Broad or narrow: Taxman reviews “Private” Museums

By David Honig, Esq.*

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-1-48-18-pmLast year, on November 20, 2015, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) launched a review of eleven US private museums in response to a recent New York Times Article that exposes a possibility for abuse of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Every “domestic or foreign organization described in section 501(c)(3)” is considered a private foundation, unless it fits into one of four scenarios, dealing with where the organizations “support” is derived, set out in § 509(a).  Senator Hatch’s investigation did not include all nongovernment owned museums as the term “private museum” suggests – after all many of the most renowned museums in the United States, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Chicago are private museums even if they are not thought of as such. Instead, Senator Hatch looked into a subset of museums that only have one donor and are designated private foundation under 26 U.S.C. § 509.

The investigation, which concluded in May of 2016, sought to determine whether, and how much, these museums benefit the public. This inquiry was ignited by the fear that these private foundation museums are offering minimal benefit to the public while affording the donors substantial benefits including tax deductions. For example, the New York Times article mentions that at least two of these museums, Glenstone in Potomac, MD and the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT, require reservations and “[are] open only a few days a week to small groups.” The reason this matters is the tax advantages afforded to charities with 501(c)(3) nonprofit status are granted because of the public benefit these organizations provide. Logic suggests, if these museums are not providing a public benefit they should not be given preferential treatment. The real issue is not whether these museums provide a public benefit but whether the benefit provided can justify the private reward. In other words, should individuals capable of purchasing multi-million dollar artworks be afforded a discount on creating and maintaining private viewing salons?  Before determining whether these museums provide enough or any public benefit some background should be given, first on the museums themselves then on the tax benefits associated with this setup.

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The Private Museums

The United States has a long history of encouraging private enterprise. This can be seen in airlines, railroads, institutions of higher education and charitable organizations. The investment of private capital helps alleviate some of the financial strain felt by the state, while encouraging private organizations or individuals to provide public services. Seeking to reward private investment for the public good, “Congress sought to provide tax benefits to charitable organizations, to encourage the development of private institutions that serve a useful public purpose or supplement or take the place of public institutions of the same kind.”

One way Congress provided tax benefits to charitable organizations was by creating 26 U.S.C. § 501. Section 501(a) grants tax exempt status to certain organizations. Relevant here are corporations “organized and operated exclusively for … charitable … or educational purposes … ”. Seeking to take advantage of this section of the internal revenue code collectors have created organizations and donated artworks to them in order to establish museums for their private collections.

The Tax Scheme

One benefit of creating a nonprofit organization and donating artworks to it is clear – if the museum charges an entry fee the revenues can be used to maintain the artworks and space without the donor having to pay taxes. By relinquishing ownership of these works the donor no longer bears sole responsibility for upkeep. Since 9 of the 11 museums surveyed by Senator Hatch do not charge an admission fee, most of the founding donors have to donate more funds to insure the works and premises do not deteriorate. On its face, the free admission scheme is detrimental to the founding donor. In addition to paying for the upkeep, although possibly at a subsidized rate, the founding donor must also relinquish control of the works to the nonprofit corporation for the corporation to be eligible for the tax benefits under the internal revenue code.

Taking these issues in turn, the first, having to pay for upkeep, could actually be a benefit. The internal revenue code, specifically section 170, allows a donor to deduct a “contribution or gift” made to, among other organizations, corporations that qualify for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. This means that besides possibly paying a reduced rate for the upkeep and maintenance of her art and a facility to house said art, the founding donor can deduct the amount donated to the museum to cover these costs.

In addition to allowing deductions for contributions section 170 also allows a donor to deduct gifts made to authorized organizations. By converting a collection that was privately owned by an individual into one that is held by a museum for the “public’s benefit” the founding donor can use money that would have been personally spent for upkeep of the art to reduce her taxes. By combining tax exempt status granted by 501 with the deductions afforded for charitable contributions in section 170 a founding donor is duly rewarded. Note: the internal revenue code places a limit, usually 50% of gross income, on the amount of deductions a person can take each year for charitable donations.

Tax deductions are not the only reason for a founding donor to entertain creating this type of organization. Once the works are donated the museum owns them and a donor no longer has no control, or so it would seem. If the donor serves on the board of directors, acts as president or serves in some other executive position the donor could execute control over the works of art. In fact, this is exactly what “many” of the founding donors are doing. An example of this is the Broad in downtown Los Angeles, whose founders Eli and Edythe Broad serve on the Board of Governors.

A donor that serves on the board or as an executive will be involved in not only how the artwork is managed but more importantly the operations of the museum. This includes determining hours of operations, admission price, what works should be bought and sold, displayed, put into storage or on loan. It is easy to see why Senator Hatch was worried about abuse of these tax exemptions since donors are able to reap huge tax benefits while seemingly giving up little in their enjoyment and control of art. In fact, some of the museums surveyed said that they are located on land owned by or partially by the founding donor. In other instances, museums are located on land adjacent to the donor’s residence. In order for this scheme to make sense and continue the public must get some benefit.

Public Benefits

“[C]harities [are] to be given preferential treatment because they provide a benefit to society.” It follows, that if there is no benefit to the public then the charity should not be given preferential treatment and a donor should not be allowed to receive tax deductions for donations to that charity. But the issue here is not one of existence of benefit it is one of degree of quality and quantity of benefit. The question ultimately boils down to whether or not these museums provide enough public benefit to be given preferential treatment and how is that determination made. In other words, what is the required level of public benefit that an organization must produce in order to receive preferential tax treatment under section 501 and how is it determined?

Unfortunately, it is hard to determine whether action actually benefits the public and the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) guidelines are not very helpful on this front. Besides being open to the public for viewing and informing the public of access, it really is not clear what is required of an organization to achieve tax exempt status.

There are clear benefits to founders of private museums but the question remains are those benefits enough. For instance, of the 11 museums that received a letter from Senator Hatch 10 of them responded that they engage in or have engaged in loan programs. This means that a work of art that would normally be displayed in someone’s home or sit in storage was put on display for a large number of people to see. The creation of more museums allows works to be displayed that otherwise would sit in a basement or storage facility and never be seen by the public.  

Not only does the creation of more museums allow for more work to be shown it allows different work to be shown and curated in different ways. Private museums allow the whims of one person to dictate how and what art is acquired and later displayed. This type of museum does not have to focus on what it thinks would be the most educational exhibit for its visitors as traditional public museums do. Instead the exhibits can focus on art or whatever emotion or reaction a curator wants to provoke. This too is “educational” in its own right even though it is not designed with that purpose in mind.

Maybe the best example of this would be Eli and Edythe Broad’s Broad Museum in Los Angeles, California. The Broad is the poster child for what these types of private museums can be. It is open most days of the week and draws large crowds of young people. In addition to its visitors having a lower average age than the national average of museum goers, 32 compared to 45.8, as of March 2016 70% of the Broad’s visitors were younger than 34 years old.

The Broad represents what these museums can be, but just because others do not do as much as the Broad does not mean they do not do enough to benefit the public. The limited hours and days of operation and reservations requirements can be justified: the founder wanted to create unique and more intimate experiences for visitors. Should it matter that this type of public benefit is intangible?

Ignore for a second the obvious benefit of public access to these artworks. Also ignore the limited circumstances some of the museum allow the public access to these works – a reason for reduced access might be that these museums are new and the operating expenses associated with keeping more traditional matters currently do not make sense because of number of guest expected. How is it determined whether the public receives enough or any benefit at all? Maybe the benefit is not clear or scientific, maybe it is indirect, or maybe it will take years to manifest but once it does it will be incalculable. The fact is public benefit can be difficult to pinpoint.

This difficulty is reminiscent of a Copyright issue raised over 100 years ago. When approached with the question of whether an advertisement could be protected under copyright law in Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., Justice Holmes pointed out that judges should not determine the worth of “pictorial illustrations”. His reasoning, which boils down to the tastes of any portion of the public should not be looked down upon. Following that logic, maybe Congress, the IRS or a court adjudicating the issue of public benefit should determine that if any portion of the public benefits from an organization that organization should be allowed to keep its tax exempt status.

 *  *  *

Note: This Article is being reprinted with the permission from Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, Fall 2016, vol. 27, no. 3, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, New York, 12207

*About the Author: David Honig is a member of the Brooklyn Law School Class of 2015. While attending law school he was a member of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy (BLIP) Clinic. He is admitted to New York and New Jersey state bars. From 2015 to 2016 he served as a postgraduate fellow at the Center for Art Law. David is currently pursuing an LL.M. in taxation from NYU Law.

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