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Mexico City artists resist borough’s attempt to tax public sale of their work

The artists point to an exemption in the city’s fiscal code and also argue that they are providing a valuable cultural service to both citizens and visitors to the capital.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Painter Alejandro Flores Horta’s enamel subjects contemplate a lively scene from their tinplate homes hung on a latticework in the San Jacinto Plaza. 

The 67-year-old artist has exhibited and sold his work in this public garden located in Mexico City’s San Ángel neighborhood for nearly four decades. And if his time here has taught him anything, it’s that history indeed repeats itself. 

He and his fellow members of the Art Garden Association are defending their right to sell their work in public without being charged the tax the city imposes on artisans, food vendors and the multitude of others who make a living hawking on the streets of the capital. 

Also 67 years old, the association was formed in 1955 by a group of university students seeking a public forum to express their individuality through their art. Now an important draw for tourists from across the globe, the open-air art market has assembled here and in the neighboring plaza of El Carmen every weekend since, interrupted only by the lockdown measures of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March, the borough of Álvaro Obregón, in which the San Ángel neighborhood is located, began creating a registry of the artists who exhibit and sell in the plaza and demanded that they pay the public space usage tax. It’s something to which veterans like Flores have grown accustomed.

“This always happens. Every time the borough government changes, they try to charge us. Sometimes we just have to go and explain to them what we do, other times they are more aggressive with their tactics,” he said as a jazz trio tapped out “The Charleston” next to the park’s central fountain.

Enamel painter Alejandro Flores Horta, 67, hangs his original pieces for display and sale in the weekend market in San Ángel's San Jacinto Plaza. He has seen several efforts by the government to tax artists during his nearly four decades at the market. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Despite the government’s perennial insistence, however, the artists have a clear-cut defense: an article in the city’s fiscal code that exempts books, paintings and other “promoters of culture” from the tax. 

While the financial element of the levy would present a burden to some artists who, like Flores, supplement their incomes with the sales they make in the plazas, the roots of their opposition go deeper than pocketbooks. 

Flores said that paying the tax would put the art garden in the class of a tianguis, the weekly tarpaulin-covered markets that take over entire streets throughout the city, providing neighborhoods with fresh produce, meat, clothing, household items, folk art and more. 

“But we really aren’t a tianguis, we’re artists who come to exhibit our work,” he said. “What we do is a cultural exchange. The government loans me the space, and I in turn provide a service.”

Fellow artist Oscar Cruz, who sells his oil paintings in the neighboring El Carmen Plaza, agreed that it’s not about the money. 

“I wouldn’t mind paying,” said Cruz, 45, who has exhibited here for nine years. He began by simply showing off his work. Learning the art of making a sale took him a few years. 

“The tax would put us in the sphere of artisans, but here we exhibit our original pieces. It would be just another obstacle in a very difficult profession,” he said. 

Artist Oscar Cruz, 45, displays his artwork at the El Carmen Plaza in San Ángel, Mexico City. Cruz said his opposition to the tax isn't about the money, but rather being put in the category of an artisan or vendor, rather than an artist. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Art Garden Association president Eduardo Zúñiga said that he and his cohort are determined to defy being put into the category of folk art. In addition to the cultural service provided by the exhibition and sale of each individual artist’s work, the association also offers art workshops free of charge to citizens and visitors alike in another park in the city where it operates. 

It hopes to be able to bring these workshops to the plazas in San Ángel as well, but the local administration headed by borough mayor Lía Limón has not welcomed the initiative. 

On March 26, representatives from the borough came to the plazas to demand that artists provide them with information like their names, work and purpose for their use of the public space. 

“We feel a bit intimidated,” said Zúñiga, who added the government has not made its demands by any legal means. “They have given verbal warnings. It’s been constant harassment.”

While such attempts to tax the artists is a recurring hassle for the association, the current push could be one of the more aggressive ones. One government official threatened to send in the police to clear the plazas if the artists fail to comply. 

“It was just a verbal threat, but we hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Zúñiga, who added that such a move would also negatively affect the economy and tourism in the area. The plazas are surrounded by galleries, restaurants, cafés and other businesses that benefit from visitors who come to the artist market.

Neither borough mayor Limón nor the Álvaro Obregón administration responded to a request for comment.

An artist awaits customers at the weekend art market in San Ángel's San Jacinto Plaza. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The Art Garden Association filed a complaint with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, claiming the borough’s actions violate their human rights to freedom of speech and personal identity, among others. 

Zúñiga called art galleries “elitist” and said it often takes connections to get one’s art displayed in them. The Art Garden, in contrast, is a “very democratic space” in which the members of his association can develop their artistic and professional identities.

For him, the matter is rather cut and dry: “The government officials have their limits, and they can’t exceed their authority. If our exemption is specified by the law, they have to respect that.”

Courthouse News correspondent Cody Copeland is based in Mexico City.

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