Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Art as tax, tax as art

Artists pay taxes in Mexico and the country benefits for generations. How can this be when artists aren’t typically the wealthiest members of society?

In 1957 artists David Alvaro Siqueiros and Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) visited Hacienda authorities at the Finance Secretariat (Hacienda) with a unique proposal. A friend of theirs — also an artist — heavily in arrears on taxes, faced imprisonment. Siqueiros and Dr. Atl asked, “How about if he pays his taxes with works of art rather than pesos?”

Hugo B. Margáin, an independently minded Hacienda official later to become the treasury secretary, agreed to give it a try. The “Pago en Especie” (Payment in Kind) program was off and running.

Nearly 60 years later, Mexico is enriched by 6,500 pieces of art received through this program. They are housed in the Palacio del Arzobispado just north of the Palacio Nacional and overflow into other exhibit areas and warehouses. This patrimony is considered one of the world’s most valuable contemporary art collections.

And they travel. Hacienda sends exhibits throughout Mexico and other countries. “In addition to lending works of art to museums we currently have shows in Turkey, Russia and a collection on its way to Brazil,” commented Hacienda’s Director General of Cultural Promotion Juan Ramón San Cristóbal. “In the past year we’ve had shows on five continents.”
I met Sr. San Cristóbal last week at the beautiful Olmedo Museum in southern Mexico City. He was there to open a new exhibit in Olmedo’s “Payment in Kind Room.”

The concept of artists paying their taxes in kind is unique to Mexico but is receiving favorable publicity in other countries. The U.S. magazine The Atlantic ran a feature article on Mexico’s Payment in Kind program last month. It explains, “The program is simple—donations are made according to reported sales. If an artist sells between one and five pieces of art in a given year, he or she donates one piece to the federal government. If the artist sells between six and eight pieces, he or she donates two, and so on, with an annual cap of six donations. Only painters, sculptors, and graphic artists can participate, though program administrators are currently considering whether to include performance art as an acceptable means of payment.”

There is a jury to qualify the artists and evaluate submitted pieces. Quoted in The Atlantic, artist Antonio “Gritón” Ortiz says, “You might think we would be tempted to scribble something on a napkin to pay our taxes. But aside from being convenient, inclusion in the program is a source of pride.”

Artist Flor Minor’s show opened at the Olmedo last week. “Architecture of the Intimate” features 24 pieces of art, most owned by Hacienda. The show includes sculpture, drawings, and lithographs. The sculptures, all male nudes, are mostly performing various forms of manual labor.

Minor has participated in 15 collective and 25 individual exhibits throughout Mexico and has been a part of the Payment in Kind program since 2004. She’s donated even more art than her contribution required because she sees the benefit of having work in a prestigious national collection.

I was fortunate to have some time alone with Ms. Minor to ask about her art. She told me the Payment in Kind program “is a way to get my work out and be seen without leaving my workshop. At the beginning of my career I was known for my drawing and lithographs. In 2009 I had my first sculpture exhibit. This show promotes this other phase of my art.”

Her large sculpture “Equilibrium” intrigued me and I wondered whether this human balancing act was even possible. I asked Ms. Minor if she uses models for accuracy. “In none of my artwork have I used a model,” she said. “ I only use myself. I know how muscles work. I twist around, contorting my body to see what is possible. How do I move my leg, how do my fingers flex? I’d like to work with a model. Maybe I don’t because I haven’t yet found my model.”

She laughed when I replied, “You use a woman’s body to sculpt men!” I suggested that in her workshop she might have mirrors. “No, I start from the consciousness I have of my own body. I may not know the names of the muscles and bones but I know they’re there and I know their shapes.”

What I know is that the concept of payment in kind is allowing the Mexican public to have access to art that might otherwise be held only in private collections, as well as permitting artists to pursue their avocation — a win-win for us all.
“Architecture of the Intimate” will be on exhibit at the Museo Dolores Olmedo through August 17, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays.

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