Marabou Goes to Washington

Last week, Marabou was in Washington DC participating in Museums Advocacy Day organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). 370 museum advocates, mostly museum staff, from across the United States came together and asked Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill to endorse legislation that will support museums. Marabou has looked at pushes for change in museums and cultural institutions both externally (including Decolonize This Place’s Indigenous Peoples Day actions) and internally (such as the unionization of staff at the Tenement Museum, New Museum, and Guggenheim). So Marabou was curious to see how museums are thought of in the political realm – and more importantly what type of change, if any, is being discussed. When Marabou took an Instagram poll asking “Do US politicians genuinely care about museums?” 86% of people voted “NOPE.” Marabou is still not sure if US politicians genuinely care about museums, but saw one way of making them care was explaining the importance of museums through an economic lens.

The American Alliance of Museums provided a detailed Advocate Handbook that included the Legislative Agenda, Congressional Voting Records, Museum Facts and more.

While in DC, Marabou was hoping to see social justice issues on the agenda for Museums Advocacy Day, but the emphasis was only on museum funding. The Trump administration’s budget proposal for FY 2021 cuts all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Understandably, the focus was on ensuring IMLS funding continues, otherwise museums will suffer. However, Marabou wanted more – if that funding is confirmed, how do we then ensure that organizations that need it the most will get that funding? How do we ensure the equitable distribution of funds? Those concerns were not on the briefing sheet, Issues at a Glance. With limited time to speak with politicians, advocates were asked to focus on two main issues (and mention others if time allowed):

Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Funding

The request is that Congress provide $42.7 million for IMLS in FY 2021. This amount was approved by the House of Representatives last year and is a relatively slight increase from the $38.5 million in FY2020. According to AAM, in FY2019, the IMLS received 938 applications requesting nearly $134 million. The current funding of IMLS barely covers a third of the funding requests it receives. The increase will help, but certainly isn’t enough. (And just for reference, the Department of Defense requested allocations for FY2020 was $718 billion).

In the Senate, this initiative is being led by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D)* of New York and Susan M. Collins (R) of Maine. In the House of Representatives, the initiative is being led by Representatives Paul Tonko (D) of New York, Andy Barr (R) of Kentucky, Chellie Pingree (D) of Maine, and David B. McKinely, P.E. (R) of West Virginia.

41 (out of 100) Senators and 178 (out of 435) Representatives signed on in support of the FY2020 request for IMLS funding. Continued congressional support for FY2021 will aid the House Appropriations Committee to decide in favor of the $42.7 allocation of funding for IMLS.

Tax Policies: 

Three changes in tax legislation would potentially lead to increases in charitable giving and – what Marabou was most interested in – possibly shift representation in museums and which art makes its way into museum collections.

The tax policy that really piqued Marabou’s interest was the Artist-Museum Partnership Act (H.R. 1973), explained by AAM as a change in tax law “which would allow artists to claim a fair market value deduction when they donate their own work to a collecting institution.” The importance of this act was explained by Andy Finch, Director of Policy at the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), as something that can change the common experience when we walk into museums, that we “only see a slice of art history” as Andy put it, meaning the work we see is primarily of cis-males and not much work by Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other artists of color. Andy explained that before 1969, artists who wanted to donate their art to museums would be able to get a fair tax compensation for their donation. The Tax Reform Act of 1969 took this opportunity away from artists. The Artist-Museum Partnership Act is asking that an artist who donates a piece of art to a museum receives a tax write-off equivalent to the fair market value of the piece of art. An Observer article from 2018 quotes Leonard Burman, senior fellow and director of the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute, who doesn’t support reversing the 1969 tax law. Burman claims “deducting actual costs make sense and is exactly the right tax treatment, because you shouldn’t be able to deduct income you’ve never earned. That would end up giving artists a double deduction.” Burman also said that this law would benefit famous artists and not the starving artists. But Marabou thinks Burman is missing a big point – it’s not just about money.

Andy Finch of AAMD described how the 1969 tax law also changed the pipeline of how art gets into museums. After the Tax Reform Act of 1969, artist who needed/wanted compensation for their art turned to private collectors. Understanding that collectors not only collect because they appreciate art, but that art collecting is now popularly seen as an investment opportunity, collectors are not going to donate pieces of art that may greatly appreciate in value based on market speculation. This means that collectors making art donations may not necessarily have artistic, cultural, or historical merit in mind. Yes, artists still donate their art to museums regardless of the tax law and not all collectors donate based on the market. But what is the harm in fairly compensating artists? Of course there is the problem of the art market, how value is assigned, and whose art is deemed valuable, but Marabou sees a law that values and compensates artists and their work as a good start.

The two other areas of tax legislation focused on charitable giving deductions:

The first, as explained by AAM, “legislation establishing a universal charitable deduction (H.R. 651, H.R. 1260, H.R. 5293), allowing taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions, regardless of whether they itemize.” There has been a noticeable decrease in the number of smaller donations to museums and cultural institutions. This, in part, is a result of a tax law shift de-incentivizing the average citizen from making smaller contributions. Larger donations by affluent people have not taken the same dip. (This is yet another indicator that US tax structure as it currently exists rewards the wealthy and penalizes the average American.)

The second, called the Legacy IRA Act (H.R. 3832, S. 1257), would expand the IRA Charitable Rollover. The IRA Charitable Rollover, according to the Council on Foundations, allows “taxpayers age 70 ½ or older to transfer up to $100,000 annually from their IRA accounts directly to charity without first having to recognize the distribution as income.” Part of the expansion would lower the age of eligibility.

Marabou found the subway to the US Capitol after a meeting in one of the House of Representatives buildings. To Marabou’s disappointment, you can only take the subway if you are accompanied by a Capitol Hill staffer.

Marabou was in meetings with staff of New York Senators and Representatives who were all very supportive of the IMLS ask for $42.7 million. Marabou heard from advocates from other states receive push back from politicians about tax law – particularly the itemization of charitable contributions because it would mean less tax dollars being paid to the government. Sarah Abernathy, Deputy Executive Director, Committee for Education Funding shared her projections for when the appropriation of funds would be decided. It’s usually in September, but she speculated that the FY2021 appropriations won’t be decided until later than that (anywhere from September 2020 to January 2021) due to the election and possible government shutdown.

To gain politicians’ support for the IMLS funding and tax policy asks, American Alliance of Museums provided advocates with economic and feel good facts (Marabou shared some of these in the previous post).

  • Museums support more than 726,000 American jobs.
  • Museums contribute $50 billion to the US economy each year.
  • The economic activity of museums generates more than $12 billion in tax revenue, ⅓ of it going to state and local governments.
  • The American public considers museums the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofit researchers, the US government, and academic researchers.
  • 97% of Americans believe that museums are educational assets for their communities.

These facts show the importance and contributions of museums to the US economy, education, and culture. Marabou would like to see these stats used to emphasize why it is important that museums reconsider themselves and what they present and collect to address the demographics of the United States and the holes in the narratives told in museum exhibitions. It’s understandable in the capitalist system as it currently exists that funding is going to be the major focus of museum advocacy, especially with limited politician face-time in an administration that doesn’t see any value in culture, education, or art initiatives. But Marabou wants to see advocacy expand to not just the money, but to how it’s spent and who it serves. Perhaps the bigger question is, what role does/should/can the federal government play in issues of equity and representation in museum and cultural institutions?


* (D) indicates Democrat and (R) indicates Republican

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