part of the package of benefits promised to a donor who makes a substantial contribution, when they represent professional courtesy (allowing fellow artists or arts managers to see your show), or when papering the house to make it a better experience for those who have paid for their tickets. Although when papering, it is important to offer free tickets to those not in the main audience prospect pool. One doesn't want potential ticket buyers waiting for free tickets to future performances. However, while I am opposed to free tickets, I am a big fan of free performances. That might sound like a contradiction but it isn't. When an arts organization has a mission to provide access to the arts for everyone, they will frequently plan for one or more free performances in a season. These are mission driven events. They indicate that the organization wants to make sure that all parts of the community can participate. In many communities, arts organizations offer free performances in public parks, especially in summer time. This gives people a chance to experience an arts event and to test their interest in a given art form. It is particularly meaningful to people who might not otherwise be able to afford entry into ticketed events.
The Kennedy Center has been offering a free daily performance for nearly 14 years on our Millennium Stage. Literally millions of people have had the opportunity to see a performance that they might not have otherwise enjoyed. This access is an explicit part of our mission; as the national cultural center we believe we are obligated to serve all constituencies, including those who cannot afford a ticket. But we would not offer free tickets to everyone to our paid performances. In fact, we hope that many people will be exposed to a given art form through our free performances and choose to come to ticketed performances in the future.
Every organization I have counseled to reduce the number of complimentary tickets has suffered some adverse audience reaction for a short period of time but has reported a dramatic increase in earned income. Changing the rules has been of great benefit for these organizations. And some of the extra money earned has been available to support free performances for those who really need them.