Grants assist SF LGBTQ artists

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 18, 2023
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Gia Angel Regalado was selected for an artist grant. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Gia Angel Regalado was selected for an artist grant. Photo: Rick Gerharter

One day in 2021 Gia Angel Regalado received a call from a staffer at San Francisco's Transgender District to inform her about a new grant program aimed at assisting local artists whose finances had been impacted by the COVID pandemic. An artist, activist, and model who performs under the stage name FKA Supernova Girl, Regalado had been able to book some modeling gigs but saw her performance opportunities dry up.

Also working as a hairdresser, who rented a chair at a salon near Union Square, Regalado, 32, saw many of her clients move out of the city due to the health crisis. After being forced to close in March of 2020 under the COVID lockdowns, the salon ended up going out of business.

Meanwhile, Regalado's roommates also decided to move out, leaving her to cover the entirety of the $3,200 in rent for the three-bedroom apartment she had been living in. Although she had been hired in July 2021 as a bilingual services navigator at the health center Strut in the city's LGBTQ Castro district, Regalado made the decision to end her lease and look for a more affordable housing option.

"My whole life took a different turn financially for me," recalled Regalado, who is a transgender woman and in recent months underwent gender-confirming surgery. "COVID really impacted me."

Thus, being enrolled in the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists (SF-GIPA) offered her some fiscal relief. Since October 2021 Regalado has received a monthly check of $1,000, which covers her rent.

"I was so flattered. I was also just so grateful," Regalado told the Bay Area Reporter about being selected for the program. "I feel I kind of struggle with my art being just looked at as meaningful to anyone else than myself. I didn't realize I just made an impact on the community, you know."

Franco Martinez, 27, who is trans and pansexual, also was selected for the SF-GIPA program. Over the last decade they have worked in various capacities within the city's theater community, thus Martinez was greatly impacted by the forced shuttering of local stages at the start of the COVID pandemic.

"It was so funny. At the beginning of the pandemic, in December of 2019, I quit my 9-to-5 job as a cashier at a restaurant — I was earning well enough but these other jobs became more plentiful — to work as a contractor for the Bayview Opera House and as a part-time assistant house manager at the Jewish Community Center," recalled Martinez, who uses they/them pronouns. "I was devoting my work to theater in December of 2019 and the arts. Then March of 2020 came and suddenly what seemed a very sensible decision at the time turned into the worst decision. I lost everything, absolutely everything."

Without a steady income, Martinez was able to receive unemployment checks since they were furloughed from their jobs. But there were few other options to be hired by any other theater productions at the time and earn a paycheck, recalled Martinez.

They received their first check from the city program in March 2021. Martinez had applied for it as a way to help them cover the rent on a new apartment they had just moved into with their partner near the city's Civic Center. They also needed to continue making payments on the loan they took out to attend the Academy of Art, from which Martinez graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting.

"Interestingly enough, I heard about the program by my then-boss at the time at the opera house. Because of the program, honestly, I was able to continue working at the opera house," said Martinez. "It was what I wanted to do. I love that theater and I love the work we do."

Being accepted as one of the artist grant recipients was "life-changing," said Martinez, who initially thought the program would be for only six months until additional funding came in to extend it to 18 months.

"Before I was accepted I didn't want to think about it, but I seriously was considering leaving the Bay Area entirely and moving back to Texas," said Martinez, who grew up in the Lone Star State and still has friends and family in Fort Worth. "It was more of a cushion at the time; with the grant, I could stay in San Francisco. Suddenly, a lot of possibilities I was thinking of pursuing became available."

Last year, the opera house hired them on as an events curator. In October, Martinez oversaw the show lighting for its Halloween event "A Haunting on Third: Death of a Star."

"It was the first show I was allowed to create the look of the whole show. It went over really, really well," said Martinez during a phone interview in early November.

Funding

The city initially funded $600,000 toward enrolling 130 artists in the program for six months and partnered with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to roll it out in the spring of 2021 and oversee the application process. It was extended and expanded after receiving a $3.46 million donation from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey's #StartSmall Foundation and additional funds from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to bring it to $3.5 million, allowing for an additional 60 artists to be selected.

But in response to criticisms from local artists concerned about how recipients were initially chosen, and wanting to ensure more people of color were helped by it, YBCA teamed with six local arts and culture groups and tasked them to each recruit 10 artists to receive the grants. In addition to the Transgender District, another group involved was the gay-led San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company.

Stephanie Imah, who is queer and lives in Oakland, managed the grant program for YBCA. She works for the downtown arts organization as its director of artist investments.

"It feels nice to be in an ecosystem that believes in this model, and we had an opportunity to center artists in this conversation," said Imah.

A guaranteed income (GI) program, Imah told the B.A.R., is a "great model but just really hard to sustain without a wealthy family or other bedrock to constantly funnel in resources to keep the program going."

Were the program to become permanent and scaled up, it would need more than just city funds, Imah told the B.A.R. It would require state or federal level funding through some kind of tax, she said, plus ongoing philanthropic support.

Even if $8 million could be allocated toward keeping the grant program going, Imah pointed out it would only help 400 local artists.

"If it is going to be funded by an institution, it probably needs a wealthy family or endowment to fund it. It takes a lot of money to administer," said Imah, adding a key concern would be what agency is administering it. "If it is implemented at the state, federal, or city level, or implemented by nonprofits looking at more equitable interventions in their community, you need to be advocating for this at a higher, more sustainable level."

And that could be a hard argument to make, noted Imah, considering the ongoing attacks from various quarters on tax-funded investments in the arts.

"I think we are still finding ourselves in conversation of why artists, why support artists? People are not happy to even see GI given to artists. Artists are not seen as the cultural anchors that they are," said Imah.

Speaking to the B.A.R. last fall about the grant program and how it had impacted her life, Regalado said she was still "kind of shocked" to have been selected for it. It was validation, in a way, for her artistic endeavors, she added.

"I love San Francisco and I love the community we have created and protected," said Regalado, who now lives with two other artist friends in the South of Market neighborhood. "It is amazing, even, that we have this opportunity."

The money came with no strings attached or requirement that those selected had to create an art project with it. They were free to decide however they wanted to spend the funds.

"I feel like when I first got the grant I thought I was going to spend that money on my art. But I realized I am my art; I am a walking piece of art," said Regalado. "I need to spend it on whatever makes me feel safe and good. Not having to worry about my rent for a whole 18 months, it has been great. One less thing to think about."

Meant as a pilot program, the grants to local artists have been phasing out since last October, when the first cohort of artists who had been selected stopped receiving their monthly payments. Because she was selected for a second round of grants, Regalado will be among the 38 participants receiving their last check in February. (The remaining 22 will see their last payment in July.)

"It will be unfortunate. I became accustomed to not having to worry about that," said Regalado. "But I am a hustler. I will be fine."

According to YBCA of the 130 artists in the first cohort, 49% identified as LGBTQIA2S. All faced income loss resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Martinez was among that group of artists and received their last check in the fall. They told the B.A.R. they don't view SF-GIPA as an income program but as an investment in the arts by San Francisco residents.

"Because without this grant being given to every one of us in the program, it wouldn't have been guaranteed we would have stayed in the area or been able to continue doing our work," said Martinez, adding that, "this kind of program would be great if it could continue. ... Personally, I would like to see it for the entire city and for everybody who lives here, and in the future, maybe the country."

Of the city's grants to artists, Martinez said, "I think or I hope this program did the same for everybody involved. It kept them going and sustained them while still being able to do what we do and what we love."

With the program ending, Regalado had told the B.A.R. "it is unfortunate" there isn't some sort of ongoing support for members of the transgender community, whether they make an earning as an artist or another profession. (The city has since launched the pilot Guaranteed Income for Trans People, or GIFT, program to provide 55 low-income transgender San Franciscans with $1,200 each month, for up to 18 months. Those selected should begin receiving the checks this year.)

"Not one for artists but for trans people in general; I feel like we go through so much. I feel in a city like San Francisco, where the culture and everything from it came from the people and the community, it is a shame it is not funded by the city. It is funded by the community, basically, you know," Regalado said.

As for herself, Regalado continued to book modeling gigs last year, walking the runway for the Spring Summer 2023 collection of New York-based clothing brand Gypsy Sport. She also is back to work as a hairdresser, renting a chair two days a week at a private salon to see her former clients.

"I am focused on my medical transition. I am taking a lot of time and mental space for me," she said. "I can't really cater to anyone else's needs ... I need to focus on me."

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