Do Arts Really Need A Tax Status Of Their Own?

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. If you saw Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, you will know that there were many concerns about the legality of trying to make the proclamation stick, especially upon reunification of the country, which necessitated the adoption of the 13th Amendment to ensure the abolition of slavery.

The movie actually reminded me a lot of an episode of The West Wing where legislative wrangling was set against the backdrop of a president’s daily national and personal concerns. Either the job hasn’t changed a lot in 150 years or Spielberg was presenting the story in a familiar context.

Let me state clearly from the outset I don’t want to equate slavery with non-profit art organizations. The anniversary and the relationship between the proclamation and 13th amendment is just a convenient excuse to revisit a topic.

The concept that a situation only had tenuous legal support has parallels in the non-profit status most arts organizations enjoy. There is no mention of arts organizations in the 501 c 3 tax code. I made note of this in an open letter post to President Obama on the occasion of his inauguration four years ago.

In that post I asked the president to help the non-profit arts sector by providing a specific, better designed tax structure in which arts organizations can operate. Thinking back I wondered if that was still necessary given the continued emergence of the L3C model, B corporations and the crowd funding/investing options allowed by the JOBS Act.

Don’t get me wrong, none of these options are well suited to arts organizations. I just started wondering if the arts are really best served if the government legislates a specific structure within which they must operate. Experimentation with planned organizational expiration may do more to cultivate viable, community/situation specific models than asking for one to be legislated.

Having arts organizations making common cause with for-profit corporations and other interests to advance laws and regulations they mutually favor may do more to raise the profile of arts organizations in general than had the arts groups worked among themselves to carve out something specific to the arts sector.

Just something to think about at the start of a new year and a new presidential term since many ideas and opportunities have emerged since the last one.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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