To Revive New York’s Creative Economy, the Mellon Foundation Will Deploy $125 Million to Pay Artists to Go Back to Work

The two-pronged, $125 million program will offer artists guaranteed income and full-time salaries at local organizations.

A closed and empty 125th Street, a street usually packed with people shopping in the many stores along the street. Photo: Kay Hickman.

How can New York’s creative economy bounce back from the pandemic? According to one new program, the answer is simple: pay artists.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is leading the charge on an ambitious $125 million initiative called Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY), which it describes as one of the largest philanthropic efforts to date to stimulate New York’s arts ecosystem.

Its premise is simple: to provide artists with either full-time work opportunities or a guaranteed income to help them—and, in the process, New York’s arts economy—bounce back from financial and career obstacles stemming from the pandemic.

The program, part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York recovery roadmap, will roll out over three years.

Funding for the initiative comes from the Mellon Foundation, with additional support from the Ford Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

According to a February 2021 report from New York State, by December 2020 employment in the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector had declined by a staggering 66 percent year over year, the most devastating drop among all economic sectors.

In a typical year, New York’s cultural scene—from Broadway to art museums—is one of the most robust slices of its economy, generating some $120 billion and providing more than 500,000 jobs. Now, 50 percent of employment opportunities have disappeared across the state, with the percentage jumping to 72 percent in New York City alone.

“The artists whose work helps to sustain us have faced particularly devastating circumstances resulting from unemployment, underemployment, and a lack of predictable paid incomes,” Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander said in a statement. “It’s critical for the vibrancy of our cities that we recognize that making art is work.”

The two-pronged commitment of Creatives Rebuild New York will provide 2,400 artists with no-strings-attached monthly payments as part of a guaranteed income program, a model that is growing in popularity around the country. In late May, Twitter C.E.O. Jack Dorsey donated more than $3 million to a pilot program offering $1,000 a month over six months to artists in San Francisco.

The second half of CRNY is the employment program, which will fund full-time salaried positions (including benefits) for 300 artists in small and midsize organizations across the state. Both the guaranteed income and employment programs are dedicated to artists whose primary residence is in New York State, but are not limited by discipline, according to the Mellon Foundation.

Sarah Calderon, who most recently served as the managing director of ArtPlace America, will lead the initiative’s launch later this summer. An advisory board made up of artists, policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and other cultural workers will convene July 1 to hammer out additional logistics.

“Artists need and deserve to be paid predictable and regular incomes,” Calderon said in a statement. “They are agents of social change, strengthening equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities.”

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