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Guaranteed Income for Artists: Why Financial Need?

March 18, 2022

Many applicants are asking good questions about the Guaranteed Income for Artists eligibility requirement around financial need and how we arrived at the model we use today. We are listening, and we want first to acknowledge: all artists have need.

The story begins with an ever-present yet often invisible character, the IRS. The funds provided to implement CRNY’s programs through the Andrew W. Mellon, Ford, and Stavros Niarchos foundations are classified as IRS charitable dollars. This classification creates some boundaries for how the program was designed and how the money can be used.

A core belief for many guaranteed income programs is that all folks are deserving of basic income. As such, the selection process is often randomized. We’re excited to apply this principle to our selection process, particularly for the opportunity to support all kinds of artists without putting them in competition with one another’s artistic practice. However, to enact this principle with our charitable dollars, we must demonstrate that all individuals within our possible selection pool meet some classification that satisfies the IRS’s definition of ‘charitable.’ To that end, we must use financial need as one of the eligibility requirements. In addition, we have to rely on a standard measurement that allows us to make that determination.

Our sessions with the Think Tank were huge lessons in designing within constraint. We tussled through this challenge and often landed in conflicting positions. We did, however, arrive at two shared values: the funds should be directed toward as many artists as possible, for as many consecutive months as possible within CRNY’s timeline; and they should especially target artists who experience multiple points of oppression.

To define financial need, we explored average median income, zip codes, the official poverty measure, and many other established methodologies, none of which rose to the level of nuance that our dialogue and values demanded. With the Think Tank and with advisement from experts in the guaranteed income and cash transfer policy spaces, we landed on the Self-Sufficiency Standard for a few reasons. Its methodology includes multiple verified data sources at the national and local levels, and it accounts for more of the things that make up the expenses required to live today—taking note of how our lives are interdependent with other people and with the places we live.

All of that being said, it is wholly imperfect to use any single measurement to qualify something as complicated as financial need for thousands of people. Through our application process and the feedback we have received, we are witnessing the complex reality of artists’ financial stories: the ingenuity of artists to find supplemental income while still practicing their craft; the entrepreneurial spirit so many of you harnessed to smooth income losses; the fundraising required to start important new works, oftentimes not paying yourself while ensuring that your collaborators are paid; the massive debt management you navigate in order to sustain a viable livelihood within the arts; the care you take with your family and communities who face bankruptcy; and the compounding effects of racism, transphobia, xenophobia, and classism we continue to face on a daily basis. These lived experiences are true and valid, even if the Self-Sufficiency Standard cannot account for all the myriad factors that contribute to artists’ financial circumstances.

We are grateful to have the opportunity to support 2,400 artists who are not currently able to meet basic needs, and we hope this guaranteed income has a positive effect on their lives and livelihoods. But we now have even more questions about what financial need means for artists, and we look forward to deepening the conversation and adapting together between now and the end of our work in 2024.