Ireland Asks: What if Artists Could Ditch Their Day Jobs?

Ireland Asks: What if Artists Could Ditch Their Day Jobs?

Ian Fay had toiled for years to make it as a comic book artist and illustrator, and last fall, he was ready to call it a day.

Fay, 32, who lives in Kilkenny in southern Ireland and specializes in drawing muscly superheroes, was only earning enough money to pay his bills, he recalled recently. He couldn’t afford vacations. He was considering boxing up his art supplies and getting a job in a grocery store.

Then, in September, a lifeline appeared in his email inbox. A message from Ireland’s government said that Fay had been selected for a program guaranteeing 2,000 artists a basic income. For three years, participants — including musicians, novelists and circus performers — would be paid 16,900 euros a year, about $18,200, no strings attached.

Fay stared at the email in disbelief. The payments — in weekly installments of €325 — would cover his rent, and lower his anxiety about making ends meet, he said. For the first time in years, he added, he would have “time to practice and develop my craft.”

Six months in, the guaranteed income’s impact was clear, Fay said: “If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t be doing art today.”

The Irish pilot project is the latest sign of growing international interest in universal basic income — when governments pay ‌their citizens, employed or not, a lump sum each month. Proponents of the idea, including antipoverty groups, left-wing politicians and libertarian organizations, say guaranteed income ensures a population’s sustenance and health better than other social welfare policies. Opponents say it’s simply giving the work-shy cash for nothing.

In early experiments in Finland, California and Germany, people were paid regardless of their profession. But several pilots are now focused on cultural workers, who can spend months, or even years, on unpaid projects. Painters, dancers and musicians often rely on precarious, part-time jobs to fund their passions, and basic incomes are seen as a way to let them focus on artistic pursuits.

Last year, in the United States, a privately funded initiative called Creatives Rebuild New York began giving 2,400 artists $1,000 a month. Similar programs are underway in San Francisco and Minnesota. But of these artist-focused efforts, Ireland’s stands out because it is government-run and involves rigorous analysis of the recipients’ finances, work patterns and well-being to gauge the handouts’ impact. The recipients’ livelihoods will be compared with those of 1,000 artists in a control group, who are not receiving any payments.

Catherine Martin, Ireland’s culture minister — a trained singer and former street busker — said in a telephone interview that the idea for the policy emerged three years ago during the coronavirus pandemic. With Ireland’s music venues, theaters and museums shuttered, Martin commissioned a task force to explore how the government could help cultural workers survive. Its main recommendation was a basic income trial.

“Worrying about putting bread on the table really impacts artists’ creative juices,” Martin said. “This is about giving them space to work,” she added.

The pilot, which has cross-party support, has a budget of €33.8 million a year — and that’s on top of the €130 million that Ireland spends on culture via the Arts Council, its main arts funding body.

Applications opened last April for people working in the visual arts, theater, literature, music, dance, opera, movies, circuses and architecture. (Some craft workers complained at the time that they had been excluded.) The applicants had to submit two pieces of evidence to show they were genuine cultural workers, such as membership in a professional body, proof of income from art sales or newspaper reviews. Martin said the government didn’t consider the quality of the applicants’ work.

More than 9,000 people applied, with 8,200 deemed eligible. From that pool, 2,000 were randomly selected to receive payments and 1,000 for the control group.

With so many artists missing out, few of the 2,000 recipients have publicly advertised their good fortune, with only a handful posting about their participation in the trial on social media and few discussing the program with Irish news media. Of six recipients contacted for this article, only three agreed to talk.

Lydia Mulvey, 47, a screenwriter, said that she quit her job in a telecommunications firm as soon as she heard she’d made it into the program. Now she spends her time writing pilot scripts for thrillers and sci-fi shows, rather than trying to squeeze that into evenings and weekends. “I knew it’d be transformative and give me my life back,” Mulvey said, although she added that, if she didn’t already own her own home, she’d struggle to live on such a low income, especially in Ireland’s squeezed property market.

Mark McGuinness, 31, a photographer, said that before receiving the basic income he had spent the whole week seeking commercial photography work to pay his rent and the cost of supplies, and had let his artistic practice slip away. Now, he’d “clawed back” two days a week to make work for exhibitions, he said.

Despite anecdotal evidence of success, no data on the program’s impact is available so far. Ireland’s government is sending recipients questionnaires every six months that ask about the state of their finances, artistic career and health, with the first scheduled to go out in April. Last year, those taking part received a survey to collect baseline data. It asked if they could adequately heat their homes, replace worn furniture or “afford a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day.”

Some observers are impatient for results. Martin, the culture minister, said that lawmakers and arts organizations in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium had made inquiries about the program..

Aengus Ó Snodaigh, a spokesman on cultural issues for the opposition Sinn Fein party, which supports the program, said he wanted data long before the trial concluded so artists didn’t face a “cliff edge” at the end. He added that he had many questions about the program, including whether payments benefited early-career artists more than established names, and whether the handouts were having unintended consequences, like causing tensions in rock bands if some members were selected, but others weren’t.

“Maybe the money would be better spent on hardship funds for artists who can prove they can’t afford the mortgage, or can’t rent a studio,” Ó Snodaigh said.

Few recipients are taking the windfall for granted. Mulvey, the screenwriter, said she’d recently met television companies about developing shows, and was often working long into the night. “I keep reminding myself that three years is a really short time, and we’ve already had six months,” she said, adding that she wanted to make sure “I don’t have to go back to a day job when this stops.”

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