Why Major Cities Are Experimenting with Guaranteed Income for Artists
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to the Takeaway.
That was a group of performers in a 1930s era newsreel singing about a new deal program that employed theater artists during the great depression under the works progress administration of Franklin Roosevelt's administration. Over 10,000 artists from a range of disciplines were paid by the federal government to create work for the public. Now, the economic devastation of the pandemic has led cities to create their own new deal-inspired programs for today's artists. Last week, New York City began taking applications for its artists Core, which Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: As part of the comeback in New York City, we're investing $25 million to employ over 1500 artists to help bring back arts and culture all over New York City. We're going to hire artists, musicians, performers. They're going to be out in communities doing public art, public performances, pop-up shows through the summarizing program. Many different elements at the grassroots, creating murals, you name it. We want to give artists opportunity and we want this city to feel the power of our cultural community again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While New York city's program involves one-time grants St. Paul, Minnesota, in San Francisco, California have rolled out guaranteed minimum income programs for artists that give out monthly, no strings attached payments. Both programs primarily were intended to support artists of color. We're starting out in St. Paul, where the nonprofit springboard for the arts partnered earlier this year with city government to deliver monthly payments to 25 local artists. Caroline Taiwo is the Economic Opportunity Director for springboard for the Arts, and she joins me now, Caroline, it's so lovely to have you here.
Caroline Taiwo: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why guaranteed income for artists?
Caroline Taiwo: That's the big question. The pandemic has been devastating to individual artists. It's exposed how fragile artists' livelihoods are and how much our economy relies on gig work and independent workers who have no safety net. This includes a lot of artists springboard spent the last year doing emergency relief work and also helping artists respond to the needs of their communities like dealing with social isolation.
We knew that the emergency relief work was really important, but it also is not a systemic solution. We started looking for ways we could work with other folks who are trying to change economic systems, and we were inspired by mayors for a guaranteed income, that network, and the city-wide pilot happening in our hometown of St. Paul where we started our guaranteed income pilot for artists in our neighborhood.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you talk about artists responding to the need of the community, and we're talking here about St. Paul, I have to think that a core need of that community is addressing the racial pain that has, that has been so central to that community and to our whole nation since Derek Shovan murdered George Floyd, what have your city's artists been doing around addressing that?
Caroline Taiwo: Minneapolis and St. Paul have been rocked by the past year of multiple pandemics, and we want our artists to be a part of the movement, especially around guaranteed income and economic justice. We want artists to be included as participants. We also think there's a lot of potential for how artists can contribute to these movements by helping to tell the story of the impact. By helping people see the possibility of things like economic justice artists provide a lot of benefits to communities that aren't always monetary. That includes meaning-making, social connection, cultural preservation, and education. The list there is endless.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about how artists were chosen, given that they do all of this different work, and they do it in so many different media.
Caroline Taiwo: We started by looking at our list of emergency relief fund recipients from over the past year since those were artists who already reached out with a COVID-related need. That list was very long, of course, and we had a limited amount of funding. We decided to narrow our scope and pilot with artists in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods. Springboards had a long relationship with these neighborhoods.
Springboards been in St. Paul for over 30 years. Three years ago, we acquired a used car dealership here in the neighborhood that we're turning into an arts and community space. We focus our pilot in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods because we recognize the disproportionate economic effects of COVID over the past year and the legacy of displacement and the investment from those communities over decades.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Last week we talked with Aishi Andrew who does a guaranteed income program in Mississippi, and she's been winning me over for sure, on the value of a guaranteed income program, as opposed to, for example, paying for the art to get done but rather paying artists. Talk to me about why the guaranteed income is a different approach and the value that it might have maybe particularly for artists.
Caroline Taiwo: One of the things that's most attractive to us about guaranteed income is that it isn't a competitive program. Many times, especially for artists competitive are extracted and rely on Paul's ideas about bootstraps and meritocracies, and we've turned the idea of being an artist into something that's a lot of people feel like as a privilege rather than a right. We know cash works. The research from Stockton and other pilots has shown that giving people flexible capital actually helps them get and retain better-paying jobs and make better, more relevant decisions about their lives.
What I try to remind folks when I'm talking about our program and programs like guaranteed income around the country are they're all pilots. The point is for them to generate learning and put pressure on government and other large systems to step up and do guaranteed income this themselves, and not that a small nonprofit or a city government will be able to make this a long-term or program that will serve at scale.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Caroline Taiwo is the Economic Opportunity Director for Springboard, for the Arts. Caroline, thanks so much.
Caroline Taiwo: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, we're going to San Francisco last month, the city began delivering monthly payments to 130 local artists but while a program was intended to support marginalized artists, many local organizations centered around people of color say the rollout has been rushed and poorly executed. Chief among their criticisms is that the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which is tasked with administering the program is not itself devoted primarily to artists of color.
To learn more about why some of the members of the community are speaking out against the way the program has been implemented, I spoke with T. Kebo Drew managing director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, which is based in San Francisco.
T. Kebo Drew: We have an equity going into the process, which means we have an equity coming out of the process. The money should have gone to Black, Native American, other people of color, Asian, Latinx artists, et cetera. Very early on in this process, the entire zip code of Chinatown was left out, and it took the community saying-
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wait, what?
T. Kebo Drew: Exactly. Yerba Buena decided that only certain zip codes would be eligible for this grant. Initially, they left out the entire zip code in which Chinatown is. It took community members saying, "Wait a minute, there are artists in Chinatown and arts organizations in Chinatown. You need to include Chinatown in the grant program so that those artists are eligible to apply to the program." From the very beginning, it was inequitable because it doesn't cover the entire city, only certain zip codes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. We've been pretty critical here, but I want to pause for a second because you do think the idea is a good idea, is that right?
T. Kebo Drew: It's a great idea, especially to have Black, Native American people of color artists receiving a guaranteed basic income. They have been dramatically drastically affected by COVID either by being laid off from large arts organizations or those of them who are working in hospitality, who've lost their secondary source of income. The other thing about it is we don't talk often enough about the fact that most artists of color, so Black filmmakers, Native American filmmakers, Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander are actually pushed out of art because they don't have the money to continue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If this is a good idea in theory, but in practice, we're having some challenges. My understanding is that the San Francisco guaranteed income for artists program actually received a new infusion of funds from Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey. Given that that's going to extend the program a bit, is it possible to intervene now to make it more equitable?
T. Kebo Drew: It is possible to intervene. It would take a great deal of willingness and also expertise and consultation act and actually Yerba Buena implementing the suggestions of the community and really understanding them. It will probably take them longer to understand equity the getting these grants out because really it's a case of might makes right. They have the money, they got more money.
Now we're trying to fix something that was inequitable from the beginning. That's much harder to do than to actually sit down and really contemplate what it would take for it to be equitable. One of the main points is that the fact that Yerba Buena is a white-led organization. Initially, these dollars were designed to go to people of color communities, not just the artists with the organizations. Basically what's happening is they're outsourcing equity, don't have expertise or experience in equity, and it's not being invested into the community in the way that it should have been.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are a couple of other cities that are beginning to think about programs this, do you have advice? I almost feel like I should say don't give folks advice for free. Do you have a consulting fee you would to charge for that advice? Since it's going to be free is there something you'd like to share around advice for those cities?
T. Kebo Drew: My organization does do consulting so that is a possibility.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, listen. Intellectual labor is labor.
T. Kebo Drew: Exactly. I think the advice is if you're going to invest in people of color communities, then you really need to invest in people of color communities. You don't need to incentivize white-led organizations to do equity. Which is something that the head of Yerba Buena actually said. You really need to give that investment and building up the capacity of those organizations and those communities to do the work. I just want to say it is much easier for us to figure out finances and fundraising and development and all of those things than it is to gain knowledge in equity. We don't treat equity the hard skill and it is.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Very last question. This might be an opportunity for us to rethink the role or responsibility of all of us and of government and of our communities towards investment in the arts. If it is, what would be your best case hope or scenario to come out of this pandemic moment relative to how we think about our public investment in the arts?
T. Kebo Drew: Oh, that's such a big question. There are a lot of 32 seconds. No kidding. [laughter] It's a huge question. First, off I have to say that communities of color, Black, Native American, other folks of color, the way we look at arts and culture is vastly different than how it's perceived of in mainstream society. We look at arts and culture as a part of who we are, as part of reclamation as part of recovery, as part of healing.
There's a deeper piece for arts and culture to us. I think about the African-American arts and Cultural Center, I think about the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, the American Indian Cultural District here in San Francisco. There is a way that they are connecting communities to arts and culture. That is really powerful. As the writer Jewelle Gomez said, you have to be able to imagine a better world to get to a better world.
I think that's the role of art and artists within community. That's something that we need to invest in arts are very much a part of democracy, which is another reason to invest in the arts. I think the status quo got us here, the status quo won't get us out of here. We need to look at different ways in which we can move forward. I think the arts and culture are very much a part of that. Even in my own work, we end up doing a lot of healing and trauma work in film, and we know that's a part of what we do.
We have crisis counselors and mental health practitioners to help us deal with generational trauma from white supremacy and racism and all of the isms so that we can move forward. That is something really powerful about the arts that we don't see when we consider them to be a luxury for those who have the means. T KIBO.
Melissa Harris-Perry: T. Kebo Drew is the Managing Director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project based in San Francisco. Thank you so much for joining me.
T. Kebo Drew: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We reached out to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but we haven't received a comment yet on this story. We'll post one online at thetakeaway.org. If we do hear back.
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