Mortgages & Property Taxes As Art Projects

While returning from a grocery shopping trip on Saturday I heard this NPR story about an art project that is calling attention to the disparity in property taxes for black owned homes vs. white owned homes.

O’DRISCOLL: The artist, Harrison Kinnane Smith, had a proposition. As part of his latest art project, the nearby Mattress Factory Museum would take out a $10,000 mortgage on one of its buildings. Then, for the next 15 years, the museum would hand Stoney the difference between what he should be paying in property taxes and what he is paying – an extra $475 a year. Smith researched local property taxes and sales prices with a data analyst. He says the disparity in Stoney’s tax burden mirrors Pittsburgh’s as a whole.

HARRISON KINNANE SMITH: There’s a 7% difference over the last 10 years in property taxation rates for Black homes and white homes.

I found an article that discusses Smith’s research and analysis in greater detail for those that are interested. The artist also replicated the recent practice of dressing a house to signal residency by a white family and then a black family in order to see if there would be differences in the assessed value of the home.

The NPR story caught my attention in part because my organization is creating a semi-related work about solutions to blight that don’t immediately involve bulldozers. The discussions and collection of stories that will form the basis of the show has resulted in some mobilization of action and partnership formation from some people with resources and influence to address the issue.

More to the point though, I was impressed by Harrison Kinnane Smith’s ingenuity in approaching and convincing Mattress Factory Museum to take out a mortgage in pursuit of this project. It is an interesting use of art as an element of civic discourse about societal issues.  As arts organizations think about how they can present work that resonates with the communities they serve, stories like these can provide a jumping off point for ideas and projects.

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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