On Thursday last week, the legislature’s Finance Committee held a public hearing to discuss proposed amendments to tax laws. The amendments would introduce tax exemptions that would benefit international auction houses, the foreign art scene and people who are wealthy enough to buy such works.
I studied in France in 1973 and returned to Taiwan in 1994. I took part in the preparations to establish Tainan National University of the Arts and served as its dean of academic affairs.
From 2001, I taught in National Taiwan Normal University’s department of fine arts. I have helped foster 1,000 or 2,000 Taiwanese artists, who are now doing creative work across the nation, like farmers in the world of culture and art.
I urge our legislators to cooperate and speak out for the nation’s tens of thousands of artistic creators, so that the government hears the message clearly.
The government has a duty to protect artists, which is surely much more important than expanding the global art dealership business.
Taiwanese art is in a weak position relative to foreign art. It is a cultural baby that needs special care from its parents — the government.
If art dealers are allowed to pay no business tax and a lower-than-normal rate of income tax through the proposed changes to the Income Tax Act (所得稅法), it might indeed help Taiwan to become an international art auction center, but how would that help local artists?
Unfortunately, it might do the opposite by crowding out money that would otherwise go toward buying local works of art. Taiwanese artists would therefore be more likely to suffer than benefit.
The amendments, which have been proposed under the influence of lobbyists, might have been drawn up without consulting any field studies. The legislators who introduced them do not know how hard life is for Taiwanese artists. They did not look up the amount spent in the domestic art market on works created by Taiwanese, the total amount spent on foreign works, or data and reports comparing the two.
If the amount spent on Taiwanese art were greater than that spent on foreign pieces, proposed business and income taxes on sales of foreign artworks could gradually be reduced or eliminated so that Taiwanese and foreign works of art could eventually compete on a level playing field. In that case, everyone would be comfortable.
However, it is much more likely that Taiwan imports more art than it exports, so business and income taxes are needed to help Taiwanese works of art be more competitive, thus protecting artists’ interests.
As a matter of priority, Taiwanese artists should be protected in the same way that farmers are. The first time their works are sold — including the first time heirs sell the works of artists who have died — they should be completely exempt from business and income taxes.
The call from other art sellers, such as galleries and auction houses, for a legislative amendment that would exempt them from paying business and income taxes, or allow them to pay less tax compared with wealthy people’s art deals and those of major international auction houses, would be better left until the ecology of Taiwan’s art market has improved.
It should be discussed when Taiwan has become a net exporter of works of art.
Michel Yang is a senior professor in National Taiwan Normal University’s department of fine arts.