Obama, Farmers and the National Endowment for the Arts

Chuck Close: President Obama has a very enlightened position on the arts and I’d be happy to tell you what I think is particularly good about it and shows a lot of promise.

First and foremost, there have been proposed legislation for many, many years now, to restore the [tax] deduction for artists’ gifts to museums, which at the present time, artists cannot deduct the full market value of the work that they give, they can only deduct the cost of materials, that is literally the cost of the canvas and the stretchers, and the paint.

If a collector buys a painting for $10,000 and it becomes worth $10 million, and he/she were to give that painting away, they could claim the full market value. The legislation prohibiting the artist from being able to give away their work goes back to [Richard] Nixon at the end of the Eisenhower Administration. He tried to take a million dollar deduction for his Vice Presidential papers, which I don’t need to remind you that Americans had already paid to produce in the first place. And Congress was so outraged by this ballsy [sic] attempt on Nixon’s effort to be able to deduct this stuff, that they hastily wrote a law that said that you could no longer deduct the work of your own hand.

In subsequent years, the IRS interpreted that law to mean composer’s scores, writer’s manuscripts, painter’s paintings, etc. So all of a sudden, museums, libraries, and cultural institutions were faced with these gifts essentially drying up.

I have to say that even though we get no deduction, I give $400,000 or $500,000 worth of work away a year, for no tax deduction. I’d like to know how much a lot of those people in the stock market would give away if they didn’t get a tax deduction--but that’s beside the point.

At any rate, [Barack] Obama has said that he has supported it as a Senator, and he will not support it as President, and try and get that law overturned and restore artist’s gifts for full market value.

One of the most perverse things about the way our system works is, that, while I am alive, my work is valueless, except for the cost of materials. The moment I die, the IRS moves in and charges my heirs, my family, the full market value of the work; not what it could be sold for, but the full market value. You cannot sell enough work because dealers take a commission, to pay the taxes, the inheritance taxes; plus you have to pay the tax on the work you’re selling to pay the inheritance tax.

So, it’s such an unfair burden for artists and artist’s families.

We’re very much like family farmers where a family farmer would like to pass on the farm to their children who would just want to continue to farm. Now, they’ve got to sell off acreage to pay the inheritance tax.

I know a farmer where the grandfather died, they had to sell off a bunch of land and then the father got it, and then he died within just a few years and then the son from that – they were paying that inheritance tax twice; and selling land to do it. And it’s that sort of thing that is happening to artists all the time. So that legislation would be extremely important.

Other things that he has said that he is in favor of is an art corps that would be something akin to a Peace Corps, or something else in which artists could be put into the school system.

Right now in Brooklyn, there are hundreds of great Russian violinists who immigrated to this country who cannot teach in the public school system because they don’t have teacher’s certifications. The schools cannot pay them because they’re required to have a teacher’s certification. The government could pay these wonderful artists and musicians to get around that limitation of teacher certification, and put them into the schools, and what a great thing that would be for the educational system.

In New York City, the budget/fiscal crisis in the last 70’s, the first thing to go is art and music. There was no more art and music in public schools. And someone like Aggie Gunz stepped in and formed Studio in a School, and I’m a board member of that foundation as well, and what that foundation does is pay artists so that they can then go work in the public schools. This is extremely important, I think, and something that would benefit people in every state and in every constituency, from the poorest communities to the richest. But I think that is extremely important.

Restoring the National Endowment would be extremely important. The National Endowment was started by Johnson, but it really grew more under the Republicans. It grew more under [Richard] Nixon than any other President did.

It had bipartisan support; it was seen as something everybody could agree on. Why, yes, we should be putting money into the arts, and then you had Public Television, and all of these things.

I juried for the National Endowment for the Arts in the Individual Artist

Grants. Six of us met for six days and looked at 60,000 slides from artists in every state. We looked at many of those slides two or three times, and I never felt better about anything I’ve ever done than giving this government money away. If the government spent the rest of its money as well as the National Endowment spent it in rewarding artists and writers, then we would be in a lot better shape.

Beyond the money, the $10,000 or $15,000 that we gave to each person, this was their government recognizing them; peers, other artists deciding that they deserved this money and that their government was bestowing it on them.

This was the middle of the Viet Nam War, where a lot of people in the art community were not particular happy with what their government did, and yet they saw that this was something that government can do. It can recognize talent, it can encourage people, and it’s incredibly important to an artist; that Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that comes from a jury of our peers deciding that your work is important enough to be recognized by your government, and by the way, you are also getting this money. Very, very important. It is much more valuable than the money itself.

So these and other things that [Barack] Obama has weighed in on, I think, would really make a great difference in the cultural life in America.

Recorded on: February 5, 2009

Chuck Close is anticipating a cultural renaissance.

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