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SF Sends $1,000 in Monthly Relief to Artists, Critics Say Process ‘Inequitable’

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San Francisco artist Diego Gomez was among the 130 recipients of city's Guaranteed Income Pilot. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

UPDATE: May 21, 12.30pm: The San Francisco Mayor’s Office announced the Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists just received a $3.46 million contribution from #StartSmall, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s philanthropic initiative to help extend the pilot by 12 months and support additional artists. According to a statement from YBCA, the new funding will also “go towards a new collaboration between YBCA and five high impact, historically underfunded San Francisco arts and culture organizations to select at least an additional 50 artists—10 from each organization—to also receive monthly payments of $1,000 a month for 18 months.”

A total of 130 struggling San Francisco artists are expected to receive the first in a series of six $1,000 monthly payments starting Friday.

This cash relief program—called San Francisco’s Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists—is one of many Universal Basic Income (UBI)-type programs currently underway in cities across the country. In the Bay Area alone, the Abundant Birth Project provides monthly income supplements for Black and Pacific Islander expectant mothers in San Francisco, and guaranteed income programs recently launched in Oakland and Marin County offer funds to low-income residents of color.

The funds will arrive as a check or a direct debit card distributed by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). San Francisco city officials hope the small, taxpayer-funded Guaranteed Income Pilot experiment reduces inequities for artists in San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities.

“This is a really important initiative, as it uplifts one of the mayor’s key priorities when it comes to intersecting arts and equity and making sure that creatives here in San Francisco have the opportunity to thrive and take care of themselves, given the impact of COVID-19,” said San Francisco Office of Racial Equity Director Shakirah Simley at a public meeting held on April 7 to discuss the pilot.


Drawing on funds from the city’s Arts Impact Endowment, which is specifically earmarked to respond to community needs and reflect equity principles, the city of San Francisco aimed to reach BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQ+ and disabled people, as well as immigrants, when it announced the Guaranteed Income Pilot.

Eligibility criteria stated applicants must be 18 or older, have an artistic practice “rooted in a historically marginalized community,” reside in one of 13 San Francisco zip codes “determined by the city of San Francisco’s data on areas hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and not exceed a specified low-income threshold.

Roughly 2,500 people applied for the program. According to data obtained by KQED, 95% of the artists who will receive the cash relief identify with one or more of the target (BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQ+, disabled, immigrant) groups.

But some arts advocates say the way in which the city and YBCA have rolled out the pilot has done more to highlight inequities than solve them.

“When you start off inequitably, your outcomes are going to be inequitable,” says T. Kebo Drew, managing director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. “That’s kind of how these things work.”

Good Intentions, Challenging Process

Drew says she understands the city was anxious to get money into the hands of needy artists, but that the rushed process was riddled with issues from the start.

Some of the criticisms relate to the rollout of the grant application itself, like the eligibility criteria and selection process that YBCA and the city used to pick the 130 grantees. Others extend back to the early planning stages and how the city went about coming up with the idea for the pilot, and deciding how the money to fund it would be managed. In both of these areas, some community arts advocates say they felt shut out of the process.

“A lot of these decisions get made, and it’s just like a fait accompli,” Drew says.

“The pilot just showed up,” says Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center Executive Director Vinay Patel. “Then it was just funded really fast.”

Patel, Drew and other arts advocates who spoke to KQED say the city barreled ahead with its plan without initially involving input from the neighborhood cultural groups that directly serve the city’s most vulnerable artists.

When asked about community involvement in the early stages of the program, a San Francisco Arts Commission spokesperson said the general idea for putting cash in peoples’ pockets originally came out of community focus groups that were part of the city’s COVID-19 Economic Recovery Taskforce effort last summer. But KQED has not been able to obtain a list of focus group attendees, and no one interviewed for this story, including Economic Recovery Taskforce member and YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan, seems to know who specifically came up the idea for the pilot, nor when the project itself was conceived and greenlit.

Regardless, once the city had come up with the program, it chose not to manage it. In a January Arts Commission meeting, commissioner Roberto Ordeñana talked about the importance of using a regranting structure and intermediary strategies in order to award funds as quickly as possible. He said these methods, rather than administering the grants independently, would lower the SFAC’s overhead.

“At the time there were a lot of things on the city’s plate,” says San Francisco Director of Cultural Affairs Ralph Remington, who came into his job after the pilot was conceived. “The thinking was, what’s the quickest way to be able to get these funds out the door to the artists that need it, and who could be a good community partner with facilitating that activity?”

But Remington also acknowledges the city’s ability to take on this type of programming. “The city is certainly able to to do it directly,” he says.

YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan during the opening of 'Bay Area Now 9,' Sept. 7, 2018.
YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan during the opening of ‘Bay Area Now 9,’ Sept. 7, 2018. (Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; photo by Brittney Valdez)

The Go-Between

The city put out a request for proposals last October, asking local nonprofits to bid for the job of administering the Guaranteed Income Pilot. Applicants included The Center for Cultural Innovation, Q Foundation, Southern Exposure, Theatre Bay Area and YBCA. Organizations had less than a month to get their applications in. The Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center’s Patel says he and many other leaders of small neighborhood arts and culture organizations felt they couldn’t compete.

“For small organizations, you have to sort of take a look and say, ‘What do we think it’s worth? Do we have the capacity?,’” Patel says. “We just felt that this wasn’t even worth applying for.”

The $870,000 grant to manage the pilot went to YBCA. YBCA says it augmented the $877,000 in total city funds with $60,000 in additional direct expenses from its own coffers. It says $790,000 will go to the 130 pilot participants, with $60,000 going to community arts organizations, artist outreach workers and artist advocates, as well as to translation services for outreach efforts.

YBCA also won a $250,000 grant from the city to oversee another arts and culture-focused pandemic-relief program, the Arts Hub.

“We were highly encouraged to apply by a lot of different people,” says Cullinan, adding that although she was not involved in the early-stage planning of the Guaranteed Income Pilot, her organization has been discussing the UBI model for years as a possible way to help provide more financial security for artists.

The decision to award YBCA the grant didn’t thrill some community-based arts and culture advocates.

“Very large organizations that are not suited to take care of communities of color and poor communities should back off more,” says artist, curator and director of Emerging Arts Professionals San Francisco Bay Area Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen. “They vie for this kind of money because they know they’re going to get it.”

MacFadyen says the city needs to shift its understanding of how communities of color and small organizations get things done.

“It needs to start trusting our communities to make decisions for ourselves and implement programs for ourselves,” MacFadyen says.

Community Engagement Effort

Cullinan says her organization did engage community leaders to help shape the program and act as ambassadors for it within their neighborhoods.

“We involved community members as soon as we were confirmed as the administrator of this program,” Cullinan says. “Community leaders are very important to our design and our process.”

But arts advocates like Patel say they didn’t appreciate being co-opted to help YBCA reach its target audience.

“They still have to go out and seek help on how to do this program from the very people that could have just done it themselves,” Patel says.

YBCA staffers listened to comments and responded to some questions from community members at a public meeting about the pilot presided over by the city’s Office of Racial Equity on April 7.

The organization, in partnership with the city, also made some tweaks to the pilot’s selection process and eligibility criteria based on community feedback, like allowing Chinatown residents to apply—a neighborhood that was originally left out of the eligibility criteria. YBCA also switched from rating the eligible applicants—of the 2,594 total applications, 1,409 met the eligibility criteria—to using a randomization tool to pick the final 130.

Even still, that lottery approach made some artists uncomfortable.

“If I was being judged on the merit of my contribution to the community, then I would certainly be near the top,” says Castro-based multimedia artist and handyman Bob Burnside, who applied for the pilot but was not selected. “But since it was random, and there were so many applicants, I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

“I don’t want to sound unappreciative,” says Tenderloin-based performer, teacher and graphic designer Diego Gomez, who did make the cut. “But I was a tiny bit let down that it was more lottery and not merit based.”

Looking Ahead

Gomez is relieved for the funding, though. The artist says the most they’ve made in a long while is $40,000 a year. In 2020, most of Gomez’s performing work disappeared. While some gigs are starting to trickle back, prospects for Gomez’s mainstay—teaching fashion classes at City College—are looking bleak, as the institution struggles with its own enormous financial challenges.

“So even with the YBCA grant, it’ll still be really hard,” Gomez says.

Unsurprisingly, Gomez says they plan to use their new monthly revenue stream to cover basics, like groceries and bills.

“Nothing special,” Gomez says. “I’m not going on vacation, no.”

YBCA’s Cullinan says she welcomes all feedback and is committed to finding a future for the Guaranteed Income Pilot. The organization is planning monthly surveys of willing awardees to track changes over time in economic security, well-being, health and artistic activity, as well as conducting personal interviews with them to further understand the program’s impact.

“I think it’s important to understand that this is a pilot,” Cullinan says. “And a pilot or an experiment is a way to learn.”



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