A Basic Income for Screen Artists?

Minister for Arts Catherine Martin announces the BIA scheme (Photo: Alan Betson, The Irish Times)

The Basic Income for the Arts (BIA) pilot scheme was approved by cabinet recently, and applications are now open for the programme, which will fund 2,000 artists and ‘creative arts sector workers’ with a €325 basic weekly income over a three-year period.

According to the dedicated website,

Its intention is to research the impact a basic income would have on artists and creatives work patterns by providing the opportunity to focus on their practice, and to minimise the loss of skills from the arts as a result of the pandemic and to contribute to the sectors gradual regrowth post pandemic. [sic]

The scheme is thus positioned as several things: a research project, a support for creative workers, and a ‘sectoral intervention’, acknowledging the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on performers especially. Many agree that the sector suffered more than most during the pandemic and associated lockdowns. The closure of performance venues, arts festivals, concert halls, galleries, and other audience-facing activities saw many lose their livelihoods as authorities sought to minimise the human contact and interaction that is central to live performance and other forms of artistic expression and exhibition. The scheme is based directly on the recommendations of the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce, convened in 2020 to examine how the arts sector might adapt and recover from the challenges exposed during the pandemic.

Who is eligible?

One of the big unknowns before the BIA initiative opened for applications on April 12th was the question of eligibility: who exactly should apply? Definitions of art, the artist, culture, and creativity can be nebulous, spanning many activities in areas of practice that span the art/commerce spectrum from the mass market (e.g. pop music) to the non-commercial realms of the fine arts (e.g. sculpture). Many activities between these poles produce creative content in industries based on hybrid forms of public-private funding and finance (e.g. the film and television production sector). Criteria for selecting recipients of a basic arts income, then, would embrace larger questions of the nature of art itself, and those who produce it.

The Arts Act 2003 defines ‘the arts’ as:

any creative or interpretative expression (whether traditional or contemporary) in whatever form, and includes, in particular, visual arts, theatre, literature, music, dance, opera, film, circus and architecture, and includes any medium when used for those purposes.

Accordingly, the BIA scheme lists those nine areas of activity as the main focus, although extending its reach beyond the ‘artist’ to the ‘creative arts worker’ is an interesting and pragmatic step that opens up funding to individuals who can not normally apply for direct support from funding bodies like the Arts Council. In the performing arts, such occupations include backstage roles like the design of sets, props, makeup, costume, sound, and lighting. Some below the line film work is also eligible: editing, cinematography, lighting, costume, make-up, hair design, and more. An illustrative list of eligible roles is provided in the scheme details, although it is stressed that the list is not exhaustive. Any worker who considers their contribution to be creative is welcome to apply, providing they can meet the ‘evidence’ criteria (below). Equally informative is the list of roles specified as NOT eligible: arts administrators, craftspersons, many design fields (e.g. furniture, fashion), film technicians and operators, and many others. While some of these roles seem obviously non-creative (gallery hanger, for example), the line is less clear with others (e.g. film editor assistant; potter), underlining the sometimes arbitrary distinctions between creative, technical and crafts work in the field of arts and cultural production.

Basic Income for the Arts launch (Source: Independent.ie)

How will it work?

Following the application period, there will be a ‘non-competitive’ random selection process from among all applicants meeting the eligibility criteria. 2,000 individuals will be selected. During the three-year scheme, their activities will be monitored via journal keeping, questionnaires, focus groups and other ‘data requests’. As is often necessary for this type of research project, a control group will also be selected, in this case from the cohort of applicants who are not selected for the trial. This group will be paid the equivalent of two weeks’ basic income per year in return for participating in the data-gathering process to compare their activities with those of the funded individuals.

The weekly €325 payment is treated as self-employed income and is liable for tax like any other income the participants earn – and they are of course free to take on as much or as little paying work as they like. Some may work as normal while others may choose to use the BAI as subsistence while writing or developing work for future production – important activity that is often an unpaid but necessary stage of the cultural production process. Where applicable, BAI recipients will also continue to benefit from the Artists’ Tax Exemption.

The government is keen to state that this is not a Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme (it can’t be, as it selects only a sample of participants from the universe of artists and creative workers). However aspects of universality are detectable in the random selection process. There is no means test and no evaluation of the merits (artistic or otherwise) of the applicant’s activities. There is, of course, a need to demonstrate eligibility for the scheme as a bona-fide arts/creative worker by providing two pieces of evidence from the following list:

  • Evidence of membership of a relevant resource or representative body, and/or:
  • Proof of income from work as an artist or a creative arts worker, and/or:
  • Proof of active engagement within relevant creative field/art form.

Those not yet sufficiently established in their careers to meet the above criteria may apply as a ‘recently trained applicant’ if they can provide evidence of ‘a qualification or training’.

Comment

Given our primary focus here on the screen industries, what is of most interest to this blog is the scheme’s applicability to screen workers. The ‘evidence of membership’ proof is particularly revealing. Specific organisations are named, with no indication that membership of alternative representative bodies will be considered. While it is not mandatory to be a member of one of the favoured organisations to qualify, non-membership places a greater onus on an applicant’s ability to provide evidence in the other two categories. Named organisations listed include specific trade unions (Actors Equity, MUI, Irish Writers Union), guilds (Writers, Screenwriters, Screen Directors, Screen Composers), resource centres (Writers Centre, Contemporary Music Centre), and professional associations (Dance Ireland, Society of Stage and Screen Designers). The scheme therefore privileges certain organisations over others. SIPTU’s Film and Entertainment branch, the union that represents many eligible film grades, is not on the list. Neither are various guilds representing many other eligible screen workers including cinematographers, art directors, costume designers, editors and several more.

It is of course questionable whether the pilot scheme should apply at all to the 6,300 or so freelance film and television workers identified in SPI-Olsberg’s 2017 Economic Analysis of the Audiovisual Sector in the Republic of Ireland. Following celebratory reports earlier this year that 2021 (despite the ongoing covid measures) was the most successful year ever for film and TV production, it was not self-evident that film and television drama workers would be eligible for the basic income trial, especially as the film and TV drama industries do not seem to be in particular need of the ‘sectoral intervention’ that is one of the main justifications for the scheme. With over €500 million in production spend last year, one would imagine it was a good year for screen workers, as labour costs are typically well over 50% of production spend. And while not all of those labour costs go to Irish workers, film and TV work is nevertheless in a far better place than other sectors like music and performance arts, where activities were much more curtailed during the pandemic.

Without knowing more about the random selection process, it’s hard to know how much of the €105 million allocated to the BIA scheme over three years will go to the screen sector, adding to the substantial public funding that underwrites screen production in Ireland.

Published by Denis Murphy

Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow, Film Department, School of Creative Arts, Trinity College Dublin

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