Thursday, August 07, 2008

Artists Organizing : Open Thread

In reading a report on artinfo.com today, about how the ADAA is working to change the law so that artists who donate their work to public institutions can be more fairly compensated (or at least as fairly as collectors who donate the same work after buying it), I was reminded of an earlier law that was enacted, on the urging of artists, but then later taken off the books, on the urging of artists, and began to wonder about the power that today's artists in the US have (or rather don't have) through lack of organization.

First the current law in play:
The Art Dealers Association of America has announced a drive to collect pledges for 50 works of art — one for each state — in support of the Art Museum Partnership Act currently before the Senate. In an effort to demonstrate to lawmakers how the act could benefit the country, the ADAA has promised to donate the works to museums located in each of the 50 states if and when it is passed.

The act, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt..) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), and in the House of Representatives by John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), is a bipartisan effort to address the inequity artists face when donating their works to public institutions. Under current law, a buyer who donates a work to a museum may deduct its fair market value, while the creator of that work may deduct only the cost of supplies.

"For too long, artists have been treated unfairly by the tax code, and our nation's nonprofit arts institutions are suffering because of it," said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts and a member of the national committee of collectors and art professionals backing the effort.
I feel it's right for the ADAA and the Americans for the Arts (which includes artists members, but is comprised of a range of arts professionals and nonprofessionals) to champion this legislation, but in thinking through which artist-based organizations are working to get it passed I was somewhat surprised to realize I don't know of any.

Of course, perhaps an artist-only organization isn't really necessary, but there was a time in the US when artists looked more organized and led the charge to change the laws that impact their profession.

In his wonderful book, Landscape with Figures: a History of Art Dealing in the United States, Malcom Goldstein chronicles what today seems a rather embarrassing see-sawing back and forth on whether a tariff should be used to protect American artists from the more popular art of yesteryear being produced or resold out of Europe. As early as 1867 there were calls, from American artists, to impose a tariff on imported art. Congress didn't comply at that time, but in 1883 actually passed a 30% tariff aimed at stemming the mania for European fine art. That percentage seemed to fluctuate a bit over the years, but this duty wasn't totally lifted until 1913 (in response somewhat to the wildly popular Armory Show of that year).

In 1905, though, some American artists were embarrassed enough by the implications of the tariff (i.e., that they couldn't compete on their own and needed their government to protect them) that they organized a protest. In a New York Times article published November 26, 1905, we learn that "ARTISTS VOICE PROTEST AGAINST ART TARIFF; Declare in a Public Meeting They Want No Protection. RIDICULE THE TAX IDEA.":
Carl Bitter, J. Carroll Beckwith, Kenyon Cox, and Howard Mansfield addressed a large audience at the Hudson Theatre yesterday morning at a meeting of the League for Political Education to urge the removal of the duty on works of art. Other artists were on the platform or sent letters to show their sympathy with the movement, and the greater part of the audience rose at the close of the meeting when R. E. Ely, who presided, asked for this expression of their interest in the abolition of the tariff.

"The United States is unique among civilized countries," Mr. Ely said, "in having a tariff of 20 per cent. on works of art. Russia admits works of art free, Turkey charges 8 per cent., and the Fiji Island only 12 1/2 per cent.

"To the honor of the American artists it may be said," Mr. Ely continued, "that they disapprove of this tax; they have fought against the protection they do not want, and taken money from their pockets for the work. But their time is too precious, and this is work for us to do. A Congressman said recently that the tax was just because it was upon a luxury. It is classed with liquor, tobacco, diamons, ostrich feathers, silks, and laces. Do these things rank in the same class with a Sistine Madonna?"

"There is a blush on all our faces at this tax," said Howard Mansfield of the American Free Art League, " and it is our work to make this blush extend to the men of Congress, and to make it the blush that won't come off until the tax does. Our artists are not manufacturers. The Congressmen say they will not lift the tax from a luxury of the rich until they lift it from the necessities of the poor. I maintain that art is a necessity for all. The museums may be said to be the residuary legatees of most of the great art collectors. If the people want art, they must have it, and free art means more art for all the people."

Carl Bitter said he had never heard of an artist who wished to be protected against a work of art 1,00 years old."
Carl Bitter [I think it's spelled "Karl" in some places], and his contemporary artists, apparently had a somewhat different grasp of history from Mr. Goldstein's, who insists that artists were the leaders in getting the tariff passed in the first place, but the passion and spirit of such a meeting stands in stark contrast to anything I know organized by artists to rally support for the Art Museum Partnership Act. Anyone? Perhaps there is no contrast, and I'm merely uninformed. Or perhaps the sentiment expressed by Mr. Ely that "their time is too precious" has become the conventional wisdom and that explains the contrast.

I do, again, feel it is the responsibility of dealers and arts professionals to fight for a more fair arrangement for artists. And it's highly likely that I'm merely out of the loop, but you'd think the press would give equal coverage to artist-based efforts to get Congress to act...where is that coverage?

Consider this an open thread on artists organizing for political purposes. Pros and cons.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Two words: herding cats.

8/07/2008 09:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Nikolas Schiller said...

Artwork from all 50 states, but no artwork from those living in the U.S. territories? The bill excludes artists in living in Washington, DC (myself), Puerto Rico, and other locations that are under the umbrella of the United States government. I'll say the law is a good idea, but poorly written.

8/07/2008 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic, Ed. The ability of artists to donate work at full market value is a great benefit all around. Since artists are always being hit up for donations of artwork, it would mean that, finally, we’d get to have an actual financial advantage in addition to the karmic goodwill we’ve been accumulating over the years.

Previous efforts to organize around this topic may not have had the benefit of Internet access. What we need is a kind of MoveOn.org for artists. Anyone out there want to take on that project? In the meantime, why can’t we rally round the ADAA? Or around Senators Leahy and Bennett, and Representtives Lewis and Ramstad?

But we also need all the non-profits—museums, schools and galleries, arts associations, and any venue that has asked artists for donations—to come out strongly for support of this bill, and to get their constituents to lobby vocally for it as well, because as institutions (and as members within the institution) they stand to gain more than any one individual artist.

8/07/2008 01:36:00 PM  
Anonymous sus said...

Everybody is always getting hit up for donations. Accountants are asked to perform services for non-profits, retailers and restaurants are asked to donate gift cards and manufacturers are asked to donate goods. Large companies are expected to provide support to their communities in the form of foundations and volunteer efforts. They all have one thing in common; only their direct costs are deductible.

An equitable solution might be that items like art and antiques, that have increased in value, may only be assigned the purchase price as their deductible value. That, or everybody should be able to deduct the market value of donated goods and services. Especially the services. Business professionals that work with non-profits performing financial and other consulting services cannot deduct anything because the only equity invested in their donation is their time.

8/08/2008 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I'm in the writer's union (for screenwriting), and it's mind-boggling to me that visual artists don't have a union too. Every other creative profession does. The key is that the top people in the field have to push it forward -- that's how all the "creative" unions got started.

8/11/2008 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

Don't you have to earn so much per year or at some point in order to be considered a professional artist by the US government? I recall reading something about that.

There was a discussion on an art forum about this sort of thing. One guy suggested that the government should clearly define what a person needs in order to be considered an artist by profession. Such as having a terminal degree in art. Needless to say, his opinion was not very popular.

8/17/2008 05:32:00 PM  

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