Reimagining the future of artist employment and health care through worker ownership
It’s no secret that today’s economy systemically disadvantages the independent creative workers who make up the future economy. Whether artists are operating as gig workers or employed by small businesses and nonprofits, there’s a gulf between the benefits artists can access and the holistic benefits and care we deserve. Artists are often forced to forego healthcare, retirement, and other key benefits due to the complexity and cost to enroll as an independent worker.
On top of this gap, artists experience disjointed personal and business finances as a result of the variable nature of gig income. This not only creates a strain on the well-being of artists as they balance day-to-day finances with their needs; it also creates long term barriers to home ownership and other forms of generational wealth and health.
As creators, we have the power not only to transform the systems of support that do not serve us, we have the power to collectively own the solutions that do.
Tribeworks x CRNY
Tribeworks is a cooperative, worker-owned payments and employment platform built to support creatives and the organizations who rely on them. Founded in Baltimore in 2019 by a group of technologists and creatives of color, we are building infrastructure for the solidarity economy by collaborating with visionary artist employment programs and philanthropic partners to facilitate the flow of income and healthcare benefits to working artists.
In 2022, Tribeworks came onboard to support the Artist Employment Program (AEP) at Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY). Taking a page from the Works Progress Administration, CRNY supports employment for artists across New York State working in partnership with community-based organizations over the course of two years. Artists are provided an annual base salary of $65,000 per year in addition to healthcare benefits and unrestricted grant funding for their collaborating organizations. Of the 300 artists selected for the program, more than half sought to work in collaboration with grassroots organizations that did not have the capacity to hire the artists through their existing Human Resources infrastructure.
When artists began working in July 2022, CRNY’s Artist Employment Program co-director Bella Desai noted, “There are a huge number of amazing organizations working in community that can’t provide W2 payroll services and benefits, and Tribeworks makes it possible for those groups to be part of the Artist Employment Program.” To date, Tribeworks has supported CRNY in deploying $5.9 Million to 163 artists in the form of biweekly paychecks.
A Pathway Into the Solidarity Economy
In addition to working with CRNY and other collaborators to funnel consistent, dependable income to artists, we see Tribeworks as a “slip and slide” into the solidarity economy.
All AEP artists employed by Tribeworks are eligible to become worker-owners of the cooperative. Many of the artists are keenly aware of the time-bound nature of the program and are eager to build for the future beyond CRNY. Some of the ways they have been doing that include:
- Building voice and power
- Artists are shaping their agreements with their collaborators, shifting employer-employee relationships toward collective responsibility
- Artists are informing the types of benefits they’re receiving
- Creating shared infrastructure
- Artists are co-designing our payments and community platforms
- Artists are co-creating community gathering space for sharing resources and building power
- Establishing tax advantaged cooperative accounts
- Artists are creating internal capital accounts
- Growing organic networks
- Artists are leveraging this opportunity to establish collaborations with other artists
- Putting solidarity and democracy at the center
- Artists are running for seats on our board of directors and voting in upcoming elections
- Artists are joining the solidarity economy as part of cooperative conglomerate with verticals in health care, finance, and logistics
According to Desai, “Tribeworks provides artists with the opportunity to engage in the solidarity economy and rebalances the power dynamic between artists and organizations—organizations go from being ‘employers’ to being ‘clients.’”
As we think about opportunities for the future, we are asking questions like: how might we reimagine the future of artist employment and benefits through worker ownership? Can we break the cycle that forces artists and independent workers to choose between their income and their well-being? How can we facilitate stable income and better benefits with and for more artists across the nation?
Fractured Atlas recently published a report that provides a high level introduction to many of these same issues. Opportunity Scan: Opportunities to Support Artists’ Ability to Thrive, authored by Alexis Frasz of Helicon Collaborative, points to worker cooperatives as one of six pathways to empower working artists and creative projects. Read the report to learn more, and join us in advancing the dialogue — alongside CRNY and others within the arts ecosystem — on how to make these opportunities a reality!
Header image: “Jocelyn Jones” taken at the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in 2019 at the annual Heritage Day festival. Seneca Nation of Indians is employing AEP artists via Tribeworks. Photo courtesy of Seneca Media & Communications Center.