Universal Basic Artist

This essay first appeared in ArtReview.

The pandemic has had many detrimental effects on the arts, but recently the Western artworld has developed a peculiar form of Long Covid, whose key symptom is the demand for a special form of income for artists, with a plethora of initiatives cropping up that single out artists as uniquely deserving of support in the postpandemic reconstruction. In 2021, for example, the New York City Artists Corps promised to employ artists in droves to restore the creative and tourist economies. Ireland is poised to launch a €25 million guaranteed income (GI) pilot for artists. And numerous programmes, such as Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY), are currently trialling versions of universal basic income (UBI) targeted at artists. For the 2,400 creatives selected by CRNY, who are now a cool $1,000 a month closer to making rent, such initiatives may be a blessing. But are states and philanthropists truly interested in paying artists for ‘doing what they love’? Or does this proliferation of quasi-UBI programmes point to a future of even lower artist incomes and increased control over who gets to be an artist?

Blueprints for Universal Basic Income date as far back as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). The aims of the spate of recent trials of UBI in countries ranging from Namibia to South Korea have included reducing child malnutrition and promoting local businesses, while a programme launched this spring in Wales is directed at young people leaving social care. Figures as far apart on the political spectrum as Britain’s former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Tesla’s Elon Musk have advocated much wider applications of UBI that would see living-wage-level payments distributed to entire populations, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey favours the ’transparency’ of Bitcoin-fuelled universal income provision. 

Main image: Photo: Russell Shaw Higgs/Flickr.