In the past year artist Jason Borbet has donated work to over 15 nonprofits in Jackson and Teton Valley, Idaho.
The artist, who goes by Borbay, has auctioned off paintings, painted at events, and even donated in-studio painting time. An Adirondack chair adorned with Borbay’s work can be found in town as part of the Rocking Sage Living fundraiser. He is planning to paint at the 2019 Fall Arts Festival QuickDraw Art Sale and Auction, and for the fourth year he will create a plate for Community Entry Services’ annual fundraiser, The Art of Love.
Borbet said he loves being involved in the community and is grateful for the opportunity to give back to those who have supported his work. But like many artists who donate work to nonprofits — over 20 are part of Rocking Sage Living, for example — when it comes time to file taxes, Borbet can’t write off any of the work he’s created and donated.
An ‘unfortunate’ tax law
The problem started with President Richard Nixon.
In 1969 Nixon did what many people before and after him would do: write something off on his taxes to reduce his taxable income. In Nixon’s case that something was a series of manuscripts from his time as vice president. He tried to write off the value as $576,000 because he had donated the manuscripts to a library.
Congress was not pleased. As part of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, America ended up with a law prohibiting artists from deducting the value of work donated to charity from their taxable income (the law extended to all intellectual property). Only materials can be written off.
“The whole cycle is extremely dubious, and it’s unfortunate,” Borbet said. “It needs to change on the legislation level. The law needs to change.”
Though artists can’t write off their own creations, owners of art can write off the market value of work should they donate it, be it to a museum, an auction or otherwise.
Bills have been consistently put forth to reverse the portion of the 1969 law that affects the creative class, but none have passed. Most recently, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, introduced House Resolution 1793, dubbed the Artist-Museum Partnership Act of 2019.
“This bill allows taxpayers who create literary, musical, artistic, scholarly compositions or similar property a fair market value (determined at the time of contribution) tax deduction for contributions of such properties, the copyrights thereon, or both, to certain tax-exempt organizations,” it reads.
Lewis’ bill was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means in March. No legislative action related to the bill has been taken since.
‘So many nonprofits’
Artist Taryn Boals is asked nine or ten times a year to donate work. She works a full-time job and spends 15 to 20 hours a week in her studio. There’s often just not enough time to create work to sell and to donate.
“I would love to [donate more] but I don’t have the time for my career,” Boals said.
Artist Walter Gerald struggles with the same problem. He’s frequently asked but has started saying “no” more.
It’s an issue that’s “unique to this place,” he said. “It’s a small town with so many nonprofits and a decent amount of artists too.
“I’ve tried to hold the line on making sure things are worth it for me and making sure it’s a cause I care about. I want to support nonprofits as much as I can, and there are so many good causes in Jackson, but you have to make sure you don’t spread yourself too thin.”
Jackson is home to over 200 nonprofits, according to the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole. Many, including St. John’s Hospital Foundation and Community Entry Services, use art as a focal point for their fundraising events, often through silent or live auctions.
Exposure and progress
As the old joke goes: The artist died of exposure.
Donating work promises more eyeballs on an artist’s work and increased name recognition. But it isn’t particularly lucrative outside of branding.
“It can be a cool opportunity, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills,” Gerald said. “I think the thing people may forget, because artists here often have multiple jobs and art is a hobby for some, for a lot of us it’s how we pay the power bill or rent. To give that away or undervalue it makes our daily lives harder.”
Gerald said he has empathy for his fellow artists, as well as nonprofits seeking to incorporate art into their fundraising efforts.
“I don’t blame nonprofits for reaching out, and I think it’s great art can be this currency that people use to raise money,” Gerald said. “A lot of nonprofits have been super aware of the fact that this is a monetary thing.
“It’s not like I have a million of these things to give away, and they’ve worked hard to make it work for me.”
Nonprofits appear to be aware that donating art is not the same as donating a couple of hours of time. Such an ask — requesting a donated plate for The Art of Love auction, for example — should come with a return for the artist, said the nonprofit’s Jackson branch manager, Carolyn Worth.
“We totally understand if someone says they can’t do it,” she said. “I think it needs to benefit the artist as well. If you’re going to ask them, you need to get their name out there so they are getting something out of it.”
Money splits are a popular way of honoring the work an artist puts into a creation.
The QuickDraw Art Sale and Auction, which has artists set up on Town Square for 90 minutes of creation followed by an auction, splits proceeds from art sales 50-50 between the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and participating artists. The Teton Artlab does the same with artists who participate in its annual Wallpaper print show and fundraiser, and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance split proceeds from art sales during its 40th anniversary fundraiser at varying rates, depending on agreements it made with participating artists.
The Hospital Foundation paid artists $500 for each Rocking Sage Living chair. A separate Hospital Foundation program, Art and Healing, ensures work displayed around St. John’s Medical Center has the opportunity to be sold, benefiting the artists in a 70-30 split (the 30% that goes back to the Foundation is earmarked for the Art and Healing program).
“It’s been important for us, through our Art and Healing [program], to make sure we aren’t just taking from artists,” Foundation Director of Development Rachel Merrell said.
That has paid off. When it came time for the Adirondack chair project to go live, artists “overwhelmingly” said yes, she said.
Community Entry Services does not pay artists who contribute to its annual Art of Love event, but it works to ensure exposure before and during the event, Worth said.
“We try to get their name out there through our social media, and we work really hard,” Worth said. “The night of we have a bio next to them, and we’ve had artists get commissions because of this event.”
The Art of Love raised over $50,000 for the organization in 2016. Auction sales from the Chamber’s QuickDraw fundraiser netted $250,000 in 2018, and Rocking Sage Living has the potential to raise between $30,000 and $300,000, roughly, depending on whether its 33 chairs are bought at the $1,000 starting bid, or the $10,000 buy-it-now price.
Worth said she understands the balancing act artists must maintain between donations and for-profit work. Should an adjustment be needed these partnerships, she said, it’s up to the nonprofits and artists to create a system that works.
However, some artists, like Haley Badenhop, stick to their own system. Badenhop donates work every now and then, most recently a chair to the Rocking Sage Living fundraiser. She sees paid work and donation as a sort of “church and state” separation.
“If I want to give away something, I don’t want anything in return,” she said. “If I want to give, I want to give — it’s totally selfless.
On the other hand,“If I want to get paid,” she said, “I want to get paid a fair amount.” ￼