If you say you are an artist, but you make little money from selling your art, can your work be considered a profession in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service?
In a ruling handed down late last week by the US Tax Court and seen by many as an important victory for artists, the answer is yes.
The case involved the New York painter and printmaker Susan Crile, whose politically charged work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and several other major institutions. In 2010, the IRS accused Crile of underpaying her taxes, basing the case on the contention that her work as an artist over several decades was, for tax-deduction purposes, not a profession but something she did as part of her job as a professor of studio art at Hunter College.
The heart of the case touches on a situation familiar to many thousands of artists — from visual artists to musicians and actors — who earn a living as teachers or studio assistants or stagehands while pursuing creative careers.
During a trial before the tax court last year, Crile, whose work has focused on subjects like the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, described a dogged career of more than 40 years that has been more successful critically than financially. From 1971 through 2013, court papers said, she earned $667,902 from the sale of 356 works of art — an average income of a little less than $16,000 per year — and, like many artists, wrote off expenses like supplies, travel, and meals on her taxes. Only three years of her art career have been profitable, court records showed, and her reliable income came from teaching at Hunter.
The IRS accused Crile of underpaying taxes by more than $81,000 from 2004 to 2009, arguing her work as an artist was “not engaged in for profit” and saying she can’t claim deductions in excess of the income she made from her art.