Nothing is Certain but Death and Taxes
By ANN ROSENBERG
If Benjamin Franklin thought this was true in the 18th century, his aphorism might benefit from this 21st-century amendment. Even today, death remains the universal leveller but taxes vary enormously from property to property, city to city and from country to country.
The tax assessments for commercial galleries in Vancouver are so outrageous you will think Im making them up. For a premise in the South Granville Gallery Row area, the 2010 tax bills ranged from $45,000-$60,000. Some particulars of commercial tax assessments (unlike residential tax estimates) are available to the public, and most can be obtained by phoning City Hall or checking an appropriate website. This service accommodates those who are nosy and/or seriously curious about renting or owning property on certain shopping streets.
Further research revealed that renters of gallery premises are often subject to triple net leases which require tenants to be solely responsible for all costs relating to net real estate taxes, insurance, and maintenance in addition to the rental fee. These conditions are set forth in legally binding short or long-term agreements made between owners and occupiers. Whichever way you examine the situation, taxes are a fundamental costly factor.
Xisa Huang (owner of the Bau-Xi Gallery since 1970) gave me an indication of other items that all galleries typically pay for such as salaries, health and other benefits for staff members; utilities including telephone, fax and internet connections; security alarms; printing, advertising and mailing costs; equipment maintenance and repairs of many kinds; vehicles and shipping; and brokerage, accounting and legal fees. She is amazed that despite ever-escalating costs, many local galleries are still open and that more artists than 20 years ago are making money with art as their full-time occupation.
Andy Sylvester, Director of the Equinox Gallery, told me a few things about taxation categories and gallery location restrictions. On South Granville and elsewhere in Vancouver, galleries are taxed in the same category as retail shops that sell shoes, clothing and similar commodities which is different from the way property taxes for grocers and restaurants are calculated. Furthermore (although these are slightly different issues) you cant operate a gallery in a neighbourhood designated as residential or in an industrial area filled with warehouses or factories unless the zoning is C3 which does allow for arts and crafts.
The historically sanctioned zone where the Equinox is situated is managed by the South Granville Business Improvement Association. Among other things, the Association boasts a lavish website as one of its benefits and it lobbies for more equitable levels of taxation. Galleries like the Equinox are required to become members for a fee of several thousand a year. Last year the commercial tax component for Sylvester's gallery was assessed at just over $45,000. No wonder he is seeking a different future location for the Equinox Gallery.
In comparison, across the border the commercial tax costs for a major gallery are considerably less. For example, Phen Huang, proprietress of the Foster/White Gallery in Seattle's Pioneer Square, received a $20,000 assessment for 2010. With slightly less than 11,000 square feet of street level space, the Foster/White is comparable in size to the Equinox Gallery. In an area somewhat akin to Vancouver's South Granville Gallery Row, a 9th Avenue gallery in Portland with over 2,000 square feet was assessed less than $4,400 in annual property taxes.
There are warnings about the ticking time bomb that is lurking behind the calls for making changes to the extreme inequities between commercial and residential tax rates. The outcome may give home owners some sleepless nights.
Ann Rosenberg is a freelance curator, critic