Case Review: Crile v. Commission of Internal Revenue

By Chris Michaels, Esq.*

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

For many artists, the financial instability that accompanies an artistic profession forces the artist to seek employment with a more consistent paycheck. A “day job” often provides the income for rent and bills while the artist continues to pursue their artistic endeavors. In this situation, tax deductions for expenses related to creating art may help the artist stay afloat financially. It seems like a fairly straightforward situation until April 15 rolls around and it is time to pay taxes. In a ruling filed by the United States Tax Court on October 2, 2014, the Court resolved a question of whether individuals who pursue their art while otherwise employed can deduct art-related expenses. The decision the Court reached helps artists to remain artists, even if they are not making a profit from their work.

Susan Crile Website

Susan Crile Website

The petitioner in this case, Susan Crile, has worked as an artist for over four decades. She has created more than 2,000 works using oil, acrylic, charcoal, pastels, and many other mediums. Her art is in the permanent collections of several museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, and several colleges and universities. In addition, her work has been purchased by corporations including Bank of America, General Mills, Charles Schwab, and several major New York City law firms. She has been represented by at least five New York City art galleries, most recently in 2009 by the Michael Steinberg Fine Art gallery. She has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and her works have been reviewed in almost every major art publication. Crile is also a full-time tenured professor of studio art at Hunter College in New York City, where she has worked in some capacity since 1983.

The respondent in this case, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, determined that Crile had deficiencies in her Federal income tax returns for the years 2004, 2005 and 2007–2009. Specifically, respondent argued, among other things, that Crile was not entitled to claim deductions for expenses related to her artwork because she did not intend to profit from her art. The Court, therefore, was faced with determining the issue of whether Crile was engaged in a trade or business with the intent of making a profit from her activity as an artist. Crile’s artwork during the tax years in dispute included a series of works based on the life of Saint Francis in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy, works based on the events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, silkscreen printings, a series of small abstract paintings, and a project based on the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Since her art career began in 1971, Ms. Crile sold over 300 works with gross proceeds of $1,197,150 and an earned income of $667,902. From 1971 to 2013, however, she never reported a net profit from her art business due, in large part, to the deductions she took for expenses relating to the sale of her art.

To determine whether Crile was entitled to the deductions she had taken, the Court considered two sections of the Internal Revenue Code, sections 162(a) and 183(b). Under section 162(a), deductions are allowed for “all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business.” To be entitled to deductions under section 162(a), the taxpayer must show that he or she engaged in the activity with the intent of making a profit. Further, under section 183(b), if the activity is not engaged in for profit, deductions are not allowed except to the extent of gross income derived therefrom. Essentially, in order to take the deductions, Crile had to prove that she was in the art business to make a profit.

A threshold issue that had to be decided before the Court reached the issue of Crile’s intent to earn a profit concerned the scope of her activity as an artist. Under section 183(b), the activity to be considered can either be a “single undertaking” or “multiple undertakings.” The Commissioner argued that Crile’s art activity was not separate from her activity as an art professor and was thus a “single activity.” As a single activity, the Commissioner posited that Crile had to claim her art-related expenses as unreimbursed employee business expenses and not as deductible business expenses. The Court ultimately reasoned, however, that she had practiced as an artist for a decade before she had started teaching and that many activities she undertook as an artist were unrelated to her teaching career. As such, the Court held that Crile’s artist activities and professor activities were multiple undertakings that had to be analyzed separately under section 183(b).

The bulk of the Opinion handed down by the Court dealt with whether the artist conducted her art activity with an intent to earn a profit such that she could take deductions for expenses attributable to that activity. The Court analyzed the following nine factors and used a balancing test to determine whether Crile engaged in the activity for profit:

  1. The manner in which the taxpayer conducts the activity;
  2. The expertise of the taxpayer or her advisers;
  3. The time and effort spent by the taxpayer in carrying on the activity;
  4. The expectation of the taxpayer that assets used in the activity may appreciate in value;
  5. The success of the taxpayer in carrying on other similar or dissimilar activities;
  6. The taxpayer’s history of income or losses with respect to the activity;
  7. The amount of occasional profits, if any;
  8. The financial status of the taxpayer; and
  9. Elements of personal pleasure or recreation.

An analysis by the Court concluded that factors number one through five and nine were in favor of Crile and factors six and seven were in favor of the Commissioner. Factor number eight was neutral. As such, the Court held that Crile acted with the requisite intent to make a profit and, therefore, could take deductions for “ordinary and necessary expenses.” The Court reserved deciding on whether the deductions that Crile took were actually “ordinary and necessary.”

The Court’s decision in this case is a win for struggling artists everywhere. In finding that Crile engaged in her art activity as a distinct activity from her employment as a professor, the Court gave artists the opportunity to take deductions for expenses relating to their artwork as long as they are engaged in that activity for profit. While it certainly is not a windfall for anyone, the Court’s decision makes it a little easier for grown ups to remain artists.

Petitioner, Susan Crile, was represented by Robert H. Baron, Micaela McMurrough, and Megan Y. Lew, all of Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP. Respondent, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, was represented by Jane J. Kim and Michael J. De Matos of the Internal Revenue Service.

Sources:

About: Chris Michaels is a litigation attorney in the Philadelphia office of the Atlanta, GA-based law firm, Cruser & Mitchell, LLP, where he actively pursues his interest in the field of art law. He may be reached at (518) 421-7238, chriswmichaels@gmail.com, or on Twitter @CMichaelsartlaw.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.

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