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What Is AmbitioUS?
AmbitioUS is an initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) to act as an experimental arm of the philanthropic sector. AmbitioUS is a set of activities to enact a new, values-based economic ecosystem; to afford ownership among those who have been excluded by conventional systems of for-profit and nonprofit support; to center on artists and cultural work that root enabling financial systems; and to act in common cause with others to help artists and all those who share their challenging gig conditions of low wages, unpredictable income, high debt, few assets, and little credit.
Launched in January 2019 after three years of research and development, AmbitioUS is a time-limited effort to take advantage of a moment of tremendous change. There are growing numbers of experiments with alternative economic models that aim to shift capital and ownership to build a more just, sustainable, and healthy world, some of which show real promise to create systemic change. CCI is a long-time service provider and ally of artists, and our unique arts and culture perspective manifests in AmbitioUS in a couple ways.
First, we believe that artists can play an essential role in advancing these alternative economic approaches, and can benefit significantly from them in turn. As such, artists can and should be included as strategic leverage for change. In many ways, the artist workforce has characteristics that make it ripe for influencing alternative economic efforts. Artists, cultural producers, artisans, and creative entrepreneurs are spread across various labor markets, face inequities in their own arts ecosystem that mirror inequities in society more broadly, and share challenging conditions of income insecurity, high debt, and few assets with other segments of the overall American workforce (CCI & National Endowment for the Arts, Creativity Connects, 2016). Also, artists tend to earn less than professionals with similar levels of educational attainment of non-arts fields while carrying substantial student debt, have incomes below the median income of the overall U.S. labor force of $39,280, often juggle multiple jobs, and are 3.5 times more likely to be self-employed than other workers (CCI & National Endowment for the Arts, Creativity Connects, 2016).
Today, many Americans now share the same precarious working arrangements as artists, struggling with income insecurity and the challenges of advancing technology while lacking basic safety nets and workplace protections. Our premise is that if financial innovations and economic systems can work for the large, diverse, and challenged creative workforce, these advances can work for millions of other Americans.
Second, shifting economic power in ways that work for more people requires cultural transformation work. Artists, cultural anchors, and culture bearers can help activate and ground efforts authentically and meaningfully. In addition, economic ownership at place- or identity-based community levels requires cultivating shared cultural identity–common purpose, collective exchange, and unique expression that manifests in how people’s realities and narratives are shaped and expressed. The cultural expression of a community is a vital component of economic transformation efforts, whether made evident by how a community meeting is run or the choice of what is painted publicly on their walls.
In the foreword to his 1962 bestseller Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
The next generation of economic and financial systems is being written today—new worker contracts, portability of benefits, platform cooperatives and the digital economy, and community-centered capital—and if we want to ensure that people who matter to our collective quality of life are sustained and able to be forward-minded environmental stewards, now is the time to situate artists and culture at the center of economic alternatives.