Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Artist Visa Classification Periods: Your Immediate Attention Required!

We hear often from those of you who are justifiably frustrated, angry and distraught over the process of obtaining visas for foreign artists to perform in the United States. The process is arbitrary, expensive, and unpredictable...and, in many respects, insulting and offensive to the arts community. Now, here’s something you can do about it. A chance to be heard…but we need you to act quickly.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency in charge of approving visa petitions for foreign artists, occasionally makes overtures about improving the process, takes a small step forward, and then takes two steps back. Often making things worse. USCIS is, once again, willing to making a gesture to address a key concern, but is asking for our feedback to their proposal. If we don’t give them some direction, then we are forfeiting the process to individuals who have, very often, never seen a live performance.

Here’s the issue…

Historically, assuming an artist or group qualified for a visa, the visa would be approved to cover the US engagements on their itinerary, even if the engagements were months apart. For example, if an opera singer or orchestra had a series of engagements in the spring and then another set of engagements in the fall, their visa would be issued for a full year to cover both sets of engagements. For a conductor hired to conduct concerts for a summer festival, it was not uncommon to receive a three-year O-1 visa, even if the artist’s only engagements were in July and August of each successive year. And then….it all went very wrong.

Beginning in the fall of 2009, USCIS began arbitrarily reversing, reinterpreting, and reinventing (without warning and without legal authority) a number of long standing policies and regulations. Among them, visa classification periods began being severely truncated. Where artists or ensembles had gaps between engagements longer than 45 days, USCIS began approving visas only to cover the engagements prior to the first gap. After that, to re-enter the US to perform the remaining engagements, the artists and ensembles would have to re-apply for visas to cover the subsequent engagements.

Despite USCIS’s protestations to the contrary, this was an obvious attempt to drive more revenue into the system. Whereas an artist could previously file one petition to cover a spring and fall tour, the artist would now have to file two petitions: one for each “tour.” This would, of course, require two $320 filing fees and, if USCIS was lucky, two $1000 premium processing fees. For those of you following such things, during this same period of time, USCIS also attempted to redefine and limit the word “agent” in order to force each venue to file its own petition as opposed to the longstanding practice of allowing an agent to file a petition to cover an itinerary of multiple engagements. The end goal was the same: multiple petitions and, thus, multiple filing fees.

A coalition of key performing arts organizations, including the League of American Orchestras, American Federation of Musicians, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Dance/USA, North American Performing Arts Managers and Agents, OPERA America, Performing Arts Alliance, and Theatre Communications Group, was able to convince USCIS to reverse its position with regard to “agents” and preserve the ability for a petition to cover an itinerary of engagements…albeit with a few new irritating, but relatively minor, bits of required documentation. And now, that same devoted, beleaguered, and relentless group of arts advocates has persuaded USCIS to re-think its new policy of arbitrarily restricting the length of a visa classification period…maybe…as it pertains to O visas…and….maybe….P visas….but we don’t know.

Here is where we need your help…

USCIS has issued a memorandum on the guidance it proposes to offer USCIS examiners when processing visa petitions in which there are gaps of time between performances. (I, too, was surprised to learn that USCS examiners could read, but apparently they do if it comes from USCIS!) While we are cautiously optimistic and generally support the memo, UCIS has given us until May 24, 2010 for the performing arts community to weigh in with statements and comments explaining why efficient and reliable visa processing is essential to supporting international cultural exchange. We also need to explain the financial and logistical burdens of requiring foreign artists and ensembles to apply for multiple visas when they are on tour throughout the year. (Bear in mind, these issues are not obvious to people who do not frequent the arts. That is less of an admonition than an enticement to use this as an opportunity to educate.)

The Performing Arts Alliance has conveniently created a link where you can read the proposed USCIS memo as well as send an email message directly to USCIS with your thoughts and comments. Suggested comments and talking points are even included for you. Please visit:

As the memo only currently applies to O visas (for individual performers), we particularly need managers, agents, artists, and presenters who can also explain to USCIS why this memo should also apply to P visas for groups and ensembles.

If USCIS tried this with any other industry, there would be a flood of lawsuits, politicians, and outrage. But the arts, as an industry, have long been trained to ask rather than demand. To be grateful for crumbs, rather than insist upon an entrée. As a result, we are too often marginalized and overlooked when it comes to regulatory and legislative policies. However, what we may lack in highly paid lobbyists, highly funded political action committees, and highly mad tea-parties, we can make up for in creativity, passion, and numbers. Please take a moment to let USCIS know we are out there, we care, and we count.

If possible please send us a copy of what you send USCIS so we can keep track of the responses.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Non-Profit Tax Returns: Avoiding "Doomsday"

The New York Times recently printed an article with the ominous title “One-Fourth of Nonprofits Are to Lose Tax Breaks” (see the Times’ website at In fact, the opening line of the article reads “As many as 400,000 nonprofit organizations are weeks away from doomsday…” Before everyone heads to panicsville, let’s take a quick look at what this really means for all of you nonprofit performing arts organizations out there.

Generally, any organization that has obtained tax-exempt status from the IRS is required to file an annual tax return – either Form 990, or Form 990-EZ – to report income and expenses. Up until 2007, tax-exempt orgs whose annual gross receipts were $25,000 or less were exempt from this filing requirement. However, a new law passed several years ago included a provision requiring ALL tax-exempt orgs to file an annual return. The new law also provides that any tax-exempt org that fails to file its annual return three years in a row will lose its tax-exempt status. Thus, the filing deadline is looming: any tax-exempt org that has not filed its returns for the last three years will lose its tax-exempt status!

The very good news for these organizations is that filing the necessary return could not be simpler! Small tax-exempt organizations whose annual gross receipts are $25,000 or less can opt out of filing the elaborate Form 990 or the slightly-less-elaborate Form 990-EZ, and INSTEAD file the Form 990-N, also known as the e-Postcard. Filing the e-Postcard requires that you submit the following information regarding your tax-exempt org:

1. Your organization’s legal name
2. Any other names your organization uses to do business (i.e., your d/b/a name)
3. Your organization’s mailing address
4. Your organization's website address (if you have one)
5. Your organization's Employer Identification Number (EIN)
6. The name and address of one of your organization’s principal officers
7. A “yes” or “no” answer to the question “Has your organization terminated or gone out of business?”
8. A “yes” or “no” answer to the question “Are you gross receipts normally $25,000 or less?”

That’s it. And filing is free!

The usual deadline for filing any of the e-Postcard is May 15th. However, since May 15th falls on a Saturday this year, you have until the following Monday, May 17th, to get your return in to the IRS. The form can be submitted online here:

One important note – tax-exempt organizations whose gross receipts are normally above $25,000 always have been required to file a tax return each year, so this change doesn’t affect them. (But they, too, would lose their tax-exempt status if they failed to file for three years in a row!)

So, with all due respect to the New York Times, this is hardly a doomsday scenario. And to all of you small nonprofits who have neglected your returns for the last three years: Take a break, pour yourself a stiff drink, and take a few minutes at your computer to ensure that your tax-exempt organization remains in good standing!

Posted by Robyn Guilliams, May 11, 2010