Nova Scotia

Halifax sculptor wins appeal of CRA demotion to 'hobby artist'

Installation artist Steve Higgins said his tax accountant received verbal confirmation this week that he won his appeal of a 2018 ruling, and is now considered a professional artist by the agency.

'I knew in my heart and I knew professionally that I was a professional artist,' says Steve Higgins

Steve Higgins says his tax accountant received verbal confirmation this week that he won his appeal of a 2018 ruling by the Canada Revenue Agency that deemed him a 'hobby artist.' He's now considered a professional artist by the agency. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

An established Halifax sculptor says he won his appeal of a Canada Revenue Agency ruling that demoted him to the status of "hobby artist" and saddled him with a $14,500 tax bill.

Installation artist Steve Higgins said his tax accountant received verbal confirmation this week that he won his appeal of the 2018 ruling and is now considered a professional artist by the agency.

"I didn't expect this. I didn't know what to expect… I was elated," said Higgins, who is also a part-time instructor at  NSCAD University.

"It's been such a long period of time wrestling with this. I knew in my heart and I knew professionally that I was a professional artist. This hobby thing was out of nowhere."

How the problem started

Higgins was notified early last year that his expense claims from a 2013 art project were rejected because the work was funded by public grants and not sold for profit.

He was informed he owed roughly $14,500 in back taxes, and was declared a hobbyist.

"[The assessor] claimed that I earned that designation simply because I only do it for my own pleasure," said Higgins, surrounded by wood scraps and power tools inside his workshop in Prospect, just outside Halifax.

"Well, he was half right. I do love what I do, but it's much more complex than that. It's an intellectual pursuit, it's a creative pursuit and it's part of the fabric of the culture of Canada."

Higgins — who has been exhibiting since 1974 in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia — said he immediately paid the $14,500 in back taxes to avoid any penalties, "and then I started to fight."

Since he's not yet received anything in writing, he's not sure how the appeal ruling will affect that figure, but expects it will be amended.

CRA rejected grant money as income

In 2013, Higgins received more than $20,000 in public grants for a sculpture installation called Beyond the Terminating Vista, which he exhibited at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in the spring of 2013.

Most of the grant money came from the Canada Council for the Arts, which gave Higgins roughly $13,000. The Arts Council of Nova Scotia and the City of Halifax contributed the rest.

However, CRA rejected his claim that the grant money was business income and denied his claim for expenses against the grants.

Higgins hopeful ruling sparks change

Higgins said he hopes the ruling sets a precedent and spurs change in how CRA assesses artist expenses.

"I'm very hopeful that soon, the CRA will amend their wording about eligibility for deductions in such a way that artists — professional artists, senior artists, midstream artists, emerging artists — have more clarity on how to proceed and not end up facing the kind of taxation that I faced initially," he said.

"I'm not the only one... I've got phone calls from other artists who say they're fighting with the exact same thing."

Response from CRA

In a statement, CRA spokesperson Alexandre Igolkine said the agency wasn't able to comment on specific cases.

He said the agency doesn't target or exclude any category of taxpayer when selecting returns for review.

"While most individuals who earn income from an activity chose a profession that satisfies their interests, their motivation for carrying out that activity is usually to earn income," said Igolkine.

"If there is clearly no personal element to the activity, the taxpayer's pursuit of profit is established and source of income is established. A personal endeavour or endeavour with a personal element means that the person undertakes the activity, at least in part, for personal satisfaction regardless of other factors, such as profit."

Arts groups closely watching case

April Britski, executive director of the national lobby group Canadian Artists Representation, said artists across Canada have been watching Higgins' case closely.

She said after the situation came to light last year, members of the Canadian Arts Coalition formed an artist taxation committee and have held several meetings with CRA.

"They've taken this issue very seriously," said Britski.

She said the agency committed during a recent meeting to examine the potential for artists to use a different box on T4As when reporting income through grants and awards.

Ben Donoghue, executive director of the Media Arts Network of Ontario, called the ruling "great news" for artists across the country.

"I am hopeful that this judgment will act as a further catalyst towards a clear and consistent treatment of artists that supports their unique contributions while recognizing the rich diversity of practices and economic models," he said in an email.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.