Twenty-five St. Paul artists will receive $500 a month for 18 months in an experiment meant to boost the city's creative workforce — and inspire copycats across the country.

Springboard for the Arts announced Monday one of the nation's first guaranteed-income programs aimed at artists, giving no-strings-attached cash payments to a randomly selected group of people in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods.

Funded by the McKnight and Bush foundations, it's meant to work with St. Paul's People's Prosperity Pilot, launched by Mayor Melvin Carter last year, which is testing guaranteed income, an increasingly popular mode of providing direct, steady assistance to families in need.

"The day Mayor Carter announced that St. Paul was going to do a citywide pilot, we said, 'Whoa, we want to do that,' " said Laura Zabel, Springboard's executive director.

"Of course, our first priority is that this is direct, unrestricted support for artists," she said. But because it's connected to the city's work, "we'll be able to do some research and demonstrate the value of supporting the creative community in the context of this bigger policy work that's happening at the city and national level."

The pilot, which starts this month, comes at a critical moment. The arts and culture industries have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. During the quarter that ended in September, the national unemployment rate averaged 8.5%, but 55% of dancers, 52% of actors and 27% of musicians were out of work, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Artists are nearly four times as likely to be self-employed as other workers, the NEA has found — about 34% of them compared with 9% of all workers.

Unlike most arts funding, which is competitive or tied to a project, this income can be used for anything. "Part of being an artist is so much volatility and so much uncertainty month to month," Zabel said. "A particularly interesting question that we want to investigate is: What does even baseline stability allow?"

A nonprofit with offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls, Minn., Springboard specializes in pilot projects and quick action. A week into the pandemic, Springboard began getting $500 emergency grants into artists' hands.

It will randomly select the 25 artists from among those who applied for emergency funds and live in neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, as well as "displacement and disinvestment" over decades. At least 75% of recipients will be Black, Native or people of color.

"Springboard for the Arts is a vital partner in our work to ensure no one is left behind in this pandemic," Carter said in a news release.

Zabel suspects this program could make a difference beyond the lives of the artists, helping to sustain neighborhoods. Might it even help artists stay put?

"It's the oldest story in the book," she said, "of artists getting displaced along with other people when neighborhoods start to attract investment and development."

A similar experiment focused on artists and creative workers will soon start in San Francisco, where Mayor London Breed called artists "an essential part of our long-term recovery." There, more than 100 artists will receive $1,000 a month for six months beginning in May.

Some 2,000 people already have applied, said Deborah Cullinan, chief executive officer of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which is managing the program. "It just goes to show you how many artists are working and trying to hold on."

The Yerba Buena Center has long been working to rethink funding systems that are transactional or inequitable, Cullinan said. "How do we shift resources directly into people's hands and get out of the way?"

Cullinan and Zabel have talked for months about their projects and the questions they might pose. "Everyone watches what they do," Cullinan said of Springboard. Some questions would apply to anyone receiving a guaranteed income: Is their housing situation stable? Do they have access to health care? How about food security?

But Cullinan believes that artists, in particular, shape their communities. So she's curious about how these artists, freed from some of the pressures of the gig economy, might engage differently or more deeply with the broader world.

"It's going to have a ripple effect," she said.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna