This past summer, nationally renowned color-field artist Anne Appleby wanted to gift some $80,000 worth of paintings to the Missoula Art Museum. If these had been paintings that she had purchased from other artists, she could have claimed the full value as a charitable donation on her taxes, likely resulting in a significant reduction in her taxes.
But because Appleby had painted the works herself, she would have only been allowed to deduct the cost of the paints and canvases on her taxes.
The gift didn’t happen.
“This gift that (Appleby) was talking about with us would have represented a real deepening of our holdings and given us the ability to show not only the work she’s renowned for, but also the road she traveled to get to where she is now,” said Laura Millin, executive director of the MAM. “She’s very consciously thinking about wanting to place that work in a Montana museum, because this is the place she’s inspired by in her work. And it obviously would be a major and important acquisition for our museum, which couldn’t otherwise afford to acquire those works.
“But because of the tax issue, she’s not able to do that.”
Frustrated by this and other examples of how the U.S. tax code has inhibited artists from donating their own work to the MAM’s permanent collection, Millin recently joined with several other Montana museum directors and arts organizations in pushing for passage of the so-called Artist-Museum Partnership Act, a pair of identical bills currently winding their way through committees in both chambers of Congress.
At issue is what the bills’ supporters see as an inequity in the federal tax code.
Art collectors who donate artworks to museums may claim the full appraised value of that artwork as a charitable donation on their taxes.
But artists – including musicians, writers and choreographers who wish to donate scores or manuscripts to museums or other nonprofit arts organizations – can only claim the direct cost of the materials used in the production of their art as a donation.
That puts museums – particularly small ones like those found in Montana – in a particularly tough position as they seek to build and expand their collections. With an annual acquisition budget of just $6,000, the MAM isn’t in a position to buy paintings such as those that Appleby wished to donate.
Thus the MAM and other area museums must rely heavily on donated art to build their collections, leaving them in something of a catch-22 in relation to the very artists they exist to celebrate.
“Right now, nobody can afford to buy the art, and artists can’t afford to give it away,” said Millin. “To us, this is ultimately about preserving the great work that’s being done here and enhancing the collection so that it continues to reflect what’s going on.”
Arlynn Fishbaugh, executive director of the Montana Arts Council, said the tax-deduction issue is currently “the No. 1 thing I get the most phone calls about” from Montana museums and artists.
To her, it comes down to fairness.
“There’s such a gross inequity between how artists are treated versus collectors,” said Fishbaugh. “Why shouldn’t they be treated as equal under the law? Why are the contributions of struggling artists worth next to nothing, and the contributions of wealthy donors worth the fair market value?”
The pair of congressional bills, both of which were introduced in early 2009, would in essence bring the tax guidelines for artists donating work to museums in line with those that already exist for collectors. Artists would still need to secure a professional, third-party appraisal of their work, to ensure that the values claimed for donated artwork aren’t inflated.
Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus have not taken positions on the Senate version of the bills, which is awaiting approval by the Finance Committee (which is chaired by Baucus).
Rep. Denny Rehberg’s office did not respond before deadline to a request for his position on the House version, which is awaiting action by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Barbara Koostra, director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana, said the issue is not only one of equity, but also of respecting the value of artists’ contributions to local culture and community.
“Visual artists are asked continually, whether by art-based causes or not, to donate their work,” said Koostra. “We don’t do this to dentists; we don’t call the dentist’s office and ask them to donate a cleaning for every charity auction in town. But we do it all the time with artists. And yet nevertheless, they respond with such remarkable magnanimity. Most of the time there’s a generosity that’s unsung on their part.”
That generosity shows up at Koostra’s door often. Despite the lack of a meaningful tax deduction, many artists nonetheless bequeath their work to the MMAC, out of a simple desire to see their work preserved and shared with the people of this region.
“It seems that this effort (to pass the Artist-Museum Partnership Act) is about starting to recognize what an important part artists play in not only creating great works, but also in enhancing our communities and our cultural resources,” said Koostra. “So I think this bill would bolster the professionality of good artists, as well as help expand the art owned by the people of Montana through this museum, and that’s a really good thing.”
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.