Credit card issuers want to offer music and history enthusiasts a chance to fortify the dwindling budgets of cultural and arts organizations.
Last week, First USA Inc. launched a series of affinity cards for the Orchestra Partnership, an alliance of 14 major symphony orchestras nationwide, and Dean Witter, Discover & Co. kicked off a marketing campaign for its Smithsonian Institution card.
Earlier this month, Dallas-based First USA rolled out a Visa card for jazz fans and announced plans to sponsor the First Annual Jazz Awards later this year.
Cutbacks at the national level in support for the arts have forced ballet troupes, symphony orchestras, and opera companies to look for new revenue, said Stanley Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates, Arvada, Colo.
Federal contributions to the Smithsonian were scaled back by almost $5 million, to $371.3 million, for the 1997 fiscal year.
Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for the 850 symphony orchestras in the United States plummeted 57.4% between 1995 and 1997, to $9.66 million, said a spokeswoman for the American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington.
Mr. Anderson said music and arts supporters tend to display great loyalty to the institutions.
A percentage of all purchases on the Tops Symphony Series Visa will benefit local urban education, community outreach programs, and orchestra touring.
Each no-fee Visa card will feature the name and logo of one of the 14 orchestras.
An introductory interest rate of 5.9% will jump after five months to a fixed rate of 15.9%.
The cards are available in classic, gold, or platinum versions. Applications will be available at concerts, by direct mail, and by toll- free number. Cardholders can also enroll in First USA's Value Miles frequent-flier program for $25 a year.
For 825 smaller orchestras not eligible for the Tops program, the symphony league is trying to establish another product.
"We are in negotiation with two credit card providers to create a less personalized affinity product that could potentially be bigger than the Tops program," said Jack McAuliffe, vice president of marketing for the Washington-based league.
He said the program could be launched in the summer with direct mail offers to thousands of orchestra patrons.
Industry observers are calling the Smithsonian affinity card a hybrid because it benefits both the institution and the cardholder.
Cardholders will earn one point for every $100 in purchases, redeemable at the 50-point level for a $50 U.S. Savings Bond.
"There is a great affinity across the United States for the Smithsonian," said William O'Hara, senior vice president of Novus Card Services, Riverwoods, Ill. "We think the combination of features will make this card unique and successful."
There is no annual fee, a 5.9% interest rate for six months, and then a rate of prime plus 7.65%, currently 16.15%.
Mr. O'Hara said consumers now have a way to save for their future and in invest in America's.
Novus is targeting its card at the Smithsonian's donors, members, and visitors. It hopes that people will not just take the card, but also add their names to the donor and patron lists.
Indeed, consumers would be more likely to get these cards if they are actively involved in the organizations, said Frances M. Dale, president of Entandem, Sterling, Va.
Ms. Dale said that in the case of First USA, providing cards for a group of orchestras has a lot of merit. In some cases, single organizations do not have a large enough base of consumers to solicit, she said.
She added that some consumers may respond favorably to the idea of contributing to things that are important to them instead of depending on the government for aid.