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Gemma Dunleavy
Via Instagram/@gemmadunleavy_

Is Ireland’s proposed ‘basic artist income’ a good idea?

The government’s plan to offer 2,000 artists a weekly wage has divided the country’s creative community. We ask Irish musician Gemma Dunleavy and DJ Air Jackson to weigh in

Last week (January 6), the Irish government proposed a “once-in-a-generation” scheme to help the country’s creatives thrive in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Around 2,000 artists, musicians, DJs, actors, and other performers would be entitled to a three-year basic income, its proponents suggested, pending a public consultation.

If all goes well, the scheme is set to provide a specific number of people working in the arts with a weekly payment, though the exact amount is yet to be determined. The current suggestion is equivalent to €10.50 (or £8.75) per hour, which notably falls short of Ireland’s living wage, at €12.90 per hour.

Fronting the proposal is Catherine Martin – the Irish minister for tourism, culture, arts, Gaeltacht, sports, and media – who leads an Arts and Culture taskforce established to help creatives recover from the “unprecedented damage” caused by coronavirus. Martin previously stated that the Irish government was committing about €25 million (£20.87 million) to the scheme, scheduled to run from early 2022.

Unsurprisingly, many Irish artists (and followers who enjoy their work) have responded to the news with a mix of enthusiasm and pride at Ireland’s belief in the importance of arts and culture. “This is the most forward-thinking scheme ever considered for the artist community in Ireland,” reads one comment under Martin’s announcement of the public survey that will help define its terms.

“This is a step towards equality and a chance for underrepresented people in the arts to concentrate solely on their work,” reads another comment, “like their peers from more affluent backgrounds do.”

However, the proposal has also raised a loud critical response, with other users questioning why artists alone should be granted a basic income, and how the government will define who is eligible for the scheme. If the definition is too narrow, they suggest, it risks excluding up-and-coming creatives who don’t have the time or resources to create art on a regular basis. If it is too broad, then the scheme may be open to exploitation.

Praxis, an Ireland-based artists’ union, also stressed the inadequacy of current plans for the scheme back in December 2021. “We note that the scheme has been valued at €325 a week,” the union wrote in a social media post. “Which does not allow a person to live decently in Ireland today.”

Below, two Irish artists – musician Gemma Dunleavy and DJ Air Jackson – share their respective opinions on the government’s proposal for a Basic Income for the Arts. You can also add your own voice to the conversation via the public survey, which runs until January 27.

Gemma Dunleavy, Musician, Dublin

“My first reaction to the scheme was relief. Not only will it help artists to bridge the gap between where they are now and living independently off their work, but it gives confidence and reassurance that our work is valued by our country and the systems in place. Asides from the obvious financial hurdles, this is something I see as a deeper issue. Going to the social welfare (office) after I’d moved back from the UK to study music really hit home for me. I was told to go a look for a ‘real’ job by one of the officers there. Luckily I’m stubborn and my practice remains my number one priority, but I’ve seen many artists forced to leave the country, or be forced to prioritise paying rent or supporting a family so much that they’ve had no choice but to change careers. 

That being said it’s eight years later and I’m still in my family box room because the risk of my priorities needing to change – especially with the uncertainty of the industry at the moment — is too great with no financial support from the systems in place. I work two side jobs alongside the music/art I make because I don’t want my work to be compromised by the lack of respect the arts is given by our state. This isn’t sustainable and I’m so glad to see these changes beginning to happen. 

I don’t know any artists here that continue their practice for any other reason than they can’t live without it. I’m from an area that is so rich in history, art, and stories. The number of artists from working class backgrounds are extremely low because of the extra pressures we face. Imagine if we had the freedom to turn our experiences into art without worrying about the people we support or the roof over our heads? Our country would have so many time capsules and moments documented that would become a map of our inner city culture and history.

We are a country known for our writers, our music, our stories and looking at the talent we have and how we’ve been on our own up until now for all these years, no amount could go far enough. 2,000 artists is a small number. We shouldn’t have to fight or compete for this support so I hope the number of recipients rises when it gets up and running. I’m staying positive and hopeful though.”

Air Jackson, DJ, Producer, and Record Label Owner, Dublin

"The broad skepticism that we are seeing from the music and arts industries tells its own story – there is no trust in this government from our community and rightfully so. For two decades these two political parties have overseen the complete decimation of Irish nightlife and the physical demolition of almost all of our cultural venues. This is further amplified by the fact that the music and arts sectors have been thrown under the bus time and time again over the past 24 months, with zero consideration for our livelihoods. This same government has promised us licensing reform year after year and have done nothing to follow through. 

An additional concern for me would be the question about who is this really going to benefit? Genuine ‘up and coming’ artists (the ones who play fewer shows and most need these supports) are not likely to qualify as professional artists, and our actively touring DJs have mostly relocated to the UK, Germany, or Netherlands, where there are far richer nightlife scenes and an ability to earn liveable money. Whilst in theory this should be something that carries optimism, it’s hard not to feel that this is a hollow PR exercise based on the remorse for an industry that has been steamrolled by this government.”