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Sleeper Cells 

Funny how some years can seem a lot quieter than they really are, especially in the in the local art scene. In 2004, art shows opened and closed and people either bought or they didn't, and somehow it all went along on as usual, or so it seemed. But take a look below the surface and the past year turns out to have been fraught with danger and intrigue, a time when arts institutions faced trials by fire, and massive new projects ground to a halt.

And now something has surfaced that some say places the entire art scene at risk. In this case, the Sword of Damocles is wielded by city tax assessors who, in a new interpretation of an old state law, have decided to levy an inventory tax on art exhibitions. According to the assessors, the artist must pay the tax even if nothing sells, and even if the art is only there on consignment very briefly. Considering how many of our local starving artists have a hard time just finding money for paint and canvas, taxing their efforts to display their work sounds extreme. So how do the artists feel about it? Longtime Julia Street painter and gallery director George Schmidt put it this way:

"It's poison!" he said without hesitation. "A rogue tax. If they keep on with this, I'm going to have to close down. Are these politicians really so serious about destroying the city? This is stupid. Look at who gets all the tax breaks -- it's the Wal-Marts, the Harrahs, the big national chains. And who gets left holding the bag? It's us, the little guys. This is fascism -- and if you're not a big corporation you're out of luck!"

Other artists and gallery dealers were no less emphatic that it amounted to a dagger at the heart of the Arts District. "This city, according to numerous surveys, is a leading American arts destination," noted artist and gallery dealer Steve Martin. "This is one of the few areas in which New Orleans is competitive with the big cities, and this tax could very well kill the golden goose." It is a sentiment echoed by arts lobbyist Charlie Smith, recently hired by some Julia Street galleries to take the fight to the Legislature. Smith says the tax "will actually reduce public revenues because big-name artists aren't going to want to show in the only place in the nation that taxes them just for exhibiting their work. Take (Dale) Chihuly, the famous glass artist. An inventory tax would only pull in a fraction of what the sales taxes on his work would generate, but those sales taxes will be lost if he, and others like him, stop showing here."

That sounds dire. Could it possibly be a misunderstanding? Deputy Assessor Lonese Varnadoe at 1st Municipal District Assessor Darren Mire's office confirmed that the tax bills were indeed real. "Yes, we're about to put them in the mail now," she said, noting the state Department of Revenue had been consulted. Superficially, 2004 had seemed a yawn of a year in local art, but now it sounds as if the whole scene is imperiled.

Other shocks and upheavals must of course include the rather abrupt halt in construction at Louisiana ArtWorks, the vast Arts Council of New Orleans edifice that has always been something of a mystery as far as most of us were concerned. We could see that it was big, but what was it, exactly? Now that they've run out of money in the final phase of construction, it appears we'll have to wait a while longer to see what's what. And then there's the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which, while celebrating its first full year of operation to mostly laudatory reviews, is still fighting a lawsuit filed by the late billionaire-philanthropist Pat Taylor. An early supporter who had donated the historic Howard Library building as the centerpiece of the project, Taylor said the museum violated the terms of his donation by accepting public money, and sued to get it back, forcing the fledgling institution to, in effect, fight for its life. He was a fierce adversary in his final years, but would the legal effort continue after his death? Confidential sources close to the litigation inform us that his privately held oil company, Taylor Energy Co., will indeed still pursue his efforts to take back the building now being prepared to house historic Southern art.

click to enlarge Surprising developments like the continuing lawsuit against the Ogden Museum of Southern Art made 2004 a more provocative year than initially believed.
  • Surprising developments like the continuing lawsuit against the Ogden Museum of Southern Art made 2004 a more provocative year than initially believed.
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