How Artists Could Benefit from 2020 Democratic Candidates’ Policies

Baillie Vensel
Nov 9, 2019 9:00PM

Democratic presidential candidates at the strart of the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Being an artist is a profession and an identity. The pressure to continually make new work demands time, space, and financial and emotional resources. According to The Creative Independent’s 2018 “Study on the Financial State of Visual Artists Today,” around one-third of the artists surveyed invest 10 to 25 percent of their income into their practice. For emerging artists, this spending supports practices that are not yet, and may never be, financially sustainable.

Artists are economically vulnerable in other ways, too. As a whole, artists are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed than the general population, and therefore less likely to have access to quality healthcare or retirement benefits. Due to the high cost of arts education, artists may also be deeply entrenched in the student debt crisis, many weathering six figures of debt they aren’t able to pay back. The combination of these realities means that many working artists are struggling to make ends meet, let alone build savings and prepare for the future.

In the Trump era, where America’s political fate feels insecure, the 2020 Democratic primary candidates are promoting policies that could radically restructure the American economy and pave the way for a more equitable future. Each of these programs boasts progressive reforms that aim to better serve the struggling middle- and low-income communities being bulldozed by our rapidly shifting economy. For the particular financial burdens of working artists, these policies could have a real impact.

The Freedom Dividend

Andrew Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” is the first universal basic income (UBI) policy to hit the mainstream since Richard Nixon pushed a version of it through the House in 1971. The program would be partially funded through a value-added tax (VAT) on certain consumer goods and provide $1,000 per month to every adult in America. Since the National Endowment for the Arts discontinued grants for individual artists in 1994, the federal government has practically stopped supporting the work of individual artists altogether. Obviously, $1,000 per month could help anyone struggling to support oneself, but for artists, it could relieve the financial pressures of maintaining a practice and ultimately lead to a bigger and stronger creative class.

The Freedom Dividend would provide support to relieve some of artists’ financial burdens. According to Amy Whitaker, author of Art Thinking and assistant professor of visual arts administration at New York University, this $12,000 a year “could make [artists] not so close to a debt threshold, or experiencing serious stress and anxiety, or having to teach three or four adjunct classes a year. I think because artists are so often cross-subsidizing their art practice from income from other areas…it could give them more time.” Of the 10 artists I spoke with, many agree. Most mentioned that they would put the $1,000 towards paying rent, allowing for basic housing security and thus, making it easier to focus on their creative endeavors. One artist I spoke with, a recent MFA graduate of the New York Academy of Art, mentioned that Yang’s UBI might operate as an “income for being an artist.”

In this way, the Freedom Dividend could function as a stimulus. As economist Ann Markusen wrote in a 2009 article, “Compared to most other groups of workers, artists are more apt to spend what they make rapidly and on other goods and services in the local economy: ongoing training; space to work, perform, and exhibit; other artists’ work.” Because artists are constantly spending on goods and services to produce new work, consumption and investment are entangled. These expenditures align artists closer to entrepreneurs than consumers, but without the revenue or tax incentives required to grow a sustainable business.

According to The Creative Independent’s report, almost 50 percent of artists made less than 10 percent of their income from their art practice. This kind of unsupported investment makes artists incredibly financially vulnerable. While the complexity of UBI makes it hard to predict the benefits of the Freedom Dividend’s $12,000 per year on the general population—since artists may likely increase consumption for their practice, contributing to the VAT while also boosting art production—Yang’s proposal could function as a financial supplement that would boost creative production.

Medicare for All

Perhaps the most popular policy proposals on the debate stage are those that advocate for a single-payer healthcare system. While each candidate has their own take on how to transition to a private healthcare market, and how far to go, 11 of the remaining candidates include some version of a Medicare for All plan in their platform.

Artists and arts workers have long been excluded from traditional healthcare markets. Thirty-four percent of artists are self-employed, compared to nine percent of workers in the general population. Since the U.S. healthcare system is predominantly based on employment, this also leaves a vast creative population of freelance designers, producers, art handlers, and studio assistants with healthcare in their own hands. Further, the lack of centralized labor forces in the arts and the precarious business models of arts institutions, like nonprofits and galleries, make it difficult for even established employers to provide comprehensive healthcare benefits to workers.

An art practice also comes with its own set of occupational hazards. As the artist Artie Vierkant pointed out in an article for ARTnews last year, “Many artists work with volatile materials in borderline unsafe conditions, not out of ignorance but from lack of access to suitable facilities.” And with no official workplace, artists also lack the protection afforded to those that work in other dangerous professions.

If artists have affordable healthcare that works, they will be able to spend less time working jobs outside the arts sector, and more time on their practices. Most importantly, they will be better protected both in the studio and at the myriad part-time or freelance arts jobs that artists frequently perform.

Student debt forgiveness

According to a 2019 study by the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, artists are more educated than the overall workforce, with 60 percent having completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to 39 percent of all workers. Furthermore, the 2014 study “Artists Report Back,” published by the art advocacy collective BFAMFAPhD, noted that of the top 10 most expensive colleges and universities in the U.S., seven were art schools. With over $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the United States, artists who are balancing the high costs of an art practice while making an average of less than $30,000 a year, according to the BFAMFAPhD study, are painfully immersed in the student debt crisis.

Senator Bernie Sanders is advocating for blanket student debt forgiveness, while Senator Elizabeth Warren proposes an income-based forgiveness plan. However, these proposals may not be enough. “If you forgive student debt without changing the system, it just starts to accumulate again,” Whitaker told me, adding that “student debt is the greatest ethical problem of my personal line of work [as an educator].” Sanders and Warren are also proposing a transition to a free public college and university system, which could make public education more regulated and more coveted.

The release of the financial pressure of student debt would allow artists more income to spend on their work, but also allow them to build credit and savings. The transition to a more robust public education system would extend to public arts education and ultimately lead us to an economy with more artists and more art.

Equity among artists

For the 2 million artists living in the U.S.—each with their own economic background, varying access to wealth, and ultimately varying access to artistic practice in general—each of these policies could radically alter their individual lives as artists and the art world more broadly. A UBI would lower the barrier to entry for people considering becoming practicing artists, and potentially decouple independent and family wealth from maintaining a practice.

Just like the general population, for each financial burden described here, the state of affairs is worse for people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ artists. These reforms could provide assistance to the communities marginalized by both the art world and the financial system, allowing these groups to grow a bigger and bolder presence in the arts.

These programs each promise a radical change to our current economy. And while we may be pessimistic about such policies becoming law, their presence in the mainstream media feels like a much-needed change to recent campaigns that have promised compromise first and change second.

Baillie Vensel