A pilot program giving San Francisco artists a monthly stipend has entered its second round, with 60 eligible artists receiving $1,000 a month for 18 months, with no strings attached. Organized by the nonprofit Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in partnership with six local community groups, the $1.3 million initiative aims to promote Guaranteed Income (GI) as a sustainable way to support artists, particularly those from historically underserved communities to address systemic injustices in the arts.
“Something we’ve explored over the past two years is what it means to provide an economic footing and security for artists in our community,” says Stephanie Imah, director of artist investments at YBCA. “GI was this insightful model because you don’t have to practice your art to earn this income. You literally have to be a human living in an unjust economic ecosystem.”
One of the country’s first GI pilots for artists, the program was originally announced in March 2021 in partnership with the Mayor’s Office to support 130 artists who have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The second round, funded by Jack Dorsey’s StartSmall Foundation and billionaire Mackenzie Scott, also targets people struggling financially and from communities that have historically been underfunded, including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) , LGBTQIA+, Disability and Immigrant Communities . The launch comes amid growing interest in the potential of unconditional cash payments to offer artists financial stability. Similar programs have since been established in St. Paul, Minnesota and New York.
The movement towards guaranteed incomes in the cultural sector is being fueled in part by Covid-19, which has exacerbated existing inequalities and highlighted the lack of adequate social safety net programs for artists.
An Artist Relief survey of the pandemic’s impact on US artists found that by April 2020, 62% of artists had become full-time unemployed and 95% had lost income. Americans for the Arts also found that as of July 2021, BIPOC artists had higher unemployment rates than white artists in 2020 (69% vs. 60%) and lost a larger percentage of their creative income (61% vs. 56%). In California, the visual and performing arts sector was particularly hard-hit, with its workforce shrinking nearly 20% due to pandemic shutdowns, according to this year’s Otis College Creative Industries Report.
Among those affected in the Bay Area was photographer Marcel Pardo Ariza, who received a call last year to say he had been selected for San Francisco’s guaranteed income program. “It felt like a blessing because I had just had top surgery, I had just lost my job to the pandemic,” says Pardo Ariza. “It’s helped me teach more, but also created more space to focus on my practice, which is largely about utilizing the leadership of brown and black trans organizers.”
In addition to covering her health insurance, Pardo Ariza has used the cash transfers to buy art supplies and pay people they work with. “I feel like we recognize that there are a lot of grants and financial support for artists that come with strings attached and it’s really important that we move to this kind of unrestricted distribution where the artists are trusted and how they are using the money to further their practice,” says Pardo Ariza. “It’s a system designed to benefit one person, but I think it also benefits everyone around you.”
The photographer was selected by Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, a member of a new coalition YBCA has called to solicit more community input for its second grant distribution. The Creative Communities Coalition for Guaranteed Income also includes local arts and culture organizations Black Freighter Press, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, Dance Mission Theater, Galeria de la Raza, and the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company.
Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Cultural Center, says the nonprofit joined the coalition to help it reach underserved artists, particularly immigrants who may face language or technology barriers. “There’s no infrastructure for these artists to be successful, even if they’re great at their craft,” says Leung. “They’re not in the way of understanding the traditional mainstream funding world and so it’s very difficult to reach these artists unless the system is intentionally built. When we were invited, we saw an opportunity to advocate for making public relations more equitable.”
A key change from the second iteration of the program was to rethink the selection process to make it more inclusive. Last year, YBCA invited low-income artists to apply and received more than 2,500 applicants, which it narrowed down with a lottery system. This process created “a tension to prioritize speed over justice,” says Imah. “We learned a lot that an application can be seen as a barrier. How can we reconnect with these people?”
This year, YBCA worked with community leaders from the start, asking each coalition member to select ten artists through their own process. For example, representatives from the Chinese Cultural Center visited 15 artists at their homes and spoke to them about their art and funding needs before narrowing down the pool. “One of the criteria we wanted to include was to make sure the artists were deeply embedded in the community,” says Leung. “We didn’t limit it because it’s a guaranteed income, but we saw that many artists who eventually received the funding were able to complement their work and craft and invest more in the community.” Recipients include filmmaker Kar Yin Tham, who was able to fund a documentary she produced about San Francisco’s housing inequality, and the Baht Wor Charity Foundation, a 60-year-old Cantonese opera company, which has used the money to pay rent.
Tackling displacement is one of the main goals of the program, Imah says, especially in a city so deeply transformed and threatened by gentrification. “We want to hear from all 60 artists that they were able to stay, exist and maybe open a new gallery, do something new with their art or otherwise contribute where they couldn’t [previously] See opportunity.” She notes that the coalition is at a stage where it’s figuring out what’s next, especially as scaling the program poses a challenge. “It’s about securing the financing as well as possible from private and public donors,” she says, adding: “It’s important that this goes over to the state or federal level”.
Pardo Ariza, who is from Colombia, hopes the initiative will last as it shows San Francisco is a city that values and wants to invest in creators. “We’re seeing such an exodus of artists and cultural workers in the Bay Area with housing and living costs rising,” they say. “I think a program like this makes you feel like you’re not really just thinking about the day, you’re thinking a bit longer term. For me, the Bay Area is my artistic home. And I want to live here, I want to stay.”