Museum Solidarity? Not For Boston Tax Fight

The Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino (right), is sharply raising the fee many non-profits, including museums. must pay to the city in lieu of taxes. It’s an understatement to say that’s bad news in this wobbly economic environment.

Here’s the full story from The Art Newspaper’s January issue. The Museum of Fine Arts would have to pay $250,000 this year (up from $46,000 to $65,000), rising to $1 million by 2016.

So where’s the organized opposition from other museums? In 2009, when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell tried to tax admissions, memberships and programs at museums and other non-profits, the Association of Art Museum Directors jumped into the fray and issued a statement of opposition.

I praised the organization for acting swiftly for a change. The letter to Rendell, copied to several other Pennsylvania legislators, is inexplicably not available on the AAMD website at the moment. But here were the key words of then-president Michael Conforti:

…this tax is nothing short of a tax on education. Museums, along with other cultural institutions, provide unparalleled educational opportunities for the young people of Pennsylvania, families supporting their children’s learning, adults seeking spiritual and psychological nourishment, and everyone looking for affordable and uplifting leisure activities at a time of economic challenge. Levying a tax on participation in educational programs and experiences will only discourage the public from taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s wide range of cultural resources.

Moreover, the proposed expansion of the sales tax will erode the substantial positive economic impact of your state’s cultural institutions: non-profit organizations in Pennsylvania generate $1.99 billion in economic activity each year.

Checking the AAMD’s website to make sure I did not miss a statement about Boston, I found nothing.

As Malcolm Rogers, MFA’s director, wrote in an op-ed for The Art Newspaper, “When civic leaders look to cultural organisations as a source of revenue, rather than as an invaluable resource for the communities they serve, it has dire implications nationwide.”

Worse, Menino seems to be penalizing museums for success: MFA’s fee is rising, as is the Institute for Contemporary Art’s, because they’ve successfully expanded. It’s like a real estate tax assessment.

This is not a new issue. Rogers has been fulminating about it since at least October. As my friend, Globe columnist Alex Beam, wrote that month:

Curiouser still, the nonprofits prefer to hang separately rather than form a coalition to negotiate with the mayor. Practically every college, hospital, or art museum has some urban bigshot on the board of directors who supposedly has juice in the mayor’s office. (Menino himself is an MFA trustee, although he hasn’t attended a meeting in at least 17 years.) Some institutions – Harvard and Boston College, for example – squawk more than others. But when push comes to shove, most of them pay pretty close to what the mayor asks.

So you can’t blame the holidays for inaction, AAMD brass. You’ve had plenty of time to consider what can be said to be helpful.


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