It seems like a classic case of Catch-22. In economic hard times, the need for diversions are greater than ever, but often the cost of going out seems absurdly out of reach.
To be sure, many top-line cultural attractions may be all but unaffordable for those on a tight budget. Fortunately, however, there are a number of events around town that are free or very nearly free. In addition, many of the city's leading cultural and scientific institutions have selected reduced-priced or free admission policies designed to make them accessible to those on the most modest budgets.
The following is a sampling of some three dozen such offerings, which include general cost-saving ideas and specific free or reduced-priced events coming up in the next several weeks.
ART, SCIENCE AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS
* The Baltimore Museum of Art on Art Museum Drive is free Thursdays (the policy does not extend to the Monet exhibit, for which advance tickets are required). Call 396-7100.
* The Baltimore Zoo in Druid Hill Park lets children under the age of 15 in for free between 10 a.m. and noon on the first Saturday of every month. Adults must pay the normal admission price of $6.50. Call 366-LION.
* The Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St. at Key Highway, will hold its next free admission day Feb. 22. Free admission days are also planned for April and June, with dates yet to be determined. Call 685-5225.
* The National Aquarium, 501 E. Pratt St., has a discounted $3.50 admission fee for those visiting the facility Fridays between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- a considerable savings from the regular admission of $11.50 for adults; $8.75 for students and $6.75 for children ages 3-11. Call 576-3810.
* The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St., is free Wednesdays. Call 547-2787.
* Many area state parks have free or greatly reduced admissions this time of year. Although parts of each park may be closed, many areas are open for hiking and picnicking. Among the parks open for free are Elk Neck (301-287-5333); Gunpowder (592-2897); Patapsco (461-5005); Rocks (301-557-7994) and Susquehanna (301-734-7776); Sandy Point (301-974- 1249) has a cent per car tollgate.
* A number of local watering holes periodically offer local live entertainment with no cover charge. Two that do it all the time -- and have no drink minimums to boot -- are The Cat's Eye Pub, 1730 Thames St., and The Horse You Came In On, 1626 Thames St. Call the Cat's Eye at 276-9085 and the Horse at 327-8111.
* The Peabody Conservatory, One E. Mount Vernon Place, presents a free recital series at noon Thursdays while school is in session featuring Peabody students. The recitals are held in Miriam A. Friedberg Hall. Call 659-8163.
* The Peabody Prep's Young Person's String Program and Children's Chorus will join forces for a free pre-Halloween concert Sunday at 3 p.m. at Friedberg Hall. Call 659-8163.
* The Towson Chamber Players will present a free concert Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in Towson State University's Fine Arts Concert Hall. The concert will feature works by Schumann, Barber, Brahms and others. Call 830-2230.
* The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will present a free concert featuring the works of four contemporary African American composers Nov. 9 at 8:15 p.m. at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony '' Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. A 7 p.m. symposium involving the four composers precedes the concert. Call 783-8100.
* Towson State University's Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Hank Levy will give a free concert Nov. 14 at 8:15 p.m. in the Fine Arts Concert Hall. Also performing for free in the same hall will be the Flute Ensemble Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.; the Percussion Ensemble Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m., the Brass Ensemble Dec. 10 at 8:15 p.m. and the Guitar Ensemble Dec. 12 at 8:15 p.m. Call 830-2230.
* Violinist Diane Duraffourg, a winner of the BSO's young soloist competition, will perform for free Nov. 17 at 3:30 p.m. at St. Joseph's Monastery Church, 3800 Old Frederick Road, as part of the Young Artists Concert Series. Cellist Erica Wise will perform Dec. 8 at the same time. Call 276-4967.
* The Chamber Ensemble of Notre Dame will present a free program of music by Martinu, Haydn and Schumann Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at LeClerc Hall at the college at 4701 N. Charles St. Call 435-0100.
* Trio Americas, UMBC's resident chamber ensemble, will perform a free concert Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. in the college's Fine Arts Recital Hall. The concert, "Music in the New World," is designed to demonstrate the influence of folklore on contemporary American and Latino composers. Call 455-2942.
* The Handel Choir of Baltimore will present its annual free holiday sing-along Dec. 7 at 3 p.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center. Call 366-6544.
* The Loyola College Choir will present a free concert of seasonal music Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. in the school's Alumni Chapel. Call 532-5024.
* The UMBC Choir will present a free concert of holiday music Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Charleston Chapel, 711 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville. Call 455-2942.
MOVIES & THEATER