It's that time of year, again, the deadline for filing your federal and state income tax returns. And if you've procrastinated until the absolute last day—extended from April 15 until April 18 because of the Emancipation Day holiday as celebrated in Washington, D.C.— you still have some time. You are also in good company. Filing taxes is probably one of the few remaining equalizers that exists in society; everyone has to do it— including the rich, the famous, and the rich and famous. But the way we do it—before time or at the last minute; happily or begrudingly—cuts across all sections the population.
The Archives of American Art boasts over 6,000 different collections, many of which include the financial papers and tax returns of U.S. artists. But what can looking at the tax returns of artists tell us about them, and possibly ourselves? Curatorial Archives Specialist Mary Savig shares some of what she learned.
Where did this collection come from?
Normally when we acquire papers, we do get a lot of tax material included in them. The gamut of collections usually runs between personal letters, tax returns, financial records and sketch books. It really ranges, but we do tend to have a lot of financial material.
What can looking at an artist's tax returns tell us about him or her?
You learn what their studio conditions were like, what they were making on their art at the time and what they were spending their money on. So, tax returns can reveal information about their level of success at the time and whether or not they were charitable with their money.
Did you find anything interesting?
We have a great tax return from the artist Mitchell Siporin, who was a muralist during the Works Progress Administration (WPA). We have a lot of WPA artists in our collections, but what’s notable about these tax returns it that their only source of income during the Great Depression was from the federal government. It’s just a financial record, but it is poignant to show that if they had not been supported by the WPA, they probably wouldn’t have been able to remain artists and they would’ve had to find work doing other things. So the fact that the federal government was able to support their art was really great because it allowed them to flourish after the depression as well.
The collection seems fairly mundane. Was that surprising?
I think what’s so great about some of these financial records is that they’re pretty mundane. Tax returns are kind of a burden that we share with artists, so it show that artists can also be relatable —they also have to do their taxes.It's the irksome tasks that we all have to do which kind of bring us together, so we can understand kind of their work, too.
Since many of the financial records in the archives contain personal material, there aren't any plans for a public display, however; they collections are open to researchers who may find the information useful to their scholarship.