On Being a Free Culture Initiative

Scan 2018-9-10 11.19.57.jpeg
Scan 2018-9-10 11.18.24.jpeg

Free Columbia is a community-oriented and community-supported cultural initiative. We give our work to people who want it and, in the the process, we get support from people who are inspired to give. For the last 10 years, we’ve never had a paywall for any of our programs.

It’s not only through our education programs that we contribute to the cultural life of the area—the fruits of our research become part of the cultural commons, our ticket-free puppetry tours go into area schools and parks, we create site-specific artworks and murals, and we do regular art “dispersals,” gifting hundreds of original art pieces in people’s homes. Not one of these activities involves a fixed fee.

This level of accessibility is made possible by gifts and grants from many, many people. Donations, pledges, grants, and crowdfunding campaigns make Free Columbia possible. In this way we’re structured like public radio. This type of community-oriented and community-supported culture is itself a form of meaningful action research, especially at a time when graduating college students are carrying more debt than ever.

This structure also supports a social frame of mind among teachers, researchers, students, and artists. As George Scialabba writes:


“Gratitude, the pleasure of discovery, the impulse to self-expression, and devotion to a common enterprise, motivates creators quite as much as lucre. Of course everyone needs to make a living, but the real point is to keep the tune flowing, the conversation humming, the gift in motion. Poets, jazz musicians, filmmakers, physicists, and coders know this.”


While Free Columbia is a nonprofit educational initiative, it is not accredited. The positive side of this is that artists and faculty have full autonomy in their teaching, projects, and research. Our structure is born out of the conviction that the creation of culture should be intrinsically-motivated and, ultimately, gift-worthy.

This is how we understand “Free Culture”— the work is freely created, the work is freely accessible, the work is freely supported.

And so our work is totally dependent on the generosity of supporters. No matter if you are a student or alumni of one of our programs, a recipient of a piece of art, a guest at a community performance, an intern in a social research project, or are just enthused by the mission of Free Columbia, we invite you to donate or pledge and we express our thanks for all the ongoing support.