Susan Crile ought to be the patron saint of artists. Despite being in the collections of the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and other museums, the IRS decreed that her work was “an activity not engaged in for profit.” She owed $81,000 in back taxes for five years’ returns. Ultimately, Crile lawyered up and prevailed. In 2014, the tax court ruled that Crile had “met her burden of proving that in carrying on her activity as an artist, she had an actual and honest objective of making a profit.”
Through her art, Crile has been an outspoken critic of our war conduct, raising awareness of the human and environmental damage being done in the name of the American people. A cynic could be excused for wondering if her politics had anything to do with her tax question.
Years ago I had the hobby-vs-career conversation with an IRS auditor. She couldn’t have been nicer, but she made it clear that I needed to earn more or stop taking the self-employment deduction. For non-artist readers, that might be an oh-duh point. Why work if not to make as much money as you can?
Such a threat shapes your work by reducing your tolerance for risk. It was at that point that teaching became so important for me, because teaching gives you a reliable taxable income. So does painting “safe” work, which Ms. Crile was decidedly not doing. The Crile decision gave us back the room to take risks, which is a very big part of artmaking.
It’s not just artists who make the choice to operate at a loss for a while. This happens with any project that bleeds money at the research and design phase. Investors know the potential rewards outweigh the high risks.
For me, letters from the IRS are an almost-annual rite. Being self-employed makes me a high audit risk. It’s part of the cost of doing business.
This year was unique because, as of the end of October, I had two IRS inquiries outstanding. The first was trivial: they didn’t have a record of a payment. I sent them a copy of the check, expecting it to go away. So yesterday, when I received a demand for the money—with interest—I started to boil. “They’re really on your case,” my accountant friend observed mildly.
Well, actually, they aren’t. It was an ordinary cock-up where their computer is outrunning their staff. Their representative couldn’t have been more diligent in researching the problem. However, it consumed hours of my time and gave me the sour stomach and headache one gets from interfacing with an intergalactic power. And of course it ain’t over until I get the final notice in the mail.
I personally don’t think our Federal taxes are too high, but I do think they’re way too complicated. They either eat up time that the taxpayer could be using elsewhere, or eat up the money he uses to pay lawyers and accountants. I think they also encourage people to overpay. I’ve heard many times from friends that they don’t take every deduction to which they’re entitled because they’d rather not be in the IRS’ sights.
Why do we tolerate this system, I ask as my paints dry up on my palette.