Seeding Collaborations: Interview with Springboard for the Arts
In our new series of interviews “Seeding Collaborations” we discuss the rumblings of the art world and explore the possibilities blossoming from current movements. We interviewed Laura Zabel, Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts (Springboard), an artist-run organization based in Minnesota. They have offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls, both of which are on Anishinaabe and Dakota land.
Springboard provides resources for artists to thrive so that they can help build stronger, equitable, and just communities. In 2021, Springboard launched a Guaranteed Income for Artists pilot, a concept that has been forefronted in recent years amidst calls for economic justice and growing labor movements across the globe. We talked with Zabel about the conditions that prompted the pilot, the opportunity for initiatives like this to instigate policy change, and artists’ critical roles in community building and care.
Sophia Park (SP): What movements, whether pre-pandemic or during the pandemic, prompted Springboard’s Guaranteed Income for Artists pilot?
Laura Zabel (LZ): A big part of Springboard’s work is trying to weave artists more fully into larger movements for social and economic justice because we believe that artists should be at the forefront of deeper system changes. Artists have powerful skills that they can bring to those movements. The thing that artists actually need to be successful, to make a living, to make a life in the arts—particularly artists who have been harmed by our existing systems—is structural economic change. And we're not going to be able to do that by ourselves.
One way the pandemic led us to the pilot was the Emergency Relief Fund. Springboard had an emergency relief fund pre-pandemic, and we were able to scale it significantly during the pandemic. The model also helped hundreds of communities across the country start their own emergency relief funds. I'm really proud of that work because it was tangibly important to people. However, it is work that brings into focus something we already knew, which is that emergency relief funding is always going to be stop gap help. Emergency relief can make all the difference for someone in the moment, but it doesn’t lead to the kind of change that would prevent people from needing emergency relief in the future. Because of that experience, we were looking for ways that we could be more involved in system change that would directly impact economic justice. Around that same time, there was an emergent movement around guaranteed income in our city, St. Paul. The mayor of St. Paul, Mayor Melvin Carter, is the Co-Chair of Mayors for Guaranteed Income. St. Paul was one of the first cities to announce that they were going to pilot a guaranteed income program. These are the kinds of signals that drew us to say “Okay, this is happening nationally, globally, and it's happening here in our own community. How can we make sure that artists are a part of this work?” That was our initial entry point into what now feels to me like a really robust community of practice around guaranteed income nationally and internationally.
SP: You mentioned a bit about why artists should be involved in a pilot like this. And I wanted to delve into that, especially with the context that you just provided of the city's own guaranteed income initiatives. Why do you think it's important for artists, culture bearers, and creative workers to be involved in a pilot like this?
LZ: At Springboard, we’re coming at guaranteed income from two perspectives in terms of artist involvement. The first is that artists add value to these movements and can be essential partners, especially around narrative change, storytelling, community engagement and participation. Working with artists who know their community and have creative skills to bring to movement building is eye-opening for people. My experience has been that most people learn to recognize artists' value by actually experiencing it. So a lot of our work in these cross-sector collaborations is to help folks have an initial experience partnering with artists around narrative change or community participation, so that they can experience how it contrasts with past approaches and understand the value of artists in their work. From there, it’s about understanding how to find artists, how to work with them, how to pay them—all those things that we take for granted in the arts community but are actually pretty opaque if you haven't been engaging with artists.
The second goal for us is related to how we build stronger, more durable ecosystems of support for cultural workers, particularly in communities that have been under-resourced or extracted from. We believe there is a need for policy changes that support artists, culture bearers, and creative workers to be able to remain in their neighborhoods and to make work that benefits their community creatively and culturally. We also believe the path to that policy change has to be in solidarity with broader economic justice movements, not in a silo-ed “artists only” approach.
Another exciting opportunity in this work, particularly because we're at the earlier stages of this movement, is the opportunity to do a kind of research that we haven't really been able to do in a lot of our work in the past. We are working with the University of Pennsylvania Center for Guaranteed Income Research on a pretty extensive research process about the impact of guaranteed income on artists and their communities. So far, we know that guaranteed income has the same impact on artists as it does on all people, which is that it creates a safety net. One that allows people to get better jobs, to handle emergencies more easily, to weather family crises, to maintain stable housing, and of course—to rest and breathe.
We are also learning that guaranteed income specifically affects the kind of work that artists are able to create and releases some of the pressure the arts system creates. Particularly the way that system pushes artists to create work outside of their own community for validation or pushes artists to center and relive their trauma to appeal to audiences or funders. We are really interested in understanding more deeply the impact of artists creating cultural experiences for people in their neighborhood and the ways that guaranteed income is a tool for more equitable community development, for more locally rooted economies.
SP: This is a very specific pilot program, but Springboard is also taking a more holistic approach to systems change. I think that's important to note. In terms of the details of the pilot itself, can you talk more about the decision to select artists internally for the pilot versus an open call or an application system? What are some of your considerations when building out the pilot structure?
LZ: First, I want to say one more thing about what you said before, which I think is really important. What feels like such a good fit about our participation in this guaranteed income movement is that it is a full movement of people who are working at this systemic policy change level. But their path to systemic change is through practical direct action. I feel like so much work, especially community based work, gets pulled apart—you're either a policy person or you're a direct service person. I believe in enacting policy change by actually doing things on the ground as practitioners in our own communities, demonstrating their value and having an eye and a view towards policy change from the beginning—we can do both at the same time. These approaches need to be more closely linked.
In terms of selection for our pilot, the pilot is small–only 25 artists in our neighborhood, which is the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, a neighborhood that has been historically disinvested and extracted from and harmed by many economic systems, specifically by the construction of the Interstate highway. It is also a neighborhood that is really rich in other assets like culture and community—other forms of wealth that are not recognized by our existing systems. It's a neighborhood where we're based, where our building is. Part of our thinking was: if we could only support a small number of people, we wanted to do it in the most local way possible. Then we selected the artists randomly (controlled for demographics) from a pool of people who had received emergency relief fund support. Which is, by definition, a group of people who had these sorts of extreme impacts from the pandemic on their livelihoods.
Springboard is trying really hard to challenge ourselves to try to find other ways of resourcing artists outside of competitive processes, outside of processes that demand an extraction of labor from a whole group of people who aren't going to get the resources. And that's hard, right? The whole arts world is set up for everything to be a competition for resources. This is a place where we were able to benefit from the advice and inspiration of the way the City of St. Paul is doing their citywide guaranteed income pilot—the same way that other cities are doing it—which entails establishing common criteria and then letting the selection be both random and anonymous.
Guaranteed income is not a grant, it is not a fellowship, it is a tool for addressing economic insecurity and wealth inequality. We have left it up to the participants to disclose whether or not they're getting the support. It's not something we made public or a list we published. Those are the reasons why it wasn't an application process. That is rooted in our values and how we're trying to push on expected practices or the way things are “supposed to be”. We wanted our pilot to be as aligned as possible with the work that's happening in our city and nationally, because we want the research to also be aligned and to be able to be a part of this bigger conversation. Wherever we could, we tried to make our pilot mirror what else was happening in our city and across the country.
SP: As artists, because you're so used to having to fight for resources and competing with other artists that you can't see when certain processes are leading you into those directions. It’s continually reinforced. So that's also part of the work—how do we facilitate that paradigm shift?
LZ: Exactly. I think it's been really moving to hear from artists in this program that the systems we have now in the art world don't allow artists to think about what they might want or what their definition of success is. Artists often have to choose between the impact they want to make with their work and the ability to make a living. It's so counter to what I believe art is for. That kind of over-commodification of art, not even of art, but the commodification of artists and having to sell yourself as a part of validating your work. It's been exciting to try to find these alternate routes and to be able to hear from artists about what the guaranteed income enables and how it opens up different ways of thinking about your practice or what you want to do or who you're making the work for. The pilot has definitely already influenced some of our other programs and how we're thinking about other ways of resourcing artists.
SP: What are some of the challenges that you have faced so far in the pilot process?
LZ: One of the things we've learned is that there's real clarity in the broader guaranteed income movement that these local pilots are just pilots. They are meant to create a body of evidence, research, stories that contribute to actual policy change that no city government, no individual nonprofit is going to be able to do at scale. What all of these projects add up to is pressure on our existing systems at the state and national level to actually change. And I think the challenge is that. We're not even done with this first phase of our pilot and we already have all this evidence that this works. It’s a challenge knowing we should be doing this for more people for longer. We are working on a second phase, but even that will still be a comparatively small number of people. The challenge is seeing how much impact it has for people and feeling like we don't have the resources to do it at a larger scale. I wish I lived in a world where, when something worked, people could agree, “Oh, let's do that.”
Another challenge is the piece that we were just talking about. The non-competitive, non-award nature of it. It can be hard for people to understand. Even inside the arts, some folks want to ask questions about the productivity of the artists or see some kind of specific output. And that's just not that's not what it's about.
More broadly, I feel like we are in a moment organizationally where we have to question every practice, push against systems wherever we can to challenge ourselves to not be complicit in racist, white supremacist patriarchal systems. We also have a mandate to help artists survive right now. The challenge is where those two things meet, or the challenge of holding that tension. In some ways, I feel like guaranteed income is a place where the equilibrium is more clear. It does have this aspiration and this purpose of pushing against those systems and is also enabling people to live in the world that we live in right now.
SP: I’m curious about how you're thinking about evaluation. How do you navigate people's different stakeholders and their understanding of evaluation given what guarantee income means politically within the country and within the art world?
LZ: One of the things that's been exciting about this pilot has been the opportunity to work with researchers who are really steeped in guaranteed income and economic justice. They're able to draw the connections between our small pilot and all of this work happening across the country. Our lead researcher is Dr. Kalen Flynn, who is also the lead researcher on another pilot for refugee families here in St. Paul. To have artists represented, not just in the policy agenda, but in this very specific body of research that is being developed, is another reason why we're doing this. We want to bring artists into these other kinds of important conversations that are happening. When artists show up in those places, it has this effect of their presence in the neighborhood being seen and understood, and their value being seen and understood, in a different way. That feels important on its own, regardless of the result of the evaluation or the research. So that's been really exciting, and we have not in the past had the opportunity to have that kind of long term evaluation.
Kalen's been working with us since before we launched the pilot. She has a group of artists that she talks to every month. That kind of long-term and deep research and evaluation is newer for us. It is also a piece of where we'd like our work to go more. Not that we need to do that depth of research on everything that we do, but that it's more connected to big picture issues. It's not just sending out surveys; it's connected to these larger aspirations of what we hope the evaluation or the learning can actually do, not just to validate that we did a good job or that this program should get another grant, but that it's contributing to some kind of push towards change at a policy or system level. To do research just to validate your own work or to say you did it, I have less patience for that.
SP: I think you just identified a critical part of this: are you being evaluated for that next grant or are you being evaluated for a meaningful change within the system? I saw you had artists respond in the People, Place, and Prosperity Project and the Photovoice Pilot that seems to be about documentation, the storytelling aspects. How do these projects interact with the pilot and what do you think are the possibilities for them to push for policy change?
LZ: We partnered with St. Paul's Office of Financial Empowerment and hired five locally-rooted artists to design narrative change projects about guaranteed income. They had a small cohort experience where they got to talk to some of the participants in the guaranteed income program citywide, learn about narrative change and then had freedom to create projects that spoke to them and their communities. The purpose of this project was to provide some counter-narratives, because there are a lot of racist narratives around guaranteed income or any social safety net about what people will use the money for and whether we can trust people. And we know artists can have a deep impact when it comes to creating narratives in a variety of formats and in ways that resonate for people beyond a media story or headline.
Often, people approach narrative work around policy change by hiring a PR firm. Instead of a top-down approach, these five artists created projects that really spoke to the experience of their neighbors and the experience of their community. The artists approached the work from multiple artistic disciplines, using personal lenses and languages to communicate what they saw as the impact of guaranteed income. But there's this common thread throughout all of the projects about people being able to breathe; people's sense of deserving and worth—fundamental human experiences and human rights. Artists have this ability to cut to the core of something that might seem like a complex or unfamiliar policy issue and remind us that our neighbors deserve to be able to breathe.
Through these projects, we are also helping folks in economic justice work understand that, “Oh, artists can be these amazing allies, amazing partners.” It’s also exciting to see that the “arts” budget at the city is not the only way they can support artists' work. That, for me, is a huge part of what success looks like—the demonstration of the impact of guaranteed income on artists AND showing our partners that when you have a healthy ecosystem of artists, we all benefit in so many ways.
SP: How do you think about care and how are you practicing it in the work that all of us are doing as in service of artists? How do you think care is woven into initiatives like this and Springboard’s work? How are you practicing care within the organization given that Springboard is artist-run and you are part of the community you serve?
LZ: I love that question. I'll try to not talk forever. I think this work around guaranteed income is fundamental to this idea. One of the most important impacts is that just a little bit of resource each month allows people to care for themselves more effectively. It allows people to do the things that they need to do—to take care of themselves or their families, whether that's taking their kids out for ice cream or fixing their car or taking the day off. I think the idea of care is fundamental to the idea of trust. We have to trust people to know what they need versus what someone else prescribes to them. This foundational idea of trust is really important to this program.
Organizationally for us at Springboard, that is also a value that we try to practice internally, especially during the pandemic: not trying to prescribe or take a one size fits all approach to care. We try to create as many ways as we can for people to take care of themselves, whether that's unlimited time off, full staff time away where we don't bother each other, support for staff to be engaged in their communities, and basic stuff like good health insurance. We recently created a newer benefit for people to do individual coaching or therapy. I think it’s important for all of us to work on self-awareness at our own pace and to have the opportunity to focus on the things that would be helpful for us individually. As much as we can, we try to create systems that allow people to make their own choices and to resource them to find the things they need versus saying everyone gets this one thing. We're always trying to push towards making things more flexible because people are all dealing with their own specific circumstances.
I also want to recognize that being an artist working for an organization that supports other artists during the last two years when artists have been so stretched and stressed is intense. I think we all still have a lot of processing we need to do about the grief, and fear that artists have come to us with, that our peers have come to us with. Acknowledging that it is our job to try to connect folks with resources, but that it takes a toll in terms of the way that it sits on people's hearts and minds and bodies. We’re definitely not perfect, but we're trying. It connects to other tensions, like how we push against systems while showing up and trying to help people navigate those systems. We need to be able to hold the urgency of the moment and the urgency for systems change, right alongside the need for space, for rest, for stepping away, for taking care of each other. It’s a really difficult set of balance to hold. But that's what the work needs.
SP: Is there anything else that you would like for us to share, whether it's about the pilot or Springboard?
LZ: We are working on a second phase of the pilot, so we'll have more about that soon. I'm pretty excited about that. There's also a good hub on the website where people can see the artist projects that came from that narrative change work, which is better than anything I can say.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. To find out more about Springboard for the Arts’ Guaranteed Income for Artists pilot, head to their website.
About Sophia Park
Sophia Park (she/her) is a writer, curator, and arts administrator whose interests lie in how intimacy, communal care practices, and support systems influence curatorial and art practice. She is based between Brooklyn, NY and Gumi, South Korea. She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Oberlin College and M.A. in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts. She currently works as the Director of External Relations at Fractured Atlas and teaches entrepreneurship and the arts at New York University. She is part of slow cook, a curatorial collaboration, and is a co-founder of Jip Gallery. You can also find her running some silly distance, trying to get back into tennis, or dancing somewhere.