Home-Based Studios

By Daniel Grant

Courtesy of Handmade Business

Richard Stankiewicz (1923-83) was an artist revered by all but his neighbors. An early ''found object'' assemblage artist, he created sculpture comprised of throwaway automotive and machine parts that were welded together and given new life.

Seen in their finished states in museums, these sculptures seem like a miracle. However, his neighbors in Huntington, Mass., just saw his backyard turn into a junkyard filled with old drive shafts and engine parts. ''People complained about garbage on his lawn whenever he went collecting,'' Stankiewicz's friend and fellow sculptor Elliot Offner said. ''He talked all the time about the complaints he used to get.''

Some craftspeople may rent a space in which to create work within a commutable distance to where they live, but quite a few set up studios in their homes--which adds to their convenience and sometimes to their troubles.

The largest problems are from creating too much noise in a residential neighborhood. Goshen, Ky., stone sculptor Teresa Saborsky doesn't use her air chisels or angle grinder before 10 in the morning or after 7 p.m. because: ''I don't want to push it with my neighbors.''

Carolyn Muskat, a lithography print artist in Somerville, Mass., has been required to pay $150 to the city for each studio assistant or client so that they may park their cars legally on the street. On occasion, she sets up exhibits in her studio, holding those events on Sundays, because she says that's the only day that parking restrictions aren't in effect.

Working from home? Know the law!

The number of people in the United States working out of their homes has been growing significantly, from 15 million in 2006 to 21.9 million just last year, according to the Framingham, Mass., International Data Corporation. More and more municipalities have responded with rules including the percentage of the dwelling that may be devoted to a business. These rules reference the number of unrelated people working in the business, the amount of allowable noise and traffic, signage, license fees, and permits.

Raymond Boggs, vice-president in charge of small and medium business and home office research at International Data Corporation, noted that these fees represent a growth area for towns and counties when other forms of tax collection have peaked.

''Some cities don't care if you make or lose money,'' Boggs said. ''They just want their license fee.'' Yearly permits and licenses to operate a home-based business cost between $25 and $200, and taxes range from $1 to $6 per $1,000 in gross income. A certificate of occupancy may also be required for those taking a deduction for a home office (for instance, a studio) on their income taxes.

Artists often are surprised to find that regulations they associate with computer program developers and Amway distributors apply to them when they work at their own residences. Frequently, artists don't bother to find out if there is a home occupation ordinance, or they hope to stay under the radar of local officials and are only notified of the need to pay a permit fee (and perhaps penalties) when they receive a citation after a neighbor complains.

Some artists can't hide from the government, particularly those who inhabit live-work buildings that are specially designated for working artists in the fine and performing arts fields. ''In order to be eligible to live in one of our buildings, artists have to be certified as artists. They need to obtain a local business license,'' said Linda Schanfein, executive director of ArtHouse, a joint project of the San Francisco Arts Commission and California Lawyers for the Arts that helps area artists find affordable live-work and work-only spaces.

Painters tend to have the fewest worries about being reported, unless they generate a lot of traffic from visitors or employ numerous studio assistants. One worry-free exception was noted by Hilliard, Ohio, artist Kelley Daniel who painted the side of her garage with a giant sunflower. The town's Planning Commission, which must approve all changes in building exteriors, forced her to remove the image stating in a letter, ''Garage colors should match or be compatible with those of the house. Exterior colors should be subdued. No more than two colors should be used on Old Hilliard buildings. Color combinations should be simple. Mural has nine colors and a complex design.''

Printmakers are more apt than painters to draw the notice of neighbors, because the cleaning solvents they use could have odors or affect air quality. They also may have assistants or buyers who arrive regularly.

Artisans who use kilns and sculptors have an even greater likelihood of affecting the residential character of a neighborhood. Saborsky, who also uses a blacksmithing forge, claimed that she can't set up a permanent structure unless it's approved by a homeowners association, requiring her to do much of this work in her driveway.

Consider this

Working from home? Know your rights!

Peter Caruso II, a lawyer in Boston who has represented artists on behalf of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts of Massachusetts, stated that local ordinances restricting artists' studios at their homes have been challenged successfully on constitutional grounds. ''The government cannot tell you what you can put in your back yard unless there is a compelling governmental interest, such as something that attracts rats or endangers the public,'' he said, adding that under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ''the government cannot restrict someone's ability to earn a living.''

He added if a town's zoning rules are so specific that an artist would not be able to create at all, that would be in violation of First Amendment rights. However, he noted disputes between artists and their town governments do not reach the Supreme Court--or usually, any court--but result in the artists repairing relations with the neighbors, applying for a license, and paying any citation.

''It's advisable to know what the local law is,'' said New York City attorney Barbara Hoffman, who represents a number of fine artists, ''but compliance is another issue.'' Compliance may have its drawbacks for artists because they are entering an indeterminate relationship with a governmental agency.

As any other business, artists might be required to post their business licenses prominently where they work, and they are potentially subject to unannounced inspections of the workplace in order to insure compliance with the possibility that one's documents and records will be reviewed at the same time. Artwork that is deemed pornographic by a city inspector might be subject to a municipality's adult entertainment laws. Artists should contact the local planning and zoning authority and an attorney to determine which course of action to take.

Don't forget about IRS rules

A home studio is a business use of one's home and permits artists to deduct expenses such as a percentage of rent, mortgage interest, utilities, insurance, repairs, condominium fees, home depreciation, and real estate taxes. These deductions are figured in proportion to the square footage of the home studio in relation to the entire house or apartment.

An art studio that occupies 15 percent of a house may result in a write-off of 15 percent of all home expenses against art sales income. Importantly, the home studio must be an exclusive use of that space, rather than a shared or mixed use, so that an artist would not be able to make deductions based on a bedroom that also is used for someone to sleep in.

Joshua Kaufman, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who frequently represents artists cautions, ''Nothing triggers an audit by the IRS more than home office deductions, particularly for artists when they do not earn a profit in at least two years in a five-year period.'' Those whose expenses are greater than income in four out of five years are deemed ''hobbyists'' by the IRS, making them ineligible for artwork-related deductions.

On the positive side, Kaufman noted, information given to the Internal Revenue Service is not shared with a municipality, so artists who are operating a home studio without proper permits or licenses won't be turned in by the federal government. That helps artists avoid the contradictory problem of deducting home office expenses for the IRS while claiming to the town that the art is only a hobby in order to avoid obtaining a license or certificate of occupancy.