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    Agency frustrates art donors

    Date: 27 Aug 2007 | | Views: 3852

    Source: The Globe & Mail (Canada) (www.theglobeandmail.com), by Val Ross

    Terry Bush is angry. Son of painter Jack Bush and executor of his father's artistic legacy, he organized a donation of the artist's sketch records to Kingston's Agnes Etherington Art Centre last year.

    "We did all the paperwork right to the book," Bush says.

    The sketches were appraised by two dealers and valued at $400,000. Then the Etherington applied to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board for a 100-per-cent tax break on the value of the gift. To qualify for tax relief, collectors must own a work for at least three years, a rule aimed at discouraging flipping.

    The sketches had been in the Bush family for 40 years. "And Jack's values have gone up!" Bush says. "But they cut the appraisal in half. It's frustrating."

    Aaron Milrad is frustrated, too. The Toronto-based collector says that the review board has become plagued by delays, vague rules and an arbitrary appeal process. Milrad has told both the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon that he will no longer be giving art.

    "It's totally impossible," fumes art donor Joey Tanenbaum. "No one wants to go through the bullshit of waiting and being turned down."

    The review board was established 30 years ago to regulate and facilitate donations, sales and exports of - and tax receipts for - cultural property. The board certifies about $70-million worth of objects for donation or sale to institutions every year. Given that few museums and galleries have acquisitions budgets, they rely on donations.

    "We depend on donors," says Maia Sutnik, the AGO's photography curator.

    One Quebec donor, who requested anonymity, is still awaiting rulings on review-board applications made in 2005, and says: "The board has always been demanding, but this new board has become a stress-producing wall of ignorance, in my view."

    Last October, the Art Gallery of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., applied to the board on behalf of a proposed donation from a client of Toronto lawyer Frank Jacobs - a collection of animation cells by the Academy Award-nominated Michael Mills. The gallery was keen; animation art is one of its specialties.

    Everyone at Algoma expected that the board, which meets quarterly, would deal with the application at its December meeting.

    The gallery heard nothing until a terse note in March. The application was being considered. On May 15, it got a letter - "asking for information we'd already given them," Jacobs says. "They said if we wanted to withdraw the application to go ahead! It's the perfunctory treatment that bothers me."

    Ordinary Canadians might not weep for the troubles of wealthy donors, but consider this: In 2000-2001 the review board considered 926 applications related to donations to public institutions; in 2005-2006 that number had dropped to 748. Donors say that the government wants it both ways: slashing funds for cultural institutions, urging them to go to the private sector - and then throwing obstacles in the way of potential donors.

    One problem is that the review board is supposed to be a 10-member body, but it has been short-staffed for months. In January, the chair, Shirley Thomson, departed; she wasn't replaced until last month. (The new chair, Marcel Brisebois, former director of Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain, is on holiday and was unavailable for comment). The board is still short one member.

    The board members must consider valuations on everything from meteorites to Jack Bush sketches - even as tastes change, market values shift, the borders of art expand, and the mandates of museums take on new forms. Inevitably, when the board reaches a decision, it can be contentious.

    Marc Mayer, director of Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain, says the board has been overturning a lot of its applications. "We find it difficult that people in Ottawa are questioning what we in Quebec say is of national importance," he says. "Donors aren't very happy."

    "And the appeal process is a joke," says an Ontario art dealer who is in the midst of an appeal and requested anonymity. "If your appraisal is that something is worth $1.2-million but the board says, 'No, it's worth $800,000,' the very people who made the decision to chop to $800,000 are the ones who hear the appeal. It's totally arbitrary."

    What's also arbitrary is the attempt to pinpoint value in a wild global art market. Works of the great American photographer Edward Steichen used to hover around $10,000 (U.S.). At a 2006 Sotheby's auction in New York, Steichen's The Pond - Moonlight sold for $2,928,000. Inevitably such a market invites speculators. "The review board is sluggish," says Ralph Stanton, head of special collections at the University of British Columbia Library. "But we like the rigour. It cuts out a certain group of alchemists - that is, people who want to turn lead into gold."

    Curators tend to be more conservative and patient than entrepreneur collectors, and many say they are in fact reassured by the board's due diligence.

    "Despite the onerous paperwork, and it is every-increasing, CCPERB staff have always been helpful, and I can't praise them enough," says Liz Wylie, curator of the Kelowna Art Gallery. CCPERB, an independent arms-length tribunal, works closely with the Canada Revenue Agency on the tax receipts. As a taxpayer, says Heather Smith, curatorial director of the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, she supports the agencies' caution. Still, she says that small galleries like hers find applications too time-consuming; she will do only one or two a year.

    Some bigger galleries are also dismayed. A veteran of U.S. museums, Mayer says he was "taken aback by the process here." In the States, the responsibility for appraisals and tax receipts lies with donors; the museum plays no part. He keeps a full-time staffer working on review-board applications. "She has to write long essays on people who are already known in the art world. And what's the point of the ponderous third-party appraisal system if they're going to be overturned? This is absurd."

    The board is well aware that its systems could be streamlined, and that there is a danger that potential donors may send significant items or whole collections out of the country. On July 5, the board launched a national survey asking galleries and museums to make recommendations for improvements. The survey ends on Sept. 30.

    "The board has been out of control - but I am quite convinced it's only temporary," Mayer says. "I have high hopes for Marcel Brisebois."

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