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What Is Guaranteed Income And How Could The US Provide It To Its Artists?
What Is Guaranteed Income And How Could The US Provide It To Its Artists?
Photo Credit: Ayoub Ben Said / EyeEm

What Is Guaranteed Income And How Could The US Provide It To Artists?

With Ireland passing the first federal guaranteed income program for artists, could the U.S. potentially do the same?

As the decay of a global pandemic closed in around us, paint brushes dashed, keyboards clacked, and microphones captured the living gears of our collective consciousness in countless isolated rooms around the world. We untryingly benefit from the way that all kinds of artists help us to both make sense of and escape from the world, especially in times of crisis. But now more than ever, artists navigate uncertain waters themselves.

In just the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. arts economy shrank by 6.4%, nearly double the shrinkage of the economy as a whole. All over the world, independent artists, writers, and performers were hit particularly hard. In the U.S., their share of the arts economy plummeted by 20.6% in the first year of lockdowns. Even now, with recovery efforts underway worldwide, notable indie figures like Santigold and Little Simz have shared how they had to regrettably cancel tours because it wouldn't be financially feasible.

The pandemic has drawn more attention than ever to the need for a new system of assigning value to the cultural product of art and supporting the livelihood of the artists who labor to produce it.

On a federal level, Ireland became the first country to attempt to ease the burden on creators by trying a new system. The Basic Income for the Arts pilot scheme will begin making no-strings-attached payments of €325 (about $319) a week to 2,000 artists and creative arts workers, including visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, actors, dancers, architects, and circus artists. Even though the U.S. is yet to have its own federal equivalent, there are cities across the country hoping to do the same for their artists, not only relieving some of the financial pressure but hoping to recontextualize how we see the value of producing culture.

Performing artists like musicians, who earn the bulk of their income from touring (and the boost to sales of merchandise and physical recordings that come with it), suffered the most. As the music economy was forced almost entirely online, streaming companies — whose share of the arts economy grew by 14.3% between 2019 and 2020 — came under fire for low per-stream payments and a royalties distribution that massively weighs in favor of only the very top percentage of recording artists. In response, Spotify CEO Daniel EK said at the time, "You can't record music once every three to four years and think that's going to be enough."

Despite Spotify's mission statement to give a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art, their business model hasn't really been beneficial to independent artists. That Spotify deflects the blame back on indie creators while gaining a larger share of the arts economy from the same pandemic that's killing their bottom line, is only a symptom of our inability to properly value the work of cultural production across the markers of commercial success.

Fortunately, pilot programs in the U.S. have been launched on both coasts to help with this: Creatives Rebuild New York and the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists. Both made in response to the pandemic, the programs provide $1,000 of no-strings-attached monthly income, with the former planning to reach 2,400 artists in 60 of New York state's 62 counties, while the latter has already enrolled 190 recipients.

San Francisco is a very contested area, La Doña, a Latinx singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist whos a recipient of the program, said in a video interview. "Due to late-stage capitalism and rapid onset gentrification, there's really nowhere for artists to live and there is a rapidly diminishing number of places for us to perform. People just have to grind, you know, 12 hour workdays across a bunch of different jobs to even be able to afford to stay here."

What Is Guaranteed Income And How Could The US Provide It To Its Artists? Artist La Doña. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Imah

As guaranteed income programs become increasingly viewed as a favorable solution for healthy art ecosystems, they both necessitate and facilitate an evolution in our understanding of fair compensation for the work of creating and maintaining cultural capital. However, there are certain questions essential to understanding and maintaining their core identity if they are to expand or be used as models for broader-reaching government programs in the U.S.

"How do we not only come back from COVID, but how do we rethink how we are supporting artists and their labor?" Sarah Calderon, executive director of Creatives Rebuild New York, said in a video interview. "How do we illustrate and bring to life the stories and the narratives that artists have around their work, and not just emphasize their product but really understand and appreciate the labor that comes with that?"

What is guaranteed income for artists and who deserves it?

Guaranteed income for artists is not an assistance program. Its foundational philosophy is that everyone, not just artists, deserves a basic quality of life that includes things like shelter, sustenance, and access to electricity. Existing programs do, however, recognize that art suffers uniquely under the high-pressure productivity demands of capitalism. Also, although its similar to universal basic income (UBI), guaranteed income is not quite the same, with the main difference being that it usually goes to a specific group of people.

The starving artist isn't just hyperbole. When the right to live and eat is not guaranteed, the people who feel that pressure most are often forced to maximize their time spent earning. For one recipient of the San Francisco program, a beatmaker and immigrant from the Philippines who goes by Mister REY, the guaranteed income pilot opened up a world of possibilities.

"You gotta live to create something. But if you're not being allowed to do that, how can you really create?" REY said in a video interview. "That's where my mind is now. I feel like it gave me a lot of freedom to live and do my art in the time and space that is natural."

Both San Francisco and New York's programs don't ask for anything in return. Their selection processes use a combination of factors like income level or zip code, combined with a randomized lottery selection. This ensures that the programs are reaching artists from historically underserved communities and aren't selecting based on portfolio metrics that favor artists with previous success.

"Every other month, I hear of an artist in the program who quit their job because they now have the resources to be an artist," Stephanie Imah, an organizing director of the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot, said in a video interview. "It feels so much more palpable because of the way in which artists are not funded or seen for activating our civic imagination. This program is reminding them of their worth without it having to be attached to their art."

There are no requirements to produce a certain quantity or even regulate how the money is spent, giving artists like REY more time to experiment and come up with interesting sounds like this one, looping techno drops into a Madlib flip that would be the perfect soundtrack for an 8-bit MF DOOM game.

Until the pilot, REY felt like many others, left out of the existing grant programs that comprise a large portion of arts funding in the current system.

"A big part of it was like, Oh it's not my space. I'm not good enough," he said. "The people who thrive in those spaces, they went to art school, they had their training. Only certain groups of people have access to that funding. The pilot made me feel seen."

What Is Guaranteed Income And How Could The US Provide It To Its Artists? Artist Mister REY. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Imah

"Guaranteed income is based on trust," Calderon said. "And based on this idea that folks know what they need in order to move themselves in their careers and their financial stability."

Imah shared a similar sentiment.

"It's not based on who's deserving or who has the right resume or some arbitrary criteria," she said.

Should we be skeptical of the government's approach to guaranteed income?

Imah and Calderon's guaranteed income programs both faced the dilemma of how broadly they should define artist when making applications open to the public. They wanted to make sure they were reaching the people who were doing that work of creating cultural capital, while not imposing definitions that further restrict the exchange of ideas made financially viable. Federal legislation could easily become overly restrictive and less well-intentioned.

"I could see that, on a federal level, being very tender for government to put themselves in the position of deciding who an artist is," Imah said. "I might even go so far as to say government and artistic practice kind of feel like they're on opposite ends of a spectrum."

Government, and the capital that moves it, is often invested in maintaining the status quo. Art is often an expression of the voiceless aimed at penetrating the zeitgeist. The historically marginalized communities that existing programs seek to uplift were disenfranchised in the first place by the exclusion of their voice.

"There's an opportunity to merge them in a way that has artists and community leaders guiding the definition," Imah said.

Because a core principle of guaranteed income is its deservedness without boundaries, a federal program hoping to reach the same potential should reflect those straightforward values.

"Being expansive and trust-based with those important values will be the key to sort of doing this well in the future," Calderon added.

Also key to a federal program's success is the need to prevent guaranteed income from excluding recipients from accessing actual assistance programs. Even an extra $1,000 a month could be enough to push someone out of the benefit zone for programs like unemployment, which became so crucial during the pandemic.

"There needs to be state or federal approved waivers that literally just say this income is not going to impact your benefits," Imah said. "That's the partnership we could have."

Because current iterations of guaranteed income already focus on targeting artists from underprivileged communities, the need for any federal program to come prepared with those waivers would be essential to the program's success.

How do we see the civic value of art?

"Folks on the street may not understand how much they're interacting with art, how much artists are actually contributing to their community," Calderon said.

Not only is art everywhere around us visually — architecture, landscaping, advertising — it's constantly present in the background as the foundation of our cultural identities. It influences how we process events, what we pass down to future generations, and how we communicate thoughts and feelings too complex to verbalize.

"It connects people and invigorates a movement. It creates beauty out of hardship and it also helps us share our cultural traditions with each other," La Doña said. "It's about folk traditions and about using oral histories and different tactics to communicate history, to communicate traditions, create shared identity and feelings of solidarity."

Even on an economic level, La Doña spoke about how the guaranteed income she's received helped her to put investments right back into the community, with her being able to pay merch and flier designers, photographers, and other collaborators. Healthy ecosystems for artists help to create healthy and close-knit communities, and that's a public good just as much as infrastructure and education. A pending piece of U.S. legislation acknowledges that, laying a foundation for the discussion of guaranteed income for artists.

What Is Guaranteed Income And How Could The US Provide It To Its Artists? La Doña performs during day 2 of the Lollapalooza Festival at Grant Park on July 29, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Proposed in April, the Advancing Equity Through the Arts and Humanities Act of 2022, introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), would see the U.S. recognize the strength of art's less tangible impact.

"In America, the received narrative is that the arts are for entertainment or for artists," reads the bill. "But a deeper look shows the profound effect access to the arts has on those most impacted by the justice system, children, veterans, low-income communities, and self-designated non-artists." Where art ecosystems are healthy, the bill cites reduced poverty, crime, and morbidity, far-reaching victories for racial healing, and improvement to the conditions of veterans.

The bill also states that the nonprofit arts industry alone generates $27.5 billion in tax revenue annually. Just 2.18% of that revenue would be enough to give 1,000 artists in every state $1,000 a month for 12 months. Such an opportunity would mean more artists capable of making a living off art, and a nation that benefits from the less tangible values that it creates.

Until then, programs like those in New York and San Francisco serve as a blueprint for what could be possible for other states and cities to do to assist their artists and creative figures.

"These kinds of programs promote healthy art practices for the individual artists as well as healthy public art processes for the community," La Doña said. "Having that freedom, support, flexibility, financially will allow for artists to have more tangible impacts on the people around them, versus just creating for commercial consumption."