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Artists and their federal tax liability

Antonio ‘Gritón’ Ortiz beside one of his conceptual nudes in his Mexico City apartment studio.
Antonio ‘Gritón’ Ortiz beside one of his conceptual nudes in his Mexico City apartment studio.
Eva Hershaw

When you think of Mexico, you may think of illegal border crossings and the 50 percent living below the poverty line. But if you’re an American artist, you’ve got reason to envy your counterparts south of the border.

Thanks to a proposal from famed Mexican muralist David Siqueiros more than half a century ago, artists in his country pay their federal taxes with their art work in a program known as Pago en Especie (Payment in Kind).

The way the program works, artist pay taxes according to how much art they sell. Up to five sales annually means paying the government one art work. If more than five works are sold, the government requires two art works. And no matter how much is sold, no more than six works need to be handed over.

And the submissions - painting, sculpture or graphics - can’t be any old thing. A committee of artists and curators checks the work for quality. Those pieces of art that rate especially high with the committee are turned over to the “national-heritage collection” for permanent exhibition in Mexico City. All other qualifying work is divided throughout Mexico’s public museums and public buildings.

Last year British artists also started receiving a special tax break called “Cultural Gifts Scheme.” They can donate their work - “any picture, print, book, manuscript, work of art, scientific object, or other thing … (of) national, scientific, historic or artistic interest”).
As American artists know, tax credits here go to art organizations, not to artists directly. The U.S. ought to heed the words of José Ramón San Cristóbal Larrea, director of Mexico’s Cultural Promotion and National Heritage Office Art, where art is the national identity:

“Murals were how Mexican history was first portrayed to the public. A country’s culture and its understanding of itself evolve through its art. And that’s something we are in need of, especially now.”

Not just now. After all, civilizations come and go. I’m thinking of Ancient Greece and Old Rome. What lasts, what transcends time, what marks time is art.