The Block Island Times

R.I. is the “State of the Arts”

By Gloria S. Redlich | Nov 17, 2013

Rhode Island has the distinction of being the first, and so far only, state in the country designated as a “State of the Arts.” The new law that created the designation, recently passed by the General Assembly, has a practical meaning for artists: it extends tax exempt status on the sale of any original artwork throughout the state. Those who pushed for the law also hope that whatever tax revenue is lost will be more than made up in increased art sales in Rhode Island. Block Island artists said they hope that the legislation will be an impetus for more artists to show at local galleries and for more art lovers to come to the island to visit galleries and art shows.

A community meeting was convened on-island on Oct. 25 to discuss the legislation and its economic implications. The meeting came about through the combined efforts of Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Executive Director Randall Rosenbaum and Block Island Tourism Council Executive Director Jessica Willi.

Several island artists were present at the October meeting. Among these were Jessie Edwards and Jerry Powers. When asked about the law, Edwards commented, “I found it very exciting. Randy Rosenbaum was very exciting. It was the first such meeting held in the state, and he [Rosenbaum] feels that Block Island has been underserved and is anxious to pull us into the Rhode Island arts community.”

Recently reached in his Providence office, Rosenbaum said the new law  came about because of “a recognition that the arts can be a powerful draw for visitors and that the arts can contribute significantly to our state economy.”

When a version of the law was passed in 1996, a total of nine “art districts” were created offering the tax exempt status. Block Island was not included at the time, but with the passage of the new law, the entire state is an art district, according to Rosenbaum.

He added that the change would affect the sale of “original and limited editions of works of art and for all works sold in Rhode Island.” Pointing out that the new legislation, which goes into effect on Dec. 1, was “designed to make Rhode Island a destination for an art-buying public,” Rosenbaum said it creates a “brand [for] Rhode Island as the State of the Arts.”

Specifically, the new law would be particularly meaningful for island gallery owners, he said, that promote not only works of Rhode Island artists but those from many other places, as well. He added, “This would allow [galleries] to be a destination for the sale of art at a discount.”

Furthermore, Rosenbaum anticipated that the tax exemption would be attractive enough to out-of---state artists for them to consider showing at Rhode Island galleries and possibly provide sufficient incentive for some to relocate to the state.

The new law should also appeal to persons in the market for art, who will be drawn to the state for their purchases. Rosenbaum explained, “The small amount lost in sales tax to the state will be more than made up in the monies spent by cultural tourists while in Rhode Island.” He felt certain their presence in the state would generate hotel, restaurant and retail sales as well.

Island artists elated

Artist Jerry Powers was also elated about the state’s new designation and the economic ramifications for artists like himself. He said, “I think it is terrific that fine art and traditional craft will be exempt from Rhode Island sales tax.”

In listening to Rosenbaum, Powers was drawn to the rationale for creating Rhode Island as a “state of the arts,” which he understood as the state “trying to brand itself as one in which the arts matter the most.” Consequently, Powers felt this kind of state commitment could potentially attract individuals from other states— artists and businesses dealing with or promoting the arts—to come to Rhode Island.

Artist Sharon Lehman said “I am delighted! I would like to make it a large part of our advertising for Spring Street Gallery next summer and really educate people about this price break. We artists always hope that the desperate love of our artwork is what sells a piece, but a little discount might help a buyer feel more inclined to make that decision.”

Lehman also pointed out that the “economy has made a slow comeback for many artists. I appreciate the fact that the state made this kind of commitment to support the arts, and hope the new law will have the desired effect of attracting new art lovers to the market — and to Block Island.”

Photographer Gerard Closset agreed. “I feel this is a great idea and the state should be commended for a very  progressive effort to develop ‘art  tourism’ and over time make the state a popular art destination. This has many positive ramifications for Block Island galleries and artists, as they will no longer have to to pay sales tax on the sale of original artwork after Dec. 1,” Closset said.

Clearly pleased by the passage of the law, however, Rosenbaum was reluctant to admit he’d been “instrumental” in helping to foster the new legislation; however, he did admit to being very “actively involved in” the process. He credited Rhode Island House Representative Donna Walsh, whose district includes New Shoreham, and State Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed with pushing for the legislation, which is included in the state’s budget for the current fiscal year.

Workshops have been scheduled around the state for those who wish to learn more about the law. (See sidebar here.)

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