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Artists come together in petition to remove duty from art supplies

Years ago, the late Brent Malone often called upon the Bahamian government to reevaluate the 45% duty on imported art supplies.

Since then, musicians, Junkanoo artists and even printing companies have received concessions or had the duty removed completely to continue doing the work they love and which contribute to the cultural development of The Bahamas.

Now one artist has taken up the cause so often talked about within the art community and submitted a petition as a proposal to the government to remove the high cost of importing art supplies.

“It was something that as practicing artists we need and deserve,” says Dionne Benjamin-Smith, who began gathering signatures for the petition over  year ago.

“I mean, have you ever tried to buy a tube of paint here? It’s beyond what people can afford.”

Indeed, the cost of high-quality art supplies means that the resulting artwork is often very expensive. Add to that the fact that duty tax on foreign completed artwork imported into the country is only 10%, and it’s no wonder over 500 people—local and abroad—including almost every local practicing artist, signed the petition in support of changing this skewed dynamic.

“I went about it by way of petition because I thought it would have more significance if the artists were behind it,” Benjamin-Smith explains. “All artists, bar none, supported it.”

“The emotional reaction was very passionate—even non-artists supported the idea that visual artists are a huge part of the creaion of culture and voice of the nation and represent the Bahamas as ambassadors while abroad.”

Though high duty on foreign imports is meant to encourage buying locally-made products, as many artists know, almost no locally-made products exist—there are no Bahamian-made acrylic or watercolor paints or even high-quality paper—so why have the duty in place?

As many small businesses run by artists already apply for concessions directly through the Ministry of Finance, Benjamin-Smith makes an argument in their appeal with the petition that to give concessions to roughly 300 more locally practicing artists would hardly make a dent financially. In fact, it may increase benefit to the economy, as artists could lower the cost of their work significantly and perhaps sell more pieces at reasonable prices.

“Artists can come to the Ministry of Finance and prove that they are a professional artist by the work that they do, show that they’re paying national insurance and show that if they have a small business that their business licence is up to date,” she says.

“If they show them the list of things they’ll need for that year, then they can give them concessions that year for those things. That’s something the government is already doing, so they can do it for 300 people if the artists that apply are well-organized—it would be up to the artist.”

In case there was any question as to what constituted “art supplies”, Benjamin-Smith also submitted an extensive and detailed list of supplies varying from paint to material for sculpture to even letterpress printing equipment based on the suggestions she received through the petition itself. She even specified art supplies that teachers would purchase for their students.

Lifting the duty on such supplies would have far reaching effects beyond financial gain for artists themselves and promoting locally made artwork. Not only would it encourage artists who travel abroad to study their craft to come and practice at home, but it would then in turn develop and enrich the cultural landscape, making The Bahamas a top destination in cultural tourism.

Indeed, it is time for the government to show that they are behind the arts and therefore behind such important cultural development for our future.

Benjamin-Smith points out that when they significantly invested in arts and culture years ago—through the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas—it initiated a renaissance of art and culture across the board with a slew of gallery spaces, workshops and a wave of emerging artists. Yet that was over a decade ago and art needs another push to continue flourishing at the level it has grown.

“The government constantly calls on artists and cultural figures to support their programs and yet they’re hardly giving anything back,” she points out. “We represent our country on a world stage but we don’t have the support to do so.”

Though the petition has closed a year after opening for signatures with a total of over 500 voices of support, it now awaits consideration and hopefully approval in 2012 through Benjamin-Smith’s efforts and help from Antonius Roberts. Now all the art community can do is wait and hope for the positive outcome that can push this country in the right direction culturally.

“I’m very hopeful that even if there is not a total eradication, at least the stamp tax will be removed,” says Benjamin-Smith. “I feel very positive about it.”

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