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60 More San Francisco Artists Receive Guaranteed Income Payments Through YBCA

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Javier Reyes sits on the stage of a church while a youth band plays behind him.
The San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists has given Javier Reyes more flexibility to work on a youth development project at City Life Church. (Alexa Trevino)

For the poets, musicians and visual artists receiving its $1,000 direct deposits every month, the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists (SF-GIPA) has been a lifeline in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But not everyone was pleased with the way SF-GIPA was rolled out in May 2021. Critics argued that the Mayor’s Office should have selected an organization embedded in communities of color to administer the program—instead of the large, white-led institution Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). And some took issue with YBCA narrowing down the final pool of 1,409 eligible applicants to 130 recipients using a randomization tool (essentially, a lottery system) rather than determining which artists faced the biggest financial hardships.

YBCA sought to remedy some of these issues in the selection process for SF-GIPA’s second cohort, which the organization is publicly announcing today. Thanks to funding from Jack Dorsey’s #StartSmall foundation and a donation from billionaire McKenzie Scott, which supplanted the city’s initial investment with $3.5 million, 60 additional artists began receiving monthly $1,000 payments between October 2021 and February 2022—funding which will continue for a total of 18 months.

While the first SF-GIPA cohort was selected through a public application process—the restrictions for which included an income cap and specific zip codes hit hardest by COVID-19—the second cohort was nominated by six partnering organizations, with years of grassroots work in their communities, that YBCA is calling the Creative Communities Coalition for Guaranteed Income.

“The organizations that we’re partnered with in this program were organizations that are cultural, spiritual, political leaders and anchors of their communities,” says Stephanie Imah, senior manager of artist investments at YBCA.

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Those organizations include Galería De La Raza and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, both social justice arts spaces open since the 1970s; Black Freighter Press, the publishing house co-founded by San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin and writer Alie Jones; Dance Mission Theater and San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, both performing arts organizations that center artists of color; and the Transgender District, which formed in 2017 and offers career development and housing assistance programs for trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Imah says YBCA let each of the six organizations choose 10 artists based on their own criteria. With so much need among San Francisco artists, YBCA wanted to avoid creating an “oppression Olympics” dynamic where artists must put their trauma on display to compete for funding. “For us working with these partners, it was really trust-based,” Imah says. “It was really leaning on this ethos that you are rooted in your communities, you are the best deciders of what your community needs and you are the closest to the issues.”

YBCA partnered with six community organizations to nominate 60 additional artists for the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists. From left to right: Ani Rivera of Galeria de la Raza, Jenny Leung of Chinese Culture Center, Rodney Jackson of SFBATCO (seated), Jiatian Wu of Chinese Culture Center, Ivette Diaz of Galeria de la Raza, Christian Medina Beltz of YBCA, Stella Adelman of Dance Mission Theater, Stephanie Imah of YBCA and Aisa Villarosa of YBCA. (Alexa Trevino)

Imah says YBCA chose the partnering organizations not only for their connections to artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists, but because they’re trusted by people who aren’t the typical audience for a capital-A Art institution like YBCA: immigrants and refugees who aren’t fluent English speakers, sex workers and people who’ve experienced homelessness. Many of the selected artists are involved in community organizing, often without pay. And all of them were hit hard with financial losses during the pandemic.

“This went to artists who were the heartbeat of the city, and who give so much to the city,” Imah says.

Giving artists room to flourish

Javier Reyes is a perfect example of the type of artist YBCA wanted to reach. A poet nominated for SF-GIPA through Black Freighter Press, Reyes is a Christian faith leader and youth mentor born and raised in San Francisco. He connected with Black Freighter when he hosted a free writing workshop during the early part of the pandemic.

Javier Reyes does youth ministry work at City Life Church. (Alexa Trevino)

Reyes is used to working 10-hour days. Now, thanks to the Guaranteed Income payments, he can afford to take the summer off from his job at 100% College Prep to focus on building an e-sports lounge for teens at City Life Church in the Bayview. (Reyes says he got a $10,000 grant to pay youth to set up the facility; he’s not making money from it himself.)

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to get kids into college to think about the industry of video gaming and entertainment,” Reyes says.

Reyes considers himself a bridge-builder between the arts, San Francisco’s Black and Brown youth and the philanthropists who have the ability to fund much-needed community projects. Cultivating those relationships is often unpaid work. But guaranteed income gives him more freedom to focus on that, and the ability to turn down underpaying gigs.

“As artists, we just don’t use our money for us. We give back to our community,” Reyes says.

The e-sports lounge in progress at City Life Church. (Alexa Trevino)

For another SF-GIPA recipient nominated by the Chinese Culture Center, Kar Yin Tham, the guaranteed $1,000 per month allows her to focus on a film project years in the making: the documentary Home is a Hotel, which she’s co-directing and producing. Home is a Hotel follows several residents of SROs, or single room occupancy hotels, as they attempt to rebuild their lives after facing incarceration and addiction or arriving to the United States as immigrants.

Getting the SF-GIPA funding every month means Tham doesn’t need to take on as many corporate video gigs to make ends meet. “A lot of the commercial work that I had worked on is basically profiling these big companies and whatever products they’re trying to do,” she says. “And what I care about is social justice, what I care about is our communities.”

She says guaranteed income is an important way to support projects like Home is a Hotel, which centers the most vulnerable members of society—the kind of story that typically doesn’t get funded in Hollywood. “A lot of times the investments are made into either an already-famous director or properties they consider to be easy to make profit,” says Tham.

Kar Yin Tham films b-roll in Chinatown. The San Francisco Guaranteed Income for Artists has allowed her to focus on her documentary about SRO residents, ‘Home is a Hotel.’ (Alexa Trevino)

“The kinds of stories I’m interested in are not usually what’s considered—how shall we say—‘worthy’ in mainstream media,” she says.

Arron Ritschell, a program associate at the Transgender District, observed a similar kind of flourishing in the artists their organization nominated for SF-GIPA. Ritschell says the Transgender District sought out people who were dealing with housing and job instability but didn’t qualify for pandemic unemployment. “We also wanted to prioritize transgender people of color and, specifically, Black transgender artists,” Ritschell says.

Since the Transgender District’s 10 artists began receiving their $1,000 monthly payments in October, Ritschell and their team have checked in with participants in optional focus groups every few months. One artist shared that they’re using the funds to support a film project. Another was able to afford the tradeoff of taking a lower-paid, entry-level job in order to learn new skills, which they hope will set them up to apply for better paying work in the future. And a third artist used the money to buy video equipment and start a YouTube channel, which helped them build a resumé and get a well-paying job in social media marketing.

“That was amazing just to hear that they went from being denied for unemployment and having to rely on sex work and couch surfing,” says Ritschell, noting that they don’t see sex work as a bad thing, but are glad the participants can focus on their art. “Now they’re making the type of income where they’re able to not panic about where the rent money is coming in.”

Arron Ritschell, program associate at the Transgender District, says Guaranteed Income has helped some trans artists out of precarious financial situations. (Courtesy of Arron Ritschell)

YBCA seeks to rebuild community trust

“There’s a community of us that’s really just supporting each other and rooting for each other,” YBCA’s Imah says. “And I think that is probably one of the most beautiful things, especially when you compound that with gentrification, displacement and inability to fund for your basic needs and seeing individuals in other spaces like tech thriving.”

Along with YBCA’s announcement of the Creative Communities Coalition for Guaranteed Income, the organization also published an accountability statement that acknowledges previous criticism of how the program was rolled out in May 2021. “We heard from many community leaders, activists, and organizations the ways in which our outreach and engagement efforts for SF-GIPA fell short. Pivotal conversation that followed affirmed that the pilot design process diminished authentic community input and created barriers around the application process most hurtful to BIPOC artists,” the statement reads in part.

Imah explained that some of YBCA’s advisors, including some leaders of the six Creative Communities Coalition organizations, were critical of the program’s rollout at first. “Now they’re working with us to build [the second phase] in the way that is truly in line with what they believe should have been done in the first place,” she says. “I think for me, that is a healing. That is a healing and an accountability that is rarely seen as a story of an institution, not only being accountable to themselves, being accountable to the community, and then doing the work to make it right.”

Kar Yin Tham in Chinatown. (Alexa Trevino )

Imah acknowledges that implementing SF-GIPA was an imperfect process. Even though artists have received payments since at least February, it took until now to announce the existence of the second cohort, she says, due to a combination of leadership changes at YBCA, a small, stretched-thin SF-GIPA team and changes within the Creative Communities Coalition organizations themselves. Furthermore, the coalition strived for a consensus-based approach, and hit some delays due to COVID illness within the participating group, Imah explains.

In a city like San Francisco, there’s far greater need than a pilot like this one could ever satisfy. Imah hopes SF-GIPA will become a permanent solution to fund the arts as the cost of housing and basic needs remains out of reach for many.

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“This is why we need guaranteed income from the city, and on the federal and on the state level,” she says. “This can’t be the burden of small organizations to [put] a Band-Aid on what is a systemic issue.”

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