A Basic Income for Artists: the Irish Case

Door Joan Somers Donnelly, op Wed Jan 04 2023 23:00:00 GMT+0000

In Ireland, 2.000 artists and arts workers will get 325 euro a week for three years (2022-2025), as a pilot for a Basic Income for Artists (BIA, the Irish word for food). A useful reinforcement in the fight against financial instability in the arts?

This scheme is the outcome of a task force formed by the government during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020 to address how the cultural sector could best be protected. The idea of a basic income for artists had first been presented in 2017 by a lobby group, the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA). In 2020 the creation of the task force gave the NCFA the opportunity to lay the idea on the table again for serious consideration. The 2.000 recipients include representatives from all art forms, age groups, ethnicities and counties of Ireland: 707 visual artists, 584 musicians, 204 artists working in film, 184 writers, 173 actors and artists working in theatre, 32 dancers and choreographers, 13 circus artists and 10 architects. They were randomly selected from over 9.000 applicants.

‘I’ve never had anything like that, the stability and the expansive time; that is the most life changing part of it for me.’

I spoke to two recipient artists, and an artist who was involved in consultation around the development of the scheme. For many artists with a studio-based practice, such as Elinor O’Donovan, a visual artist based in Cork city, it buys them time to make work. ‘It feels like winning the lotto. When I was working two or three days a week temping in offices, I had two days in the studio, and then I just felt under this pressure to get stuff done and be productive. Creativity takes time though, you need time to do nothing. Basic income means I can quit the temping and be full time in the studio.’ Mark, a filmmaker based in Dublin, said it was ‘intangible’, the benefit of not being stressed about money. The BIA won’t allow him to make a lot more work than he has been making, as even short films are expensive to make, but he says that it allows him time to think about projects and apply for funding, normally an unpaid part of the job. ‘I’ve never had anything like that, the stability and the expansive time; that is the most life changing part of it for me – guaranteed money for a time frame that is probably the time frame we should be thinking about in terms of being able to develop work.’

The way funding has worked until recently in Ireland, a smaller amount of significant funding amounts were awarded to fewer artists, compared to the greater range of funding streams available in Belgium, so there was less support for young and emerging artists. Elinor had been considering moving to Belgium to do a masters, but says that ‘this is kind of paying me to stay in the country now.’ Michaële Cutaya, a visual artist, art writer, and chair of the working group on BIA within Praxis, the new Artists Union of Ireland, believes that that was a goal of the BIA: ‘For a lot of artists that have given up on art or gone to another country, part of it was that they didn’t feel that recognition here. It makes no sense to spend huge amounts of money training people in the arts, to then see them go and work in other countries.’ Getting the basic income is a kind of recognition of the work you do.


Critics of the scheme, such as the art critic Chris Hayes, say that there is a gap between the arts sector’s interpretation of the scheme, and the narrow economic focus of the Irish government’s agenda. Lockdowns affected all countries, with nightlife and tourism playing a particularly central role in the Irish economy, so the government realised they would have to intervene in some way in that sector. In their election campaign they had also promised to establish a research commission on an Irish universal basic income. Hayes theorises that a basic income trial aimed at artists was seen by the government as a way of killing two birds with one stone, and that policy makers are interested in artists and art workers not because they want to fix income precarity, but because they understand that it is the income precarity that makes them an interesting case study for the wider economy. The BIA, in this context, is a way of testing what happens if you throw scraps to precarious workers, just enough to keep the market in motion. A small proportion of artists receiving money will not transform the arts scene or make it more sustainable if there are still not enough spaces for artists to make and present work in, and if the housing crisis continues to drive young artists out of the country. According to Hayes, ‘everything that is destroying Ireland and creating the hardship that artists face will be untouched by the basic income scheme.’

The basic income scheme seems to address a symptom rather than the root of the problem.

Praxis was also suspicious about why this government, with its neo-liberal leanings, would support a basic income scheme at all. The union argued that the focus of the pilot and how it is assessed should be on wellbeing and not productivity. That’s why recipient artists are being asked to keep diaries during the experiment. Hopefully this will provide some nuance in the results of the research. Unless the results are extraordinarily positive however, multiple factors already suggest that the scheme may not be quite the utopian model artists in other countries should choose to advocate for.

Remaining Questions

As with other positive changes within arts funding in Ireland in the last few years, it is hard to know how to walk the line between enthusiasm and scepticism. Historically, we have seen injections to arts and cultural funding at times when the economy was stronger, but often without a well thought out or sustainable strategy that can make the most of the funds, such as huge investment in arts infrastructure in the early 2000s without corresponding support for artists and art workers in those areas. The basic income scheme seems to address a symptom rather than the root of the problem, and there is a lack of clarity as to whether the government is planning in the long term for a universal basic income (UBI) or one for artists. While on the surface the scheme appears to be aimed at improving the position of precarious workers, when you crunch the numbers on UBI it becomes clear that no existing economy can pay for a generous universal basic income without defunding a significant amount of other programmes. So we would either have to settle for a minimum basic income that would not have much impact on precarity, or defund other social programmes to give everyone an increased income but remove other social safety nets. In the words of the researcher Luke Martinelli, ‘an affordable UBI is inadequate, and an adequate UBI is unaffordable’.

Is a basic income simply a last resort in an economy where it is becoming too hard to survive on your actual earnings?

In this pilot scheme too, the amount of money that the recipient artists I spoke to were delighted to find out they will be receiving every week for the next three years is still well below the average salary, and in cases where the artist is also supporting dependents, would likely not even cover monthly rent in Dublin, let alone other living costs. One would hope that this basic income would not create disadvantages for artists in other arenas, or open them up to further exploitation in terms of fair pay. Unfortunately there are already signs in the current scheme that a basic income is seen as an either/or situation in terms of other social benefits, rather than a complementary support. Since the BIA is counted as income, Praxis has heard that a number of artists with disabilities were selected for the scheme but declined to participate, out of fear that they would lose their medical card (entitling them to free medical care) if they earned any further income from their practice itself, putting them over the relatively low earning threshold for receiving a disability allowance and medical card.

So is a basic income simply a last resort in an economy where it is becoming too hard to survive on your actual earnings, and one that artists with multiple precarities will not be able to benefit from to the same extent? There is broad agreement that a basic income is not the only solution to the issues artists face, but does it in fact undermine other solutions, such as better pay, a living wage for example, and more secure conditions for working and living? To what extent do we need to oppose this direction? Is a system similar to the ‘artist status’ in Belgium whereby artists with the status can have easier access to unemployment benefits between periods of work a preferable option to explore? A lot of questions are difficult to answer at this early stage.

Fostering Collectivity

In Ireland, as in many countries, artists have been put in a situation where they have to be grateful for what they are given, hence the embracing of the scheme in a context where, until recently, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on arts and culture was consistently one of the lowest in Europe, and where artists have had a hard time having their voices heard on a political level. One issue the union have encountered is some artists being reluctant to support the dispute of an artist they are in a group exhibition with for example, because they are concerned it will affect their relationship with the gallery or the curator, which could have a negative impact on their already unstable income. Both Hayes and Cutaya see potential for the recipient artists to create different conversations around how to foster more collectivity in the arts and how to oppose the neoliberal logic behind the development of this scheme. Cutaya: ‘Maybe the basic income can make people more willing to take a risk to fight for better conditions. There are unhealthy patterns, behaviours, like unpaid internships, unpaid work; inequalities that are built into the arts system. If situations are not so precarious, because you know you at least have a basic income, you might be more willing to challenge unfair conditions.’

I do have a growing faith in the artist communities in Ireland that are again becoming collective and politically engaged, after more than a decade of fragmentation and atomisation.

The key to finding better solutions to economic instability and other issues faced by artists is through policy makers listening to the voices of artists and involving them in decision-making processes around policies that affect them and impact the cultural landscape as a whole. Which is not going to happen unless we demand it. The fact that the government did take the input of the NCFA and Praxis on board is a signal that we can have an influence, so we certainly can’t stop here. While I don’t have much faith in the promises of our conservative government to revive the arts and reduce insecurity for artists on their own initiative, I do have a growing faith in the artist communities in Ireland that are again becoming collective and politically engaged, after more than a decade of fragmentation and atomisation following the post-crash austerity measures from 2009 onwards, despite the great efforts of the NCFA which was founded in response. The impact of the covid lockdowns, on top of the initial inadequate government response to protecting workers in the arts as well as people in precarious housing situations, was the last straw for many artists and other individuals, and triggered all kinds of mobilisation, for example the much anticipated launch of Praxis and the rapid growth of the CATU, the national tenants union. In a relatively small arts scene too, the impact of 2000 artists being facilitated to dedicate more time to their practice will likely be felt more broadly, in terms of more valuable reflection and planning time for artists and more work being made in less stressful conditions, and that is very much something to look forward to.

Mark talked about loving a good moan, as many Irish do. It feels like there is some significant collective moaning happening now though, and collective action too. Which is why even many artists like Mark who will receive the payment are not going to quit their moaning: ‘It has to be a we thing. We can never individualise our problems. That won’t get us anywhere.’