San Francisco-based spoken word and theater artist Javier Reyes was napping when he got the call. It was Alie Jones, co-founder and director of Black Freighter Press, a Bay Area collective of black and brown literary artists. “She said, ‘Hi, we want to pay you $1,000 a month for 18 months and you don’t have to pay anything back.'”
Reyes, who has been a creator, educator, and bridge builder/problem solver for 20 years, was skeptical. Suddenly someone wanted to pay him to make art? “I’m like, ‘What’s the catch? What’s the catch?’ My deficit mentality kicked in. But she said, ‘No, this is a gift. It’s your time.'”
Reyes is one of 60 artists currently receiving $1,000 a month in unrestricted funding through an 18-month guaranteed income project led by the nonprofit Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco. The program, called the Creative Communities Coalition for Guaranteed Income, has a $1.3 million budget funded by Jack Dorsey’s #StartSmall Initiative and MacKenzie Scott.
This is YBCA’s second direct donation project, and the nonprofit organization has learned from their first. “We wanted to go deeper into the community with this phase and be more equitable in our approach,” says Christian Medina Beltz, Senior Communications Manager at YBCA. YBCA’s mission includes empowering artists to be agents of change. This time it worked with six community arts organizations that selected the grantees.
In addition to Black Freighter Press, partner organizations include the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco (CCCSF), Compton’s Transgender District, Mission District-based Dance Mission Theater, Galeria de la Raza, which focuses on Latinx artists and visual arts, and the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company.
“We selected organizations that have a long history in San Francisco, are known as bastions of the community, and have artistic practices that we respect,” says Medina Beltz. “We also wanted to make sure the program reflected the diversity of San Francisco’s communities.”
Find the money in each language
This community-led approach allowed the coalition to reach artists who were often excluded from the traditional grant process due to language barriers and/or lack of connection to the mainstream visual arts world. “Philanthropy has underserved the BIPOC arts and culture communities,” says Jenny Leung, CCCSF executive director. “Community-based art has been underappreciated and underserved.”
CCCSF staff met with community artists in their homes and asked about their lives, their visions for Chinatown, and their artistic process. “It’s almost like another form of grant application. Rather than having them fill out a grant application, it was more about listening and being empathetic about the selection,” says Leung. “Identifying the funding barriers they face was an important part of the process for us.”
A CCCSF grantee is a woman named Xiaojie. She leads a troupe of “Chinatown Aunties” in performances of traditional fan dances and sword dances. They practice in Portsmouth Square, a public park often referred to as Chinatown’s “living room.” “Xiaojie lives with her husband in an SRO and keeps her umbrellas and swords near her bed,” says Vida Kuang, director of the CCCSF’s community arts program. She doesn’t have a studio, but like any true artist, that doesn’t stop her from working on her craft. “They are professionals; When you talk about community-based artists, they’re people who have an artistic practice, a craft, and a dedication that reflect a unique form of community narrative.”
The life of the artist, 2.0
The old romantic dream of the artist’s life – living in a garret in Paris, sipping café au lait by day, creating masterpieces by night – was always less fair than many readers of Ernest Hemmingway’s “A Moveable Feast”. might have understood. Today, art production in high-rent cities like San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles is increasingly reserved for those who have family money or lucrative sinecures.
In San Francisco, often ranked as the most expensive city in the country, many aspiring color designers rely on government subsidies to pay for a single room at an SRO. They still struggle to find time to create, Leung says. “Our communities are severely underfunded, even though artists are the souls of our communities and contribute so much to them.”
Surely the monthly income for community builders sounds like a valuable way to recognize that contribution. But how far can $1,000 a month really go in a place like San Francisco?
Pretty damn far, says Reyes. He sees the sum appearing in his bank account since the start of this funding round in fall 2021. “You’d be surprised how much you can make on $1,000 a month. It’s helped relieve a lot of the stress that comes with being a creative in San Francisco, an educator, and a brotha,” he says. “That extra $1,000 a month gives me time to sit down with other people and help them plan their vision and life. A lot of times I’m like, ‘Hey man, I know you have a budget you want to stick to. Lunch is on me.’ Or: “What do you need?” As an educator, you have to take care of the young people. Sometimes a gesture of love is more important than the amount of money. But let’s be honest, it’s often about money.”
At best, guaranteed income programs enable those who have come a long way to become donors themselves. For Reyes, this is a major benefit of the program. He says he uses about half the money for his own needs and about half to help others. “As an artist and an educator, you are with other people trying to put the puzzle together for themselves and trying to achieve their dream. If I’m the only successful artist in my community, I will never be truly successful. In my community we live by the motto “everyone eats”. If I have food I will share it. We must not lose that kind of generosity in society.”
Like many advocates of guaranteed-income and direct-donation programs, Reyes commends the lack of tedious paperwork and rejection letters endemic to typical grant application processes. “The great thing is that the verification is already done. Other people have already said, ‘This person is doing a great job.’”
One small step for San Francisco, one giant leap for guaranteed income?
The YBCA program is designed for guaranteed income pilot projects across the United States. As with these other initiatives, a larger aim here is to contribute to the growing research showing that guaranteed income can be a corrective to the punitive effects of wealth inequality.
“Many people in our coalition want to pressure the legislature to make guaranteed income a reality, not just in this small sample size. We can use this as a case study of how universal basic income improves the lives of artists. It shows that the model works and that people can live and practice their art with dignity and survive,” says Medina Beltz.
Leung wants to change how philanthropy funds art. “This represents a new model of how support can be equitable. Community-based arts organizations are tied to communities, and philanthropy has historically not encouraged this. There was no leakage to communities of color and the artists that bring vibrancy,” she says.
Reyes is also hoping for more projects like this one. “Man, you know, I want to be a testament to standing up for making sure the next batch of artists get this, and continuing to find more dignified ways of funding artists than this hamster wheel, this obstacle course that people go through, like, like.” to get $500. ”