This spring, two arts organizations in San Francisco, California and St. Paul, Minnesota, kicked off pilots that provided monthly, no-strings-attached funding to local artists from marginalized communities who have struggled during the pandemic.
Chris Watts, based in San Francisco, and Vanessa Gamble, in St. Paul, are two of them — and just a few months in, guaranteed income has made a significant impact on their lives. “It is, dare I say, like Christmas morning,” Gamble says of the monthly $500. “It’s so fantastic, I can’t tell you the joy it brings to my heart.” As for Watts, who receives $1,000 a month, “I was told this money was no strings attached, it was because you create and you have a vision to share — that is just a godsend.”
There are only a small number of artists around the country in guaranteed income programs, but momentum is building for more. And the organizers behind the San Francisco and St. Paul pilots hope this early work can translate into lasting change. “I’m really interested in flipping the script on what it means to offer public benefits in this way,” says Caroline Taiwo, director of economic opportunity for Springboard for the Arts, which runs St. Paul’s pilot. “We’re asking how we create substantial policy around this, so folks aren’t slipping through the cracks or left to fend for themselves.”
Both artist-focused pilots took inspiration from the national movement for guaranteed and universal basic income. (There are policy distinctions between the two, with guaranteed income providing an equity lens to focus on communities disproportionately impacted by COVID and decades of economic divestment.) The coalition Mayors for a Guaranteed Income advocate for city initiatives like Stockton’s well-known — and effective — program. Nonprofits have also taken the work on with specific communities in similarly effective initiatives. The goal is to make the case that cash without restrictions is a core component of the social safety net that the federal government should provide.
Now arts organizations are joining the movement, which has only been made more urgent by the pandemic. “The pandemic exposed how fragile artist’s livelihoods are and how much our economy relies on workers who have no social safety net,” Taiwo says. Springboard for the Arts launched its Guaranteed Income for Artists Pilot to expand its COVID-19 relief work. “We knew the emergency relief work we were doing, as important as it was, was not a systemic solution,” she says. Springboard consulted with Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and the city of St. Paul, which has its own guaranteed income program, before launching an artist-focused pilot in April.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed announced the pilot as one of several guaranteed income programs the city is developing to help with COVID-19 economic stability and recovery. It was unrolled this May in partnership with the arts organization Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA).
Both pilots have received private funding. In San Francisco, after initial city funding, the team raised an additional $3.4 million from #startsmall, a pandemic-relief fund started by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, to address some of the restrictions of public funding, incorporate community feedback and extend the pilot to 18 months. St. Paul’s pilot, which is entirely funded through private dollars, will also last 18 months.
Both recruited artists in marginalized communities, then randomly selected recipients from the resulting application pool. Springboard selected artists from its pool of Emergency Relief Fund recipients. 80 percent of artists in the pilot identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color and all are located in the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods. “Both neighborhoods have had a long history of divestment and bad economic policy contributing to wealth disparity, gentrification and displacement,” Taiwo says. “We wanted the pilot to potentially address these deeper systemic issues.”
YBCA worked with the San Francisco Arts Commission, San Francisco Human Right Commission, and a number of arts and community organizations to ensure the process was accessible and that marginalized artist communities were both aware of the opportunity and encouraged and supported to apply. Still, in May, some local arts groups expressed concern the process wasn’t equitable enough.
San Francisco’s pilot includes 130 artists and St. Paul’s has 25. Both Watts and Gamble spoke to using the cash for basic needs — rent, bills, home repairs. “I don’t have to struggle to create,” as Watts put it. They also spoke to the importance of the easy, straightforward application process and the promise that funding would be unrestricted. “I would have not said yes if there were strings attached,” Gamble says.
Most importantly, the artists say, they feel valued after an incredibly difficult pandemic year. “I feel like people just don’t understand how hard [the pandemic] has hit artists — the arts just went away for over a year,” says Gamble. “It almost feels like a luxury to feel valued, because it usually feels like there’s never enough funds for artists.”
Even in these early pilot months, Springboard and YBCA have a sense of its profound impact. Both organizations offer optional surveys for artists to measure how the money affects their wellbeing, security, mental health and art practice. YBCA will compile a final report of the survey findings and, in the meantime, share stories from participating artists over the next few months. Through the additional #smartsmall funding, YBCA also partnered on a second Guaranteed Income Pilot designed and implemented alongside community arts organizations and leaders.
“It’s about connecting the pilots into the national network so that we are a part of this evolving, and growing movement toward guaranteed income,” says Deborah Cullinan, YBCA’s chief executive officer.
This September, Springboard will launch Artists Respond: People, Place, and Prosperity in which local artists will create public projects that demonstrate the root causes that lead to the need for guaranteed income and the impact of guaranteed income on families and communities. Taiwo feels that a narrative shift about public benefits is necessary for systemic change. “These pilots popping up are in service of a larger conversation with policy makers,” she says. “Our pilots are an example of how it could work — it’s not meant to be the work.”
At least one other city is pushing to join the movement. In St. Petersburg, Florida, community activist Kofi Hunt and massage therapist Rissa Wray started the campaign St. Pete Supports Arts to use the city’s general municipal election, this November, to advocate for guaranteed monthly income for artists. “We thought, if we could bring this up during the campaign process, we could gain momentum before [politicians] even took office,” Wray says.
At the same time, the pair are surveying local artists to get a sense of their monetary needs and concerns. “Inadequate pay is already a commonly discussed topic among St. Pete artists, and because of this, guaranteed income is a welcome idea — though mostly a new idea to the artists we’ve talked to,” Wray says. “Many are surprised this is even an option.” Hunt adds that the campaign highlights a value of many local artists: “The idea of art as a public good.”
St. Pete Supports Arts interviewed 12 city council and mayoral candidates over Zoom, with questions posed by local artists. (After recent primaries, six of those candidates are still in the running.) “Everyone has been very eager to share the struggles and injustices they’ve been enduring,” Wray says. Reception to the proposal has been positive, the pair say, and they feel hopeful in continuing to build citywide momentum.
To them, the work comes back to the core values of guaranteed income. “We’re looking at human beings not as tools of the market, we’re looking at human beings as inherently valuable,” Hunt says. “It’s not radical .. what we’re talking about is merely a reappropriation directed to artists and creating a space where they can advocate for themselves politically as a pillar of the community.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.