Danielle Merrick, executive director of Kansas City Volunteer Lawyers & Accountants for the Arts, spoke at an “Ask the Experts” program at the Kansas City Artists Coalition in September 2019. (photo by Marissa Starke)
You might not expect a fire-eating, sword-swallowing performance artist to slay legal and accounting dragons, yet such is the case with Martika Daniels.
But Daniels, a performance artist, doesn’t face those dragons alone. She is one of many Kansas City area artists who have received valuable career-enhancing guidance from KC Volunteer Lawyers & Accountants for the Arts (KCVLAA).
Daniels said soaking up information at KCVLAA workshops helped her find an accountant who assisted her with tax issues and articles of incorporation. The organization also led her to a lawyer who guided her through the intricacies of copywriting and other legal aspects of publishing a children’s book.
“It has helped my business and pushed it in a direction I didn’t think was possible, because I didn’t know what I needed to know,” Daniels said. “Those workshops saved me thousands of dollars in time. And because I got my business license and learned to do all the right things, I’ve been able to get two COVID business loans.”
The nonprofit KCVLAA started in 2004 with the encouragement of the Missouri Arts Council, the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, the St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts and the Texas Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts. Its website states that “without KCVLAA, the legal and accounting problems of many artists and arts organizations would go unresolved. KCVLAA provides a critical link between members of the legal, business and arts communities.”
Danielle Merrick, KCVLAA executive director, said “a pretty good chunk of the population engages in some sort of creative work that benefits the economy. If the arts were to disappear from the Kansas City metro, there would be a measurable and substantial economic impact.”
Debra Smith, a self-employed textile artist who joined the KCVLAA board a few years ago, said the organization recommended attorneys to her when an auto accident prevented her from attending a gathering of local art patrons.
“I lost the opportunity to meet some of the most distinguished patrons in the Kansas City community because of this accident,” Smith said. “It was an incalculable loss because it involved the building of future relationships and opportunities. I had a conversation with two lawyers, and they helped guide me in the language I needed to facilitate the closing of the case.”
When Smith was in Roswell, New Mexico, earlier this year she received a letter informing her that she owed Kansas City, Missouri, three years’ worth of “city tax,” constituting what she characterized as “epic fines and interest.”
The letter referred to Kansas City’s one percent earnings tax. Smith said she had not been familiar with the earnings tax because, as a self-employed person, an employer had never deducted it from her pay. She told Merrick about the letter, and Merrick recommended that she talk to Dean Vivian, a tax preparer who worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist.
So Smith tracked down Vivian. “He spoke to me for over an hour on a Sunday. He helped me look at my documents and confirmed that the numbers the city was asking for were correct.”
Vivian said self-employed, “gig economy” artists must keep records they can use to justify income tax deductions, especially in light of tax law changes that have generated heightened scrutiny of self-employed individuals.
“They should be sure that they’re following the rules the way the IRS wants them to,” Vivian said. “As long as they know how to keep records and what records to keep, they’re fine. Be completely honest with your income and your deductions and sleep well at night, knowing that when your day comes for the audit, you just go in there and prove everything to the penny.”
Merrick said the COVID-19 pandemic forced KCVLAA to transition in-person events such as workshops online. Some events had to be suspended.
“The flipside is we’ve had a better outreach with an online environment for some of our events, because we had people who were not able to get off work, travel to an event, attend the event and go back to work the same day,” she said.
Merrick said consultations have lent themselves well to online formats such as Zoom. “Every third Thursday of the month, we do 45 minutes of free consultations with artists. They can speak to a financial professional or an attorney for free for 45 minutes. With the power of Zoom we can create breakout rooms and put people into individual rooms.”
Smith said serving on the KCVLAA board has enabled her to learn more about the organization, and she wants to spread the word far and wide. She said KCVLAA needs $4,000 to $7,000 to update its website, including enhancements to make it accessible to individuals who are deaf and blind. “During this time of COVID, the ability to share information through a computer has become even more important,” she said.
According to the KCVLAA website, those seeking assistance from the organization will be asked to become a member. Members pay an annual membership fee. Individual artists pay $50, full-time students pay $25, and organization memberships range from $50 to $400, depending on the organization’s annual budget. Those who don’t want to become members must pay a one-time non-refundable fee of $25. The volunteer attorney or accountant to whom your case is assigned will provide services at no charge. You may be required to pay for direct expenses such as government filing fees or taxes that are necessary for your representation.
Merrick, who is an attorney and a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said about 190 volunteer lawyers and accountants work with KCVLAA. Volunteers are not obligated to take a certain number of cases, and there’s no orientation to go through. “I get lawyers and accountants in various stages of their careers that volunteer with us,” she said.
Merrick said it’s not difficult to recruit and retain volunteer attorneys, because most attorneys who work for firms that bill by the hour are allowed to deduct pro bono or volunteer hours from their billable hours’ requirement.
Accounting firms are more likely to provide monetary contributions or sponsorship as opposed to pro bono services, Merrick said. She’d like to see more accountants volunteer. “We get a lot of questions from artists that most accountants would be able to answer in their sleep. Most of our clients need less than five hours of service.”
Lawyers and accountants who wish to volunteer may do so via the organization’s website, www.kcvlaa.org.
“If you volunteer we send you a list of cases, and if you are interested in those cases just let me know,” Merrick said.
Merrick said those who have additional questions about the organization may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.