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License-gate snags an artist 

Painters shaken by business tax.

HANG-UP: Artist licensing.
  • HANG-UP: Artist licensing.

An artist (she asked not to be identified) I know who sells pencils and paintings at shops around town may be one of just a few legal artists in Little Rock.

That is, she has paid her business tax to the city for the privilege of doing business here.

Until she got a letter from the city last summer, however, the artist assumed — like every other artist the Times talked to for this story — that because she didn’t own a gallery, she was out of the picture when it came to licensing.

But then she got a letter from Cassie Weatherington, revenue collector, informing her that in the course of locating new and unlicensed businesses, the city had discovered that she was “operating” without a license.

She inquired, and learned that “commercial artists” who sell their work, either through a gallery on commission or direct from their studios, are required to pay a yearly $135 license fee, under Chapter 17, Article II, Section 17-52 of the municipal code.

She said a city employee had apparently seen a card of hers at a shop and turned her in.

Like a person getting busted at Woodstock for smoking dope, the artist paid the city $50 bucks — she got classified under part-time — but wondered: How many other Little Rock artists know they need a license to sell their work? How many gallery owners know?

The Times could find no one in the art field who was aware of the city’s requirement. Snagged in license-gate: Debra Wood, owner of River Market Artspace, who was surprised. Pepper Pepper of Oval Art Gallery, surprised and worried that the painters from all over Arkansas showing in the galleries’ invitationals needed them. Painter and sculptor Kevin Kresse. (In an e-mail, he wrote the Times, “Did that letter come from King George? Gheeesh, talk about blood from turnip rocks. I’ve never heard about needing a license to have work in galleries, but I haven’t heard of many things.”) Painter Warren Criswell, no greenhorn in the art business. (His comment: “I hope this is some kind of joke. ...”)

It’s no joke — but it’s not quite without some quirks, the section of code that requires the licenses.

City revenue specialist Gloria Markus said fine artists fall under the category “commercial artist,” defined as “Any person who paints portraits or scenery, sketches or draws cartoons or the like for profit.”

The category doesn’t spell out — but perhaps could be interpreted as pertaining to — sculptors, ceramists or woodworkers. Revenue specialist David Zuber said, “It’s stipulated in license code if we don’t have specific classification our boss can assign it to a class that’s close to it.”

There’s a separate category for people making a living doing etching, lithography or silk screening, and their fee is $200 a year. Jewelry makers are also charged $200. “Itinerant photographers” must pay even more: $270. (Portrait painters, for some reason, can be found under two categories — commercial artists or itinerant photographers. The cheaper license is the commercial artist’s.)

Musicians? They’re “sound contractors,” Markus said, and must pay $200, unless they perform with a non-profit organization. Artists who work for non-profits are off the hook, so for the most part, ballet dancers and actors and symphony musicians are too.

Craftspeople and freelance writers are charged only $100, which might suggest they’re held in somewhat less regard than their fellow artists if it weren’t for the more likely scenario that the categories weren’t created with fine art in mind.

Hot Springs’ municipal code, based on the North American Industry Classification System, is a little more straightforward: It requires “independent artists, writers and performers” to pay a $125 fee. North Little Rock has created a catch-all category — service providers — and if an artist were to take out a license there, he or she would pay $100, like all other service providers.

State law says businesses can’t be charged a license fee in more than one city unless they operate more than one office, so if an artist is licensed in Little Rock he’s automatically bona fide in any other city in Arkansas.

So — how many “commercial artist” licenses have been issued in Little Rock? Twenty-three. There are also three “itinerant photographers.”

In Hot Springs, which is known for its lively trade in fine art and galleries along Central Avenue, five people are licensed under “independent artists, writers and performers.”

It’s not so surprising that artists draw a blank when it comes to licensing, given the few resources cities have to publicize who needs to pay what. Little Rock has sent out tax reminders as water bill inserts and via advertising on Comcast’s public access Ch. 11. Revenue officers also keep an eye out for new businesses. When they find someone, “Sometimes it’s just a matter that we saw an ad,” Markus said.

Hot Springs has just one revenue collector: Joy Willingham, who must oversee 3,100 accounts. This “one-man band,” as she described herself, doesn’t have time to call the Hot Springs Convention Center, for example, to check whether performers there have taken out their “transient merchant in a permanent structure” license. (Participants in city-sponsored events are exempt.)

V.L. Cox of Arkadelphia, a painter, is taking the lead in the hue and cry over the license issue. She shows work in cities across the country, and could be required to buy a license for every city she sells in. She thinks Arkansas cities should give artists a break.

In a letter to assistant City Manager Bryan Day last week, Cox wrote: “Requiring artists, musicians, writers, etc. to have a license, will not only be almost impossible to enforce (out-of-town art competitions, out-of-town bands, visiting writers selling their books at guest speakings), but for a city that has been trying to support and encourage the arts, this will be a huge blow to the art community.”

Day told the Times that he thought it was likely that the City Board of Directors wasn’t thinking about painters and potters and sculptors or members of the Jazz Project playing the Afterthought, or Sugar and the Raw or Soophie Nun Squad at Vino’s, when they created the business categories. However, he added, “We believe in general that if you’re going to do business in Little Rock you need to pay for the right to do it.”

Day said he thought the ordinance might need “tweaking” and would meet with other city officials this week to talk about what changes might be needed, including lowering the fees. Categories are brought up to date from time to time: Hat shops and mimeograph printing, for example, have been dropped, Zuber said.

Day had questions of his own: He wondered if artists who don’t sell through galleries are charging city sales tax. That’s a –gate of another color.

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