The Right to a Write-Off

Judith Citrin has been a psycho-spiritual healer for more than a quarter century now, something that began when she fell under the spell of Anais Nin and Morocco and was set on the path to the Golden Sufi. But back in the early 1970s she was a feminist artist, churning out imagist-influenced work with something to say about the objectification of women. Her complex little boxes employed paint, collage, and found materials, and while some were superficially discreet–lift the lock on a flat white wooden container the size of a man’s handkerchief and you’d find a ceramic lady sprawling naked on a painted tile–others announced their intentions, sporting L’eggs-container breasts and ceramic vaginas on their covers and sides.

Citrin, who studied at the University of Illinois, the School of the Art Institute, and the American Academy of Art, says she made this kind of work for three or four years before moving on. “They were audacious for the time,” she says, “and they got noticed.” One was included in the Art Institute’s 1973 “Chicago and Vicinity” show; another–a checkerboard lid raised to expose a set of teeth about to chomp on a penis–helped shut down a Florida gallery. In Chicago this work was sold by dealers like Nancy Lurie and Deson-Zaks, but this year Citrin decided to give away some of the pieces she still had. She donated nine boxes, a stack of drawings, and assorted other work–about 40 pieces in all–to Highland Park’s Suburban Fine Arts Center for their annual benefit sale. In return she’ll get a tax deduction–for whatever the paint and materials cost her 30 years ago.

It’s one more hard fact of the artist’s life that works of art have value in the eyes of the IRS only when someone else owns them. Anyone who purchased one of Citrin’s pieces from Sonia Zaks in the 70s would be able to donate it for the SFAC benefit and write off what they paid (though not its current value). But since Citrin kept it, its value beyond cost of materials is zilch. IRS rules prevent artists from claiming even an hourly rate for the time they put in on the pieces they’re so often asked to donate for charity auctions. The whopping tax benefits go to collectors who donate work to museums. Those donors can generally write off not only the bargain-basement price they may have paid for their van Gogh years ago but the $80 million or so the last van Gogh snagged at auction.

SFAC doesn’t have any van Goghs that it knows of this year, but it has 70 pieces by Uldis Krumins, a Latvian native who came to the United States when he was 20, graduated from the School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago, and worked most of his life in the basement studio of his Wilmette home. His daughter, Mara Krumins, says major corporations regularly bought his large abstract paintings, landscapes, and prints for their collections, but in the last 15 years or so he had turned to more personal work, a series of vibrant acrylic figure studies. After his death last December she decided to donate dozens of the figurative works he’d given her. A row of them are mounted across the back wall of the SFAC gallery–nudes caught in a rich swath of light, glowing as if in late-day sun. Mara, also an artist, says she’ll be talking to an accountant; since they’re not her work she thinks she’ll be able to take some sort of write-off. Beginning today, August 19, the already low prices for the Citrins, Kruminses, and hundreds of other pieces at the Suburban Fine Arts Center’s sale drop 50 percent, and even that’s negotiable.

The Perils of Public Art, Part Two

Artist Lincoln Schatz says he can finally talk about what went wrong with his $170,000 commission for Evanston’s Maple Avenue parking garage. According to Schatz, Evanston officials delayed the project while steel prices more than doubled, making it impossible to bring it in on budget. In a letter he sent in December 2003 to then city manager Roger Crum, Schatz detailed 39 months of frustration and nearly $30,000 in expenses, and pointed a finger at parks director Doug Gaynor. The standoff was settled with Schatz keeping a $51,000 advance and the city accepting a smaller piece of his work, which was dedicated this week. Gaynor declined to comment.

Meanwhile, sculptor Donna Zarbin-Byrne says she has a contract that requires the city to take care of the blatantly neglected mixed-media installation she designed for the Evanston firehouse at 1332 Emerson in the late 90s. Zarbin-Byrne says she provided the city with written instructions on maintenance, which until last year had been handled by a landscaper. “When I was told they no longer had the budget to maintain it and were turning it over to the fire department, I was surprised,” Zarbin-Byrne says. “It was never supposed to be the responsibility of the fire department.” According to Zarbin-Byrne, $2,400 was set aside to light the piece–something that was never done–and she wonders if it could be used for maintenance, which she estimates took just one hour a week. Gaynor says his department will maintain the bronze and will “add more plant material” in the fall; the weeding is up to the firefighters.


Home Vision Entertainment, a privately held Chicago company that carved a niche for itself as a distributor of independent and foreign films for home viewing, was sold this month to a California competitor, Image Entertainment, for $8 million. Image and Home Vision had shared distribution of the Criterion Collection’s nearly 300 titles, including special editions of films like Hoop Dreams and The Seven Samurai; for the next five years at least, Image will be the exclusive source for Criterion. Home Vision, which reported sales of $29 million in 2004, will close its Chicago operation by the end of this year, costing about 40 of 45 employees their jobs. CEO Adrianne Furniss won’t be among them: she has a three-year consulting contract with the new owner. . . . StoryCorps, the national project collecting people’s personal stories via a mobile recording booth, is coming to town, and Chicago filled its three weeks’ worth of spots in record time–two hours–on August 5, the first day reservations opened. Breeze Richardson of StoryCorps host WBEZ says they would have filled even faster if the computers in New York had been able to process at a faster rate. Spots will begin airing the week of August 22. For folks shut out, StoryCorps offers a DIY package; Richardson says ‘BEZ is looking at the possibility of hosting a permanent recording booth in Chicago (there are two now in New York), but says it might be a year before we’d see it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.