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Leahy Bill Would Give Artists Full Value for Donations

State of the Arts


Published March 28, 2007 at 9:33 a.m.

It's been a grim decade for arts funding, between federal and state cuts to arts organizations and a precipitous dip in private philanthropic donations. In an era of heartrending disasters from tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes, giving money to artists and other traditional nonprofits has perhaps been considered secondary.

The general public probably does not know that there's also been a significant decline in donations of art from artists to the country's museums - in large part because the feds removed financial incentives to do so, explains Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council. Artists can only claim, as tax deductions for their donations, the value of the physical materials used to create the artworks. Not the time, effort and skill that went into them. Not the price the artworks might have fetched if sold in a gallery - that is, "fair market value." Collectors, on the other hand, can claim the full value of artworks they donate.

Since Congress slashed funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, legislators have had little will for ameliorating the discrepancy and thus assisting individual artists in this small way, suggests Aldrich. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is an exception. In between rounds with the Bush administration as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has found time to advocate for a quiet little bill that would create the "Artist-Museum Partnership Act."

S. 548 specifically reads: "To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide that a deduction equal to fair market value shall be allowed for charitable contributions of literary, musical, artistic, or scholarly compositions created by the donor."

In fact, this bill or something close to it has been brought before the U.S. Senate for each of the last five or six years, according to Aldrich. He credits Woodstock painter Peggy Kannenstine with originally "putting this in front of Leahy." It's no surprise that the senator, an avid photographer, has directed some of his righteous indignation toward an artistic iniquity, but the rest of Vermont's Congressional delegation has supported the cause as well. "For that purpose, our part is done," says Aldrich. "Our job is to make sure it gets reintroduced year after year - it often takes up to 10 years to get a bill passed." (Georgia Democrat John Lewis has introduced a corollary bill in the House.)

S. 548 does not specify how the value of an artwork is to be assessed, or who would be qualified to make such an appraisal. If that seems like a glaring omission, Aldrich suggests it's intentional: "That would confer undue power on whoever were named," he explains. Instead, an individual artist sets the value of a work based on what he or she generally earns for similar pieces. If the IRS then later objects, it is up to the artist to justify the amount.

If the bill passes this year, it will be a relatively minor but nonetheless sweet victory for artists. Aldrich says he's optimistic, and believes the legislation would open the door for artist donations to, say, auctions for nonprofit fundraisers.

Now, if the NEA and, closer to home, the Vermont Arts Council, can just get the budgets they're asking for . . . Stay tuned.