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The Mexican artist Diego Rivera was an early contributor to the Pago en Especie program, which allows artists to pay tax with art. Detail of the Rivera mural El hombre en cruce de caminos (1934). Wikimedia Commons

Should artists pay their taxes in art?

Our new series, Making Art Pay, asks: how can artists make a living wage? Today we look at Mexico’s policy approach.

From Van Gogh to Rembrandt, from William Blake to John Keats to countless others unremarked, most artists suffer a meagre existence. The notion of “hunger artists”, as Kafka wrote, has a timeless quality that some artists have adorned as a badge of honour. But what has happened to the “starving artists” of Australia, given its sustained 25-year run of uninterrupted economic growth, is particularly jarring.

Large-scale studies over the past two decades have shown that Australian artists struggle at the very bottom rung of society, often earning less than the statutory poverty-level of income. In constantly trying just to stay afloat, more than 60% of Australian artists are forced to hold more than one job at a time, while nearly 10% have an astounding three jobs at the same time.

As a result, most artists in Australia spend less than 50% of their time on their creative vocation. They expend much effort in mundane work, and when not, they expend effort in search of mundane work. One-third of all Australian artists experience some period of unemployment in a five-year period, on average amounting to three months’ worth of unemployment per annum. Furthermore, more recent research shows that things have continued to worsen for artists relative to the broader population.

The author of A Hunger Artist. Archivo Historico Sinaloa/flickr

Yet funding in Australia for artistic endeavours is generally heading in the wrong direction and this is different from the path that other OECD Countries are taking. Historically, although Australia’s government spending on culture, at 1.3% of government expenditure, was roughly in line with what most European countries spent (higher than Poland’s 0.5% but much lower than Estonia’s 3.2%), the worrying point is that the expenditure on culture here is a state of decline. Recently, funding cuts were announced to more than 62 arts organisations.

An Australian Senate inquiry in 2015 noted the need for “creative approaches” to sustain funding in the arts. So we may need to look overseas for innovative ideas, and a pioneering program in Mexico just might provide the sort of example we need.

Art imitating tax

An innovative policy in Mexico allows artists to pay their taxes in the form of works of art. The program, Pago en Especie (“payment in kind”), allows for hundreds of artists across Mexico to pay tax in artwork in lieu of cash.

The design of the program is simple: donations to the government from artists for their work are made as a proportion of their reported sales. For example, if an artist sells 1-5 pieces of art per annum, they will donate one piece to the federal government. If they sell 6-8 pieces, they will donate two, and so on, up to a maximum of six art donations.

The power of this program is that it removes the monetary aspect that distresses artists and instead allows them to channel their creative vigour in a manner conducive to fiscal policy reform.

Much of the economic literature on art as an economic enterprise has never been able to properly discuss or comprehend why “artists are so poor”, and that’s because much of what makes artists suffer has to do with society’s inability to reconcile what is valuable as money and what is valuable as human expression.

Under a program like Pago en Especie, artists do not need to be drawn away from their artistic space to earn dollars, but can rather participate in the tax framework while continuing to remain immersed in their vocation.

This program also has a significant output benefit, through the addition to Australia’s cultural patrimony that submitted artworks represent. As opposed to dollars and cents, artistic contributions forge assets that expand the artistic endowment of Australia.

In Mexico, if a piece of submitted art is of a particularly high caliber, it becomes part of the “national-heritage collection,” which is displayed in a permanent exhibit in Mexico City.

Diego Rivera, photographed in 1932 by Carl Van Vechten. Wikimedia Commons

The other pieces are divided up and sent around the country to fill public spaces such as museums and administrative buildings. Some pieces are also sent overseas as part of international exhibitions.

There are some limitations to the program. Firstly, only visual artists can participate: painters, sculptors, and graphic artists. Secondly, there are questions around the oversight of artwork; and the judgement of their value is also a subjective question. In Mexico, a committee of artists and curators oversees the donation process so that it conforms to set standards.

Thirdly, the Mexican government hasn’t calculated the tax revenue “lost” to the Pago en Especie by artwork instead of cash. However, if the argument of “lost” tax revenue is really what were to dissuade such a program, then it would be a lot wiser to focus on Panama City rather than Mexico City.

With funding cuts for artistic projects across Australia at a time of government “austerity” in the arts, it may be time for a bit of creative fiscal policy by assuming possession of artwork.

The struggling artists of our country, many of whom eke out an existence in penury, require imaginative solutions that combine better funding with smarter programs. As the poet WB Yeats, accustomed to the genteel poverty of his time, said:

I, being poor, have only my dreams. I lay them at your feet. Tread lightly, for you tread on my dreams.

Do you have a story idea for the Making Art Pay series? If so, please contact Suzy Freeman-Greene.

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