SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

Basic income – a basic right for artists?

The idea of a basic income is not new. In the 16th century, British philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More mentioned the idea in his book, Utopia. Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a guaranteed income for Americans. At its core is the idea that adult citizens receive a monthly payment from the government. The aim is not only to alleviate poverty but also to provide more freedom for individuals  to pursue genuine interests without having to worry about making next month’s rent payment.

As life after Corona makes the past two years seem like a bad but fast-fading nightmare, it is easy to forget that many, including artists, are facing a long, hard road to recovery. Before the pandemic, Europe’s cultural and creative sectors accounted for more than 4% of Europe’s GDP. In 2019, more than 3.7% of Europe’s workforce was employed in this sector. The pandemic caused the cultural and creative sectors to lose 80% of their turnover, according to estimates by the European Commission. A report for the European Visual Artists group estimates that one in eight museums in the EU may never re-open.

Calls by the European Parliament to allocate 2% of the EU recovery package to the creative and cultural sectors was rejected by the Council. Here in the Netherlands financial support for larger cultural institutions deemed to be “of vital importance” and rent suspension for state museums, has not directly addressed the struggles of smaller organisations and individual artists. Although relief has been offered to entrepreneurs more broadly, the hybrid practices of many artists often makes it difficult for them to meet the funding criteria, reports the Broekman Foundation. The stereotype of the struggling artist living in poverty in a garret gains renewed significance in this post-pandemic landscape.

So last month’s announcement by the Irish government of the launch of a basic income for artists initiative is a beacon of hope for many in the industry. Artists in Ireland are being invited to apply for a basic income of €325 per week. This scheme will be available for up to 2000 artists over a period of three years. Applicants who meet the criteria will be selected randomly, those not selected will be invited to be part of a control group for the project. In launching the project, Irish prime minister, Micheál Martin, recognised the importance of the arts and culture as “the wellspring of our identity”.

The strong link between the arts and our sense of cultural identity must not be forgotten as the world emerges from pandemic life. The arts have arguably helped many through the pandemic and will provide us with pathways toward future recovery. President of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozir recognised this in a recent comment, “Far too often society is blind to the socio-economic contributions of those in the creative and cultural spheres. This is a mistake.” He pointed out too that the creative sectors are the largest employment sectors for young people.

Ireland’s basic income for artists programme recognises this. Another promising idea is the European Status of the Artist concept. Proposed in a report adopted by the European Parliament toward the end of last year, such status would include freedom of expression, mobility, collective bargaining for self-employed professionals and access to social security, to name a few. The pandemic has doubtless caused untold suffering and material loss for artists globally but perhaps it will also prove to be a catalyst for the kinds of changes for which the cultural and creative industries have long been fighting.    Souwie Buis,  May 2022

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