Mexicans have been mastering the art of paying taxes with art for over 57 years. In fact artists themselves are allowed to fulfill their economic duty to the state by handing over a portion of their work. The Pago en Especie or “Pay in Goods” program has now created a government collection that includes almost 7,000 works of art. This unique initiative has put together one of the largest contemporary art collections in the country.
I know what you're thinking: We should all move to Mexico, and at the end of the year, hand the government childlike crayon drawings or napkin sketches. But the government has created an evaluation committee which has the daunting —and maybe impossible— task of determining what constitutes valuable art.
However, the committee is not interested in defining aesthetic taste, nor does it engage in philosophical dilemmas such as, “What is art?” In their view, the latter is answered by the market.
The requirements that have been established initially disqualify struggling artists, since the more the individual sells, the more works the government will accept as a tax substitution. Cristina Beltran, who administers the program for Mexico’s tax authority (SAT), says artists “can either hand their works to the state or donate them directly to a museum of their choice.”
Although artists must use a tab to determine how many works they can submit, she says the process is “qualitative not quantitative” and that the price of each work is “invaluable” and can only “be measured as time passes.” The collection includes emblematic works from renowned contemporary artists such as Francisco Toledo.
“This program is very flexible; it facilitates tax collection for the artist and can be viewed as a government subsidy,” says Beltran. Mexico’s new ambitious financial reform does not put the program at risk. “One of the modifications so far is that now artists can submit their invoices online," she says, adding that the government has no plans to expand this subsidy to other disciplines.
Vicente Rojo, an artist born in Barcelona, Spain who arrived in Mexico in 1949, tells Fusion he has participated in the program for more than 30 years. “It gives tranquility to the artist knowing he can cover the payments with his work and it is very easy,” says Rojo.
The program's first kernels appeared in 1957 with David Alfaro Siqueiros, a famous muralist and Stalinist radical who attempted to assassinate communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He told Mexico’s then Sub-secretary of Finance and Public Credit that the government should find a way of reaching an agreement with creative minds who lacked cash. Fellow muralist genius (and husband to Frida Kahlo) Diego Rivera also pushed for this initiative. In 1975 the program was finally signed into law and since then, SAT receives applications from artists across the country who wish to be considered.
Dutch artist Jan Hendrix has participated in the program since 1979. “It’s a privilege to be able to pay through a work of art. There is no other law like this in the world and it seems to be a very logical way of taxing artists while simultaneously creating collections for museums,” he says.
Nevertheless, as a former member of the evaluation committee, Hendrix believes many of the stipulations that establish which artists can benefit could use finer tuning. “This is an indirect subsidy," he says, "but the problem I see is that an artist who sells does not necessarily imply a good artist.”
He also says experts and critics, and not artists should be the judges, explaining it can be problematic to have the competition evaluating the competition. “It’s like having writers judging other writers instead of literary critics," Hendrix says. "This is a delicate decision.” However, Hendrix denies spotting any favoritism.
Cristina Beltran, meanwhile, points out that the committee changes every four years. It is, she says, composed of “museum directors, curators and critics, some who have been artists but they are now first and foremost art experts.”
The tax authority administration truly sees this as an investment that with time surpasses cash payments and improves Mexico’s soft power on multiple levels. And artists living in Mexico are quite happy.