Speed Art Museum is one of the many venues on the Cultural Pass. | Courtesy of Speed Museum

It’s an idea that came up five years ago and just took off: A summer season pass for students — first graders through college — to take in Louisville’s most interesting arts and cultural venues. Museums, plays, music, history … a Cultural Pass.

For free.

The idea for a Cultural Pass bubbled up at a workshop called Vision Louisville.

Christen Boone | Photo by Bill Doolittle

“Nat Irvin is given credit for the idea,” says Christen Boone, the director of the Fund for the Arts. “He’s a professor at the University of Louisville. A ‘futurist.’ He’s the one who said, ‘What if we could …’ ”

And they did.

“The city,” Boone says, “looked at its arts and cultural groups, and everyone said, we don’t know how we’re going to do this, but we’re going to figure it out.”

So, without bogging itself down in details, the Cultural Pass was kicked off — and along the way, over the past five years, the people who wanted to make it go, have made it go — and even figured out how to pay for it.

In a nutshell, arts organizations join up through the Arts and Cultural Alliance, the Fund for the Arts administers the project.

The mayor and metro government throw in logistical support and publicity, Churchill Downs and other businesses contribute funding, and the Louisville Free Public Library and libraries in New Albany, Jeffersonville and Bullitt County issue the passes.

The Cultural Pass season begins this week, running through Aug. 11 — with a big day coming on Saturday, June 9, when the library ties the Culture Pass sign-up with the Summer Reading Program.

Parents and children may learn more in a special program called the “Summer Reading Kickoff and Cultural Pass Showcase,” held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Main Library downtown. There will be presentations by the Louisville Zoo, Kentucky Science Center, Frazier History Museum and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Members of Kentucky Shakespeare help kick off the Cultural Pass. | Photo by Eric Gurevich

With the Cultural Pass, a student gets a one-time free admission to each of the 43 venues during the summer, and may be accompanied by an adult, who also gets in free.

There are a variety of experiences available — from the big venues, such as the Speed Art Museum, Muhammad Ali Center, Kentucky Derby Museum, Frazier History Museum, Kentucky Science Center, Falls of the Ohio State Park and Louisville Zoo, to more intimate learning experiences at, say, the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum and the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind.

The pass offers a way to get a beginner’s dance lesson at the Fleur de Lis Academy of Ballet, or take an arts discovery class with the Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana.

Or to learn more about the natural world around us at Bernheim Forest or Jefferson Memorial Forest. Or visit the far-out world on a trip through the universe at Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium.

Boone says the funding provided by Churchill Downs, Bales Foundation, Duke Energy and the Horseshoe Foundation gives the Cultural Pass sustainability.

One of the things the “Idea People” hadn’t figured out when they streamed their imaginations into the Cultural Pass was how to pay for it. Or how the sites could be reimbursed for tickets.

Boone says the Fund got involved to help answer those questions.

“We said, ‘Let’s raise some more money, make sure the venues are supported and are reimbursed, at a good level,’ ” Boone says. “It’s not their full ticket price, but at some level.”

The Cultural Pass is available at Louisville libraries. | Courtesy

Readers will note some of the venues or activities are not ticketed. The performances of Kentucky Shakespeare, for example, are free. But Boone says those are supported, as well, to help put on the show.

And the funders seemed thrilled.

“Our community is so lucky to have a program like this, that unlocks the imagination of students,” says Tonya Abeln, director of community relations at Churchill Downs.

Abeln says the Cultural Pass is one of the track’s top charitable initiatives. “The arts and cultural opportunities make our city more vibrant, make our city more educable and make our city more creative. And ultimately, more compassionate.”

Mayor Greg Fischer likes the fact the Cultural Pass is a summer program specifically for kids.

“Lifelong learning means year-round learning,” Fischer says. “With our Summer Reading Program, the Culture Pass and other programs, parents have plenty of fun options this summer to keep kids’ minds active — so they’re prepared for success in school and beyond.”