A Basic Income for Artists

the Irish Experience

By Joan Somers Donnelly

In Ireland, 2,000 artists and arts workers get 325 euro a week for three years (2022-2025) as a pilot for a Basic Income for Artists (BIA, the Irish word for ‘food’). An inspiring example for fighting financial instability in the arts?


This scheme is the outcome of a task force formed by the government during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, addressing how the cultural sector could best be protected from the impacts of the lockdown. The idea of a basic income for artists had first been presented by the lobby group the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) a number of years earlier. In 2020, the task force gave the NCFA the opportunity to lay the idea on the table again for serious consideration.


The 2,000 recipients include representatives from all art forms, age groups, ethnicities and counties of Ireland: 707 visual artists, 584 musicians, 204 artists working in film, 184 writers, 173 actors and artists working in theatre, 32 dancers and choreographers, 13 circus artists and 10 architects. They were randomly selected from over 9,000 applicants.


“It feels like winning the lotto. When I was working two or three days a week temping in offices, I had two days in the studio, and then I just felt under this pressure to get stuff done and be productive. Creativity takes time though, you need time to do nothing. Basic income means I can quit temping and be full-time in the studio. I had been considering moving to Belgium to do a masters, but now this is kind of paying me to stay in the country.”

Elinor O’Donovan, 26, visual artist based in Cork city.

“Getting the basic income is a kind of recognition of the work you do. For a lot of artists that have given up on art or gone to another country, part of it was that they didn’t feel recognition here. It makes no sense to spend huge amounts of money training people in the arts, to then see them go and work in other countries.”

Michaële Cutaya, visual artist, art writer and chair of the working group on BIA within Praxis, the new Artists Union of Ireland.

“It’s intangible, the benefit of not being stressed about money. It doesn’t let me make a huge amount more, as making films is expensive, but it allows me time to think about projects and apply for funding. I’ve never had anything like that, the stability and the expansive time; that is the most life changing part of it for me. Guaranteed money for a time frame that is probably the time frame we should be thinking about in terms of being able to develop work.”

Mark, 35, filmmaker based in Dublin


Critics of the scheme, such as the art critic Chris Hayes, say that there is a gap between the arts sector’s interpretation of the scheme and the narrow economic focus of the Irish government’s agenda. Hayes theorises that policymakers are interested in artists and art workers, not because they want to fix income precarity, but because they understand that it is the income precarity that makes them an interesting case study for the wider economy. The BIA, in this context, is a way of testing what happens if you throw scraps to precarious workers, just enough to keep the market in motion.

A small proportion of artists receiving money will not transform the arts scene or make it more sustainable if there is still not enough space for artists to make and present work in, and if the housing crisis continues to drive young artists out of the country. According to Hayes, “everything that is destroying Ireland and creating the hardship that artists face will be untouched by the basic income scheme”.

Is this Basic Income for Artists just a way of testing what happens if you throw scraps to precarious workers, just enough to keep the market in motion?

Praxis was also suspicious about why this government, with its neoliberal leanings, would support a basic income scheme at all. The union argued that the focus of the pilot (and how it is assessed) should be on wellbeing and not productivity. That’s why recipient artists are being asked to keep diaries during the experiment.


What happens when the scheme ends in 2025 is very uncertain. Many in the arts hope the results will legitimise a universal basic income, but it is unclear what level of commitment the government has to either a BIA for artists or a universal BI. If they do establish a broader scheme, there will be a lot of questions to answer around its implementation:

  1. The lottery system of selection works well for the pilot, but how will recipient artists be selected in a bigger scheme? How many artists will the government decide Ireland needs, or how many artists will the government support?
  2. The initial idea was a scheme for artists. It was broadened to include art workers, but the precarity of artists does not necessarily apply to art workers who might have more regular contracts. Will it be broader than just artists, and will this undermine the aim to stabilise precarious workers?
  3. How will the payment affect other social payments? In the current scheme, the payment is counted as income. Praxis has heard that a number of artists with disabilities were selected for the scheme but declined to participate out of fear they would lose their medical card (entitling them to free medical care) if they earned any further income from their practice – putting them over the earning threshold for receiving a disability allowance and medical card. Will artists with multiple precarities be less able to benefit from the scheme?


Both Hayes and Cutaya see potential for the recipient artists to create different conversations around how to foster more collectivity in the arts and how to oppose the neoliberal logic behind the development of this scheme. Cutaya: “Maybe the basic income can make people more willing to take a risk to fight for better conditions. There are unhealthy patterns, behaviours, like unpaid internships, unpaid work; inequalities that are built into the arts system. If situations are not so precarious, because you know you at least have a basic income, you might be more willing to challenge unfair conditions.”