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    Food aid, with a side of culture

    The New England Aquarium is one of the cultural venues in the Boston area that is taking part in a new arts program for low-income people.
    Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/file
    The New England Aquarium is one of the cultural venues in the Boston area that is taking part in a new arts program for low-income people.

    In an ambitious attempt to expand access to museums and other cultural institutions, the state on Wednesday will roll out a program to provide low-income residents with free or reduced admission to more than 100 venues across Massachusetts.

    The discounts will be available to anyone with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which is used primarily for the state’s food-assistance program.

    More than 758,000 people get food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


    A number of venues, including the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, have offered discount admissions to EBT cardholders for several years. But the new program marks a major expansion, bolstered by institutions such as the USS Constitution Museum, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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    It is the most comprehensive effort of its kind nationwide to bridge the income inequality gap in the arts, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which developed the EBT Card to Culture in partnership with the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance.

    “Some parents who are using the card are now telling us they have never been to a museum in their lives,” said Carole Charnow, the Children’s Museum’s chief executive.

    “For a lot of people with long-term unemployment, it’s their lifeline, because they have no way to entertain their children.”

    While living in London, Charnow came across an arts and culture admissions program for the unemployed.


    In 2012, she started $2 admissions to the Children’s Museum for people on food and financial assistance programs.

    That first year, 3,000 people with EBT cards took advantage.

    Most recently, more than 21,000 EBT cardholders a year visited the museum, whose regular admission is $17.

    Other institutions followed suit, including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Museum of Science, and the New England Aquarium.

    The Cultural Council, a state agency that promotes the arts and humanities, took notice and decided to extend EBT access to arts and cultural programs all over the state.


    The savings can be significant.

    ‘Some parents . . . are now telling us they have never been to a museum.’

    Carole Charnow, Children’s Museum chief executive 

    At the aquarium, EBT cardholders will be able to pay $2 per person for up to four people, compared with the regular $27.95 admission for adults and $18.95 for children.

    “It’s great to see more arts and cultural institutions participating in this type of thing,” said Billy Spitzer, the aquarium’s vice president for programs exhibits and planning.

    “We’re in the waterfront in the Financial District, areas that low-income people maybe don’t get to on a day-to-day basis. It’s a whole world opened up to them that they didn’t know before.”

    For Charnow, it’s a point of pride that her personal mission to make arts and culture accessible to people of all incomes has expanded to a statewide effort.

    “There’s a nutritional aspect to the museum; it’s not physical, but mental and socio-emotional,” she said.

    “When families are living in some form of financial stress, they really have a hard time keeping kids excited . . . Middle-class and upper-class kids, their parents take them everywhere.”

    Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, chief executive at the South End nonprofit community development corporation Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, said that access to the arts is crucial for low-income families, whose budgets often don’t stretch enough to justify taking in an exhibit or a tour of a historic house.

    IBA serves about 1,200 individuals who live in low-income housing development, as well as about 6,000 people through its own community arts program.

    “I think many residents would welcome the opportunity” to participate in the EBT Card to Culture program, Calderón-Rosado said.

    “Many feel intimidated because they don’t know what to expect or whether they would be welcomed.

    “These can be daunting institutions for people who have not been exposed to them,” she said.

    As at the Children’s Museum, the Museum of Science’s version of the EBT card discount program — free admission for up to four people — has been wildly popular, going from “a few hundred” less than five years ago to more than 13,000 visitors annually.

    For Chrissy Brown, who uses an EBT card for food and financial assistance for her and her three youngest children, the discount program allowed her to celebrate her daughter Missy’s eighth birthday a couple of weeks ago at the Children’s Museum, which would have otherwise been out of reach.

    “It was great because I don’t have a car right now, I’m unemployed, and it’s really expensive to bring three kids,” said Brown, who lives in Chelsea. “It would have to be a special occasion, and now we just get to have it.”

    Expanding the EBT program to institutions beyond the Boston area and into communities without much public transit was crucial, said Gregory Liakos, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “If you’re the Concord Museum, it’s going to be harder for you to attract low-income patrons by nature of the fact you’re not in a public transportation area and you’re in a high-income area,” he said.

    “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t EBT holders in that area.”

    The state Department of Transitional Assistance will have a comprehensive list online of participating institutions.

    Katheleen Conti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.