Heritage Minister Rodriguez should take a stand on change to art tax credits

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A Federal Court ruling could end up seriously curtailing a big source of funding for Canada’s art museums.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on August 20, 2018.

OTTAWA—Most Canadians know little and care less about the tools that support cultural investment in the country. They do know what they like.

Newfoundland artist Mary Pratt, who passed away last week, found beauty and depth in the simplest of objects. A bowl of fruit, a crate of eggs, grapes in a colander are just some of the subjects she immortalized during her career as one of Canada’s most prolific and renowned women artists. The subjects she chose to immortalize are drawn from daily life, and many are not unique to her province or country.

But she is distinctly Canadian. This summer, the National Gallery of Canada is featuring “Impressionist Treasures”, an exhibition from the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen and its exquisite collection of French impressionists. The appeal of the artists, from Monet to Manet, from Pissarro to Sisley, is universal, just like Mary Pratt’s inspirational interpretation of everyday life.

But according to new rules surrounding art donations, Pratt’s work may be worth supporting but Monet’s may not. Government financial rules governing art policy are complicated but hugely important. They are probably the most crucial tools in expanding Canadians’ access to public art.

Government-secured insurance underwrites travelling exhibitions across the country. Tax incentives ensure that world-renowned oeuvres d’art by famous artists can be experienced by ordinary citizens in galleries across the country. But after a recent Federal Court ruling clipped the wings of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, the scope of that financial toolkit has been drastically reduced. As a result of the ruling, Canadians who wish to donate valuable foreign paintings to Canadian galleries may no longer get tax credits for doing so.

According to a Globe and Mail report last week, several major Canadian galleries have suspended discussions with potential philanthropists as a direct result of the ruling’s impact. The board was forced into this new tax interpretation even though the federal government is appealing the decision.

Over the decades, the board has exercised an important role in keeping important Canadian treasures in the country and in encouraging private donors to give their art over to public institutions. The courts ruled the Export Review Board went too far when it attempted to block a Canadian from selling a privately-owned, foreign-made painting to someone outside of the country. The Federal Court’s ruling that only Canadian-made paintings could be barred from export had the knock-on effect of altering the board’s tax credit policy, limiting it to only donations of Canadian-made works.

While it is certainly valid to question the refusal of an export permit for a painting that has no Canadian connection, the collateral damage in donation denials will be huge.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in rare and important artworks have found their way into the public domain because of the little known work of the board. Back in 2003, the Toronto-based Tannenbaum family decided to honour their matriarch’s hometown with a multi-million donation of more than 200 European paintings to the Hamilton Art Gallery.

Hamilton beat out the Louvre in Paris and the Art Gallery of Ontario, which were also trying to acquire the collection. In 2010, the Tannebaums followed with the donation of their African collection, and the paintings provided the catalyst for a major reconstruction project at the gallery in their honour.

Neither collection would likely have been tax creditable under the recently-revised rules currently being applied to foreign art donations. The wide-ranging negative impact on the Canadian art scene is enormous if this decision is not reversed, and quickly.

New Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez should clarify the government’s intention on this issue. If necessary, the minister should update the 41-year-old legislation which governs the board and its operations. At the very least, a regulatory amendment should permit the board to support European, African, and Asian artworks that have intrinsic value as well. They, too, should be eligible for tax credits.

As we celebrate the prolific life’s work of Mary Pratt, we should also recognize that Pissarro, Monet and the impressionists also speak to our collective being. Images that capture truth in life are universal.

Canadians find inspiration and solace in creativity from around the world. The artist’s brush has no national boundary. Nor should we.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.