Fractured Atlas Interviews Springboard for the Arts’ Laura Zabel
We were inspired and moved by this recent conversation between Sophia Park of Fractured Atlas and Laura Zabel, Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts. This interview, part of a new “Seeding Collaborations” series at Fractured Atlas, addresses “the rumblings of the art world and explore[s] the possibilities blossoming from current movements.”
Below is an excerpt of this dynamic exchange. To read the entire interview, which surveys the “conditions that prompted [Springboard’s 2021 Guaranteed Income for Artists pilot], the opportunity for initiatives like this to instigate policy change, and artists’ critical roles in community building and care,” please visit: https://blog.fracturedatlas.org/seeding-collaborations-springboard-for-the-arts.
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Sophia Park: You mentioned a bit about why artists should be involved in a pilot like this. And I wanted to delve into that, especially with the context that you just provided of the city’s own guaranteed income initiatives. Why do you think it’s important for artists, culture bearers, and creative workers to be involved in a pilot like this?
Laura Zabel: At Springboard, we’re coming at guaranteed income from two perspectives in terms of artist involvement. The first is that artists add value to these movements and can be essential partners, especially around narrative change, storytelling, community engagement and participation. Working with artists who know their community and have creative skills to bring to movement building is eye-opening for people. My experience has been that most people learn to recognize artists’ value by actually experiencing it. So a lot of our work in these cross-sector collaborations is to help folks have an initial experience partnering with artists around narrative change or community participation, so that they can experience how it contrasts with past approaches and understand the value of artists in their work. From there, it’s about understanding how to find artists, how to work with them, how to pay them—all those things that we take for granted in the arts community but are actually pretty opaque if you haven’t been engaging with artists.
The second goal for us is related to how we build stronger, more durable ecosystems of support for cultural workers, particularly in communities that have been under-resourced or extracted from. We believe there is a need for policy changes that support artists, culture bearers, and creative workers to be able to remain in their neighborhoods and to make work that benefits their community creatively and culturally. We also believe the path to that policy change has to be in solidarity with broader economic justice movements, not in a silo-ed “artists only” approach.
Another exciting opportunity in this work, particularly because we’re at the earlier stages of this movement, is the opportunity to do a kind of research that we haven’t really been able to do in a lot of our work in the past. We are working with the University of Pennsylvania Center for Guaranteed Income Research on a pretty extensive research process about the impact of guaranteed income on artists and their communities. So far, we know that guaranteed income has the same impact on artists as it does on all people, which is that it creates a safety net. One that allows people to get better jobs, to handle emergencies more easily, to weather family crises, to maintain stable housing, and of course—to rest and breathe.
We are also learning that guaranteed income specifically affects the kind of work that artists are able to create and releases some of the pressure the arts system creates. Particularly the way that system pushes artists to create work outside of their own community for validation or pushes artists to center and relive their trauma to appeal to audiences or funders. We are really interested in understanding more deeply the impact of artists creating cultural experiences for people in their neighborhood and the ways that guaranteed income is a tool for more equitable community development, for more locally rooted economies.
SP: This is a very specific pilot program, but Springboard is also taking a more holistic approach to systems change. I think that’s important to note. In terms of the details of the pilot itself, can you talk more about the decision to select artists internally for the pilot versus an open call or an application system? What are some of your considerations when building out the pilot structure?
LZ: First, I want to say one more thing about what you said before, which I think is really important. What feels like such a good fit about our participation in this guaranteed income movement is that it is a full movement of people who are working at this systemic policy change level. But their path to systemic change is through practical direct action. I feel like so much work, especially community based work, gets pulled apart—you’re either a policy person or you’re a direct service person. I believe in enacting policy change by actually doing things on the ground as practitioners in our own communities, demonstrating their value and having an eye and a view towards policy change from the beginning—we can do both at the same time. These approaches need to be more closely linked.
In terms of selection for our pilot, the pilot is small–only 25 artists in our neighborhood, which is the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, a neighborhood that has been historically disinvested and extracted from and harmed by many economic systems, specifically by the construction of the Interstate highway. It is also a neighborhood that is really rich in other assets like culture and community—other forms of wealth that are not recognized by our existing systems. It’s a neighborhood where we’re based, where our building is. Part of our thinking was: if we could only support a small number of people, we wanted to do it in the most local way possible. Then we selected the artists randomly (controlled for demographics) from a pool of people who had received emergency relief fund support. Which is, by definition, a group of people who had these sorts of extreme impacts from the pandemic on their livelihoods.
Springboard is trying really hard to challenge ourselves to try to find other ways of resourcing artists outside of competitive processes, outside of processes that demand an extraction of labor from a whole group of people who aren’t going to get the resources. And that’s hard, right? The whole arts world is set up for everything to be a competition for resources. This is a place where we were able to benefit from the advice and inspiration of the way the City of St. Paul is doing their citywide guaranteed income pilot—the same way that other cities are doing it—which entails establishing common criteria and then letting the selection be both random and anonymous.
Guaranteed income is not a grant, it is not a fellowship, it is a tool for addressing economic insecurity and wealth inequality. We have left it up to the participants to disclose whether or not they’re getting the support. It’s not something we made public or a list we published. Those are the reasons why it wasn’t an application process. That is rooted in our values and how we’re trying to push on expected practices or the way things are “supposed to be”. We wanted our pilot to be as aligned as possible with the work that’s happening in our city and nationally, because we want the research to also be aligned and to be able to be a part of this bigger conversation. Wherever we could, we tried to make our pilot mirror what else was happening in our city and across the country.
SP: As artists, because you’re so used to having to fight for resources and competing with other artists that you can’t see when certain processes are leading you into those directions. It’s continually reinforced. So that’s also part of the work—how do we facilitate that paradigm shift?
LZ: Exactly. I think it’s been really moving to hear from artists in this program that the systems we have now in the art world don’t allow artists to think about what they might want or what their definition of success is. Artists often have to choose between the impact they want to make with their work and the ability to make a living. It’s so counter to what I believe art is for. That kind of over-commodification of art, not even of art, but the commodification of artists and having to sell yourself as a part of validating your work. It’s been exciting to try to find these alternate routes and to be able to hear from artists about what the guaranteed income enables and how it opens up different ways of thinking about your practice or what you want to do or who you’re making the work for. The pilot has definitely already influenced some of our other programs and how we’re thinking about other ways of resourcing artists.
SP: How do you think about care and how are you practicing it in the work that all of us are doing as in service of artists? How do you think care is woven into initiatives like this and Springboard’s work? How are you practicing care within the organization given that Springboard is artist-run and you are part of the community you serve?
LZ: I love that question. I’ll try to not talk forever. I think this work around guaranteed income is fundamental to this idea. One of the most important impacts is that just a little bit of resource each month allows people to care for themselves more effectively. It allows people to do the things that they need to do—to take care of themselves or their families, whether that’s taking their kids out for ice cream or fixing their car or taking the day off. I think the idea of care is fundamental to the idea of trust. We have to trust people to know what they need versus what someone else prescribes to them. This foundational idea of trust is really important to this program.
Organizationally for us at Springboard, that is also a value that we try to practice internally, especially during the pandemic: not trying to prescribe or take a one size fits all approach to care. We try to create as many ways as we can for people to take care of themselves, whether that’s unlimited time off, full staff time away where we don’t bother each other, support for staff to be engaged in their communities, and basic stuff like good health insurance. We recently created a newer benefit for people to do individual coaching or therapy. I think it’s important for all of us to work on self-awareness at our own pace and to have the opportunity to focus on the things that would be helpful for us individually. As much as we can, we try to create systems that allow people to make their own choices and to resource them to find the things they need versus saying everyone gets this one thing. We’re always trying to push towards making things more flexible because people are all dealing with their own specific circumstances.
I also want to recognize that being an artist working for an organization that supports other artists during the last two years when artists have been so stretched and stressed is intense. I think we all still have a lot of processing we need to do about the grief, and fear that artists have come to us with, that our peers have come to us with. Acknowledging that it is our job to try to connect folks with resources, but that it takes a toll in terms of the way that it sits on people’s hearts and minds and bodies. We’re definitely not perfect, but we’re trying. It connects to other tensions, like how we push against systems while showing up and trying to help people navigate those systems. We need to be able to hold the urgency of the moment and the urgency for systems change, right alongside the need for space, for rest, for stepping away, for taking care of each other. It’s a really difficult set of balance to hold. But that’s what the work needs.
To read the entire exchange, please visit: https://blog.fracturedatlas.org/seeding-collaborations-springboard-for-the-arts.
Springboard for the Arts is an artist-run organization based in Minnesota. They have offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls, both of which are on Anishinaabe and Dakota land. Springboard provides resources for artists to thrive so that they can help build stronger, equitable, and just communities. Founded as an independent nonprofit in 1991, Springboard for the Arts has an innovative 30-year history of supporting artists making a living and a life and artist-led community development work.
Fractured Atlas is a national arts service organization whose mission is to make the journey from inspiration to living practice more accessible and equitable for artists and creatives. Our services include fiscal sponsorship, educational resources, and support from our experienced team, many of whom are artists themselves. We also host Inciter Art, where we publish a monthly list of grants opportunities, exciting interviews with individuals working to shift the arts ecosystem towards a just future, and helpful articles with tips for guiding the business side of your art practice.