Hey Artists: You’re Business Owners

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As artists and freelancers, we know that the vast majority of systems—even and especially philanthropic systems and nonprofit systems—are not designed to take care of us. This is especially true with respect to financial systems, government systems, the IRS, employment and unemployment systems: all these major institutions and superstructures that privilege corporations and 501c3s, not individual human beings. It can be easy to reject them all, almost instinctively. Because of this, I want to share a story about the last year that might be helpful the next time we need support from these systems that are, truly, not designed for us.  

In March of 2020, when the arts and culture sector shut down almost overnight, I had quit my job and moved in temporarily with my (extremely awesome and patient) father in California. I was sleeping in our guest room, job searching, and I was already on partial unemployment, spending what pocket money I could scrounge together on burritos and a single ticket to see Steph Curry’s return to the Golden State Warriors after an ankle injury. In March, I went to Dawoud Bey’s brilliant museum show at SFMoMA and a lovely indoor gala for the site-specific theater company We Players, but by March 14, my dad’s ballet tickets were canceled, and all live performances were closed. Even though I was already “in crisis” with respect to full-time employment, I was lucky to already be unemployed and in the system. That’s fully terrifying. 

I was also privileged to have some stable self-employment income, a savings account, a safe place to live, and access to medical insurance—so many artists, nonprofit workers, and freelancers do not have access to these types of resources. We are part of what is called the “precarity economy,” people living check to check, gig to gig, with little savings and no safety nets. Because state-run unemployment is focused on people who are in between W-2 jobs, and we do not pay into unemployment insurance, freelance workers and independent, self-employed artists were excluded from the earliest rounds of disaster relief from federal, state, and local governments because we were not part of traditional employer-based systems. We are expendable whenever things get tough, budgets get tight, programs get cut, and when global pandemics hit. 

But because of some brilliant advocacy efforts on behalf of freelance workers, artists, and many others living and working within non-traditional employment systems, slowly but surely, new systems emerged to support freelancers and artists. One of them was the Paycheck Protection program, or PPP. “But I’m not on a payroll, this doesn’t apply to me!” said every artist in the US when the PPP rolled out, and it’s true—the program as designed was imagined as a way to keep employees on payroll at their jobs, and to keep them off the unemployment rolls in their state. As run by the SBA in its original incarnation, it was an employer-based program. But luckily, because of some fantastic lobbying work, self-employed individuals (meaning anyone who had filed a Schedule C along with their 1040 returns in 2019) were eligible to apply. That’s you! That’s also me. Even though I only made about ⅓ of my income from freelance employment in 2019, because I had filed my taxes in 2019, I was eligible for the program, which reopened for a second round of funding in 2021. 

I did not apply for PPP in 2020 because I was already on state and federal unemployment and did not want to jeopardize that for anything. I was also scared—what if I did something wrong and had to repay the loan? What if I was taxed on the income? What if my tax returns were wrong? There’s no way this would work. But in 2021, I was much more confident in PPP, that it was functioning correctly, that it was not punitive, that it truly was a forgivable loan, and I had also escorted others through the process and processed a PPP loan for a nonprofit. So I decided to find a lender and apply for myself, mostly so I could prove to myself that the program was safe, reliable, and available to freelancers and artists. I’ll have to apply for PPP Loan forgiveness in the fall of 2021, and then the money will convert from a loan to a grant from the government. I have used the money as it is intended, to pay for necessities like rent, groceries, and the costs of running my business, so I do not anticipate that forgiveness will be an issue at all. I will happily share updates as they come, especially if it helps other folks with the forgiveness process. 

So, freelancers, artists, and small business owners, please believe me when I say: this money is yours. This program was intentionally expanded to help support self-employed people, to include us in the Recovery Act and subsequent legislation, and to make sure that small businesses, even those that are service-based or that don’t generate a lot of traditional profit, are supported during this generational health and economic crisis. If the Biden Administration offers another round of PPP, I hope you will consider applying. Nobody has to take this money, but this money is yours by right as a taxpayer and citizen. A lot of your fellow freelancers, artists, and arts advocates worked hard to make sure you could access these funds if you need them. That’s truly not terrifying, in fact, it’s pretty great! 

I’m going to take this a step further: PPP is one example of many that we could look at, including grants, residencies, loans, financial tools, and other opportunities that might not be exactly “right” or “perfect” for you or your practice right now. Sometimes, it can be important to challenge yourself to apply anyway. Use your values to guide you, and make sure that you recognize your privilege, especially your racial and financial privilege, when considering which opportunities and applications are right for you. This advice absolutely applies to accessing low interest loans and mortgages, debt consolidation, health insurance, financial entrepreneurship programs, and other opportunities for small business owners. 

I know from experience that these types of programs are not exactly right for artists and freelancers, but there is so much value and learning that you can draw from these programs if you are willing to make the connections yourself, which usually just involves doing a quick ‘find and replace’ and receiving artist every time you hear entrepreneur or business owner. The secret is: you are an entrepreneur and a business owner. I encourage you to think expansively about how you can care for yourself and secure your financial future when you take advantage of these types of tools.