Could Basic Income Be a Game Changer for Artists?

By Alexis Frasz

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The recent study published by the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) on trends and conditions facing artists today makes the case that the most important issues facing artists today aren’t artist specific—they are systemic and structural issues in our economy and society overallAs Laura Zabel from Springboard for the Arts points out, “In survey after survey, artists say what they need is income, health care, reliable housing. You know who else needs those things? Everybody. What if we could actually change how our larger economy works so that the need for artist-specific solutions became unnecessary?”

Basic income is an idea that is starting to gain traction in a wide range of circles—from high profile economists like Joseph Stiglitz to networks of grassroots activists to political economists working for a new economy to startup accelerators in Silicon Valley. I recently had a conversation with Jim Pugh, from the Universal Income Project in San Francisco, about the transformative potential impact of basic income on conditions for artists and the state of culture more broadly. You can listen to the podcast here (15 min).

The idea of basic income is to provide everyone in society with a certain amount of money—enough to be an “income floor,” but probably not enough to live on without supplement—just for being alive. There are precedents—Alaska has long provided a dividend to its residents based on the state’s oil revenues, for example. Proponents make a number of arguments about why this is fair, often citing the fact that much wealth comes from “the commons,” like natural resources or technological advances. However, due to our economic system, this wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of very few people, and this is increasingly a problem for society as a whole.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there are a range of views about how it would work—where the money would come from (existing taxes or a tax increase on the wealthy) and whether it would be in addition to existing social benefit programs (progressives) or replace them (conservatives). These details, and the values that underlie them, make all the difference. However the fact that the idea is being discussed on both sides of the political spectrum suggests it might have potential to transcend ideological boundaries.

What does this have to do with artists? First and foremost, basic income could help alleviate the financial stresses that the vast majority of artists struggle with. It could also impact broader culture and society in some potentially radical ways. It could advance cultural equity and diversity, as studies show that low-income artists and artists of color currently have disadvantages in accessing and affording artistic training and advancement opportunities. It could stimulate creative risk-taking and entrepreneurship, which are currently hindered by the high costs of risk and failure. And it could support artists to apply their creative skills to social and community issues, work that many artists feel called to pursue but is not well compensated.

In return, artists have much to bring to the cause of basic income by virtue of their creative skills and life experience. “What will people do and how will they value themselves in a world without paying jobs?” is one of the primary questions posed by opponents of universal basic income. Some are even advocating subsidies to keep people employed in menial jobs, like fast food work, rather than risk mass unemployment. We are going to have to grapple with this question in our society sooner rather than later, as increasing numbers of people find themselves out of work due to technological disruptions, like self-driving cars. (Can you guess what the most common job is in the majority of U.S. States? Truck driver.)

Not only can art and culture help popularize ideas and shift social norms, artists are experts in living meaningful and socially valuable lives in ways that do not revolve solely around what they are paid to do. [1] Artists can demonstrate to others what an engaged and purposeful life can look like outside of a “job,” and provide inspiration and guidance for society as it makes this transition. And who knows? Basic income might even lead to an explosion of creativity, with many more people discovering and nurturing their latent artistic (or other) passions, unfettered from jobs that they don’t enjoy and having the security of an income floor.  What kind of society might we have if more people could pursue meaning and beauty, rather than merely survival?

Basic income advocates are welcoming artists as allies. This weekend The Basic Income Project is having a Create-a-thon in San Francisco, which it calls a “marathon of intrinsically-motivated work” where “writers, artists, videographers, developers, musicians, and other creatives come together to create content and media around the theme of a Universal Basic Income in the United States.” Angie Kim from CCI will be there prototyping ideas for basic income and exploring how it could be a tool for advancing long term sustainability for artists. If you’re in the Bay Area, feel free to join in!

Alexis Frasz is a researcher and cultural strategist with Helicon Collaborative, and was the co-author of Creativity Connects: Trends and Conditions Facing U.S. Artists.


[1] Of course artists should be compensated fairly for their work. However, the reality is that most artists receive at least some of their income from things that are not their art work, and tend to define their purpose and life satisfaction in terms of their artistic work, whether or not they are paid for it.

Published March 24, 2017

Share your feedback on the research and what you think comes next using your favorite social app (such as Twitter or Facebook) and the hashtag #creativz.”

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Share your feedback on the research and what you think comes next using your favorite social app (such as Twitter or Facebook) and the hashtag #creativz.”

What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons