In Mexico, Artists Can Pay Their Federal Taxes With Artwork


Viewers look at a Diego Rivera painting on display in New York in 2017. Rivera is one of many notable Mexican artists who've paid their tax obligations with artwork. Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images
Viewers look at a Diego Rivera painting on display in New York in 2017. Rivera is one of many notable Mexican artists who've paid their tax obligations with artwork. Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Nobody likes paying taxes. OK, maybe billionaire investor Warren Buffet doesn't mind kicking up a share of his earnings to the government bean counters. For the rest of us, the idea of turning over a portion of our paychecks to big bureaucracy is the equivalent of being asked to donate a couple of fingers to medical research.

That's not to mention that complying with the maze of tax laws in place around the world isn't always easy. That's especially the case for folks in creative fields where income can be erratic. (Just ask Stephen Baldwin. Or Wesley Snipes. Or Nicolas Cage.) The good news for artists in Mexico, though, is that they can use the fruits of their creative endeavors to keep the tax man at bay.

Pago en Especie (Payment in Kind) is a six-decade old program in which Mexican artists give a piece of their own artwork to the government in order to zero out the amount of federal taxes they owe. In a way, the program cuts out the middle man: Artists don't have to hock their works on the private market and then use that cash to satisfy tax obligations. The program also provides the government with an impressive collection of fine art for museums and public spaces, with contributions coming from names as notable as Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington and Rufino Tamayo.

Mexican artist Leonora Carrington, pictured here in 1975, has used the Pago en Especie system to pay her taxes with artwork.
Mexican artist Leonora Carrington, pictured here in 1975, has used the Pago en Especie system to pay her taxes with artwork.
Jerry Engel/New York Post Archives/Getty Images

Pago en Especie was hatched in 1957 after Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros offered to give the feds some paintings in order to stay out of jail over unpaid taxes. Sixty years later, the Mexican government is sitting on a cache of some 8,000 works of fine art, including paintings and sculptures.

Thinking of grabbing an easel so you don't have to grab that checkbook to fulfill your civic duty? Think again: Not everyone with a paint by numbers set and a flair for color can cover their tax bills with a couple hours in the studio. Artists are vetted by government officials and a panel of other legit artists before they can participate in the program, and the works they donate have to meet a certain standard of quality. Artists make the government donations according to reported sales, donating one piece to the government for every five that they sell on the open market. Tax collectors value those pieces based on the going price for other works by the same artist.

"You might think we would be tempted to scribble something on a napkin to pay our taxes," artist Miguel Calderón told The Atlantic in 2014. "But aside from being convenient, it is also a source of pride, knowing that your art will become part of a historic collection that reflects Mexico's creative heritage."