NEW YORK (Reuters) - People are flocking to free outdoor cultural events from opera to rappers to Shakespeare, entertaining themselves on a budget amid the worst recession in some 70 years.
As more people opt to spend vacations at home, some U.S. parks groups are seeing audiences double, while donations and sponsorships of free summer programs are dropping.
In New York, the City Parks Foundation puts on nearly 1,200 free events, mostly in summer, and has seen crowds grow by at least 30 percent compared to last year.
"The recession is definitely playing a role," the foundation's executive director, David Rivel, told Reuters. "Fundraising is down about 20 percent, Attendance is up about 20 to 30 percent at least, and we're doing the best we can.
"Almost all of our sponsors from last year are back, but virtually none of them are giving more money and many are giving less money than they did last year."
Rivel said the foundation had dipped into its endowment to avoid cutting programs.
A huge demand has risen for free sports programs, as many parents cannot afford sending children to camp, he added.
Waiting in the rain at New York's East River Park for hip hop artist Slick Rick to appear, Audrea Alicea, 40, said free events were good for "keeping the kids out of trouble."
"I go online to try to find stuff to keep my daughter entertained," said Alicea, a child care worker from Manhattan.
In London, the Royal Opera House has seen a 27 percent increase in crowds from last year for live broadcasts of opera and ballet on big screens in 20 locations around Britain.
"There is a huge hunger for free events given the current economic climate," spokesman Simon Magill said.
Free guided walks through London's Royal Parks had seen a 12 percent increase in attendance, a spokesman said.
In New York, long lines of people waiting for free tickets to "Shakespeare in the Park" stretch through Central Park.
Also in Central Park, more than 80,000 people attended a free performance this month by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestra president Zarin Mehta said he could not attribute the crowd to the dim economy.
"One can talk about the recession but on the other hand we have had the highest ever attendance at Avery Fisher Hall this year," he said. The orchestra is based at Avery Fisher Hall.
Alex Seki, 32 and unemployed, stood with his friends at the New York City Parks Foundation Slick Rick show for one simple reason. "If it's free, I'll be there," he said.
His friend Frankie Rubino, 31, a teacher's aide, added that he was "definitely" looking for more free shows to attend.
Los Angeles Parks Foundation director Judith Kieffer said crowds for free concerts had doubled, although "finding any funding has been a real struggle this year."
"Absolutely, demand for services at all levels has increased," she said. The city's school system eliminated summer sessions, adding to demand for park usage, she said.
A survey by the Foundation Center think tank found nearly two thirds of U.S. private, corporate and community foundations planned to reduce the grants they awarded in 2009.
Stephen Lawrence, the center's senior director of research, said 2009 giving is forecast to be down 9 to 13 percent.
But Liz Panich, director of consulting for The Marketing Arm, said free events provide good value.
"Both consumers and companies are taking action on financial responsibility during these times, and companies that can assist consumers and families in these actions, will benefit in the long run," she said.
In Chicago, the Parkways Foundation, which is bucking the trend and on track for a 10 percent growth in fundraising, has established a $100,000 scholarship program for children to attend its day camp and took over funding free "Movies in the Park" after the event lost its sponsor.
"We have seen a definite increase in the families coming out," executive director Brenda Palm said. "Families who aren't traveling are saying, 'Well, let's travel to this park.'"
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Mohammad Zargham