A $3.46 million gift from #StartSmall, a charity created by the Twitter and Square CEO, funds the expansion.
By: Lily Janiak
San Francisco’s pilot program to guarantee income for artists has named its first 130 recipients and announced that it is expanding, thanks to a $3.46 million gift from #StartSmall, a charity created by Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey.
#StartSmall’s gift will extend the pilot, administered by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in partnership with Mayor London Breed, in two ways. The first 130 artists will receive $1,000 monthly payments for another full year, for a total of 18 months. It will also fund a second round in which of 50 more artists will receive 18 monthly payment. (Application details for round two are forthcoming.)
“To know that we have the confidence of #StartSmall to be able to truly pilot this, to grow from the six-month pilot the city has funded to an 18-month pilot, to be able to deepen the learnings and also to be able to add artists, is truly extraordinary,” said YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan.
“It’s actually emotional,” she added. “There are people that have been so hard hit, that were struggling before, that are one minute away from a life-changing event, and we are able to provide some security. This also helps us address the systemic inequity and insecurity in our sector and our city.”
One of the artists selected for the program is Mission District resident and illustrator Casey Marquez.
“I lost my job because of COVID,” Marquez said. “I was on unemployment, but that’s ending eventually. I don’t think my position exists anymore, and it probably won’t for a while.”
Marquez had previously worked at Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall, designing artwork for the music venues, among other duties. But Slim’s announced its permanent closure last year, and there hasn’t been word on the reopening plans for the Great American Music Hall. “Seeing the guaranteed income pilot, it was almost too good to be true.”
YBCA is partnering with five smaller local arts organizations to select the second group of recipients, a move Cullinan said is in response to “really great critical feedback” YBCA received from others in the city’s arts scene that the program should be more inclusive.
#StartSmall did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment. But in a series of tweets announcing the charity’s April 2020 creation, Dorsey said universal basic income was among his top priorities, after COVID relief and girls’ health and education.
“Why UBI and girl’s health and education?” he wrote. “I believe they represent the best long-term solutions to the existential problems facing the world. UBI is a great idea needing experimentation.”
As of Thursday, May 20, #StartSmall has disbursed more than $380 million to organizations around the world. In 2020, it gave $1 million to YBCA in support of its CultureBank and Artist-Led Giving Circle programs, both of which give artists the power to give grants and make investments.
YBCA isn’t making the names of the program’s first 130 recipients public to protect the privacy of their financial circumstances. An artist in a single-person household had to make less than $60,900 per year to qualify, among other eligibility requirements, including that they live in one of 13 ZIP codes that the city identified as hardest hit by the pandemic.
But the organization did share demographic statistics about the recipients. After the 2,594 artists who applied were screened for eligibility, the 130 were selected using what Cullinan calls a “randomizing tool.” YBCA said 95% hail from at least one historically marginalized groups: people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities and/or immigrants. Thirty-five percent of recipients are white.
The pilot’s expansion comes as guaranteed income programs are growing increasingly popular in Northern California, with projects in Stockton, Oakland, Marin County, Santa Clara County and South San Francisco. There are also two others in San Francisco, including one called the Abundant Birth Project, which supports new and expecting mothers.
The program’s expansion runs counter to the widely held notion in the local arts community that tech companies and leaders do not support the arts in proportion to their ability to do so — that they haven’t demonstrated the same sense of civic responsibility in their arts philanthropy as did wealthy citizens of past eras.
Cullinan calls that notion a fair assessment, but she sees reason to hope for change.
“I hear something I hadn’t heard before: the understanding that we can’t reawaken and regenerate without the arts. I’m hearing that not only from folks in the tech sector, but also folks that are in sports, folks that are in hospitality,” she said.
For writer and educator Kevin Dublin, another first-round recipient, guaranteed income is a longstanding interest.
“I think about how and why we ascribe value to different roles and how we take in the fruits of labor,” Dublin said. Art “is not so easy, like anybody could do this. It’s really being dedicated to craft.”
“There are things that are valued because money can be made off of it. But then you also have this value that can be gained because of what feels good to your soul. That’s also just as necessary.”