San Francisco proposes to pay artists $1,000 a month as part of the movement for a Universal Basic Income, this while the city sees many markers of decline due to the coronavirus, a hole in the city budget and multiple tax increases facing city voters on the coming ballot. 

While an unbalanced Universal Basic Income plan at a difficult time for the city, the move to pay artists is not without precedent on a national scale. 

During the heart of the Depression in the 1930s, the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) through a subdivision called the Federal Arts Project subsidized artists to create art to help the country deal with the economic devastation. 

Similarly, the San Francisco proposal will instruct artists to create art reflecting safe practices during the pandemic. The Depression art focused on the working class and patriotic themes. 

As the website described the art of the Depression era, “The WPA years were perhaps the only successful period in American history when fine art and practical art were one and the same. And crucial to the resulting democratization of culture was a form of expression that addressed the experiences of the working class and was actively shaped by the working class. WPA art favored Social Realism, in the form of public artworks and murals that celebrated industry and labor. These works put art within eyesight of ordinary people going about their daily lives and are consequentially also among the most famous created through the WPA initiative.“

The Federal Arts Project, which ended during World War II, was controversial in its day as the San Francisco move is today. 

The city plan is to run a pilot program for 130 artists for six months. How these artists are selected—indeed, how art is defined—has not be clarified by the city.

The plan is seen as part of a national movement to create Universal Basic Income,  (UBI) an unconditional payment for citizens by government to meet basic needs. The movement for a Universal Basic Income has some momentum with test pilots in places like Stockton. However, when it comes to income for artists, that is not universal but just a subset of the population who create art under certain regulations. It is also not unconditional since the artists are expected to produce works for the payment. 

Calling the payments for what they are—subsidies for artists—moves it away from riding the coattails of the UBI movement. 

In addition, this three-quarter of a million-dollar giveaway comes at a time when San Francisco is hurting financially. 

The city budget of $14 billion has a $1.5 billion deficit. An attempt to close the budget hole is on the November ballot in the form of four taxes: a new business tax built around a business’s gross receipts; an increase of the property transfer tax; a parcel tax for schools; and another business tax calculated by comparing the income of the highest paid managerial employee to the median compensation paid by the company.

San Francisco’s tax base will contract due to citizen responses to the coronavirus. The city has seen increased office vacancies, empty restaurants, dramatic sales tax drop-off, rent drops, much less ridership on public transportation and people moving out of the city.

Art may be necessary for the soul, but the tough times San Francisco faces makes the move financially questionable at best.