Artists, Inc. 

When a family goes corporate, art consumes life.

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and Oakland artist Sean Fletcher needs to buy birthday and Christmas presents for his six-year-old daughter and his wife. But first he must get permission from a man he barely knew just a year earlier.

"Lucy's birthday is tomorrow, and then Isabel's birthday is the 30th, and then, of course, we have the holidays coming up," Fletcher explains over the phone.

"She really wants to go to a ballet," the 36-year-old father says of his daughter. "I thought about taking some of her school friends with her to the ballet, but I don't know what that would cost."

"The ballet seems like a pretty expensive proposition," counters Allen Spore, the man who controls the family's money. "Is it something she really wants to do?"

"Oh, yeah," Fletcher responds. "She's into her ballet right now; ballet's a big deal."

The conversation turns to Fletcher's wife, Isabel Reichert. "What she said she wanted to do is" — Fletcher pauses, then tries again. "We haven't had a date. She'd like to go to dinner."

"A date would be fun," Spore agrees. "A dinner?"

"Yeah, a dinner."

"What do you want to budget for the dinner?"

"If I can get dinner and a movie, I'll go for it," Fletcher hints hopefully.

"That can be done for $75, $100?"

"Yes."

"That's cool. ... Done, approved," Spore pronounces.

"What about Christmas?" Fletcher asks.

"Umm," Spore ponders. "Well, if we did another $200 on that, would that cover everything?"

"I think so," the artist says.

Satisfied, Fletcher hangs up. But he's not finished. Armed with his gift budget, he still needs to inform fourteen other strangers and various acquaintances who know the intimate details of his everyday life, down to where he buys his condoms and how much they cost. That was a recent disclosure on his unusual company's quarterly report.


They say life imitates art. Fletcher and Reichert have turned their entire lives into art by, of all things, going corporate. A little more than a year ago, the husband-and-wife conceptual art team formed Death & Taxes Inc., a genuine corporate entity with its own bylaws and a board of directors consisting of acquaintances from the art and business worlds. The board oversees management's expenses — that is, Fletcher's and Reichert's household costs — and makes sure they don't exceed their modest means, very little of which comes from their art. Both have day jobs: She teaches art at UC Santa Cruz, and he's a financial planner.

Shortly after it formed, the corporation's board of directors approved a $76,000 household expense budget to cover everything from the mortgage and groceries to pet food and Netflix fees. Any time the pair confront an unbudgeted expense of more than $100, they need approval from the board — or at least an okay from its chairman, Allen Spore, an options trader — to spend the money, which explains Fletcher's conversation with Spore about the birthday gifts.

Fletcher and Reichert set a one-year deadline: If they weren't profitable by the end of 2006, they'd dissolve the company. Going out of business by year's end would enable them to avoid the state's $800 tax on corporations. The timeframe also mimicked a work by another conceptual artist duo who literally kept themselves tied together by a rope for one year, which served as a unique kind of endurance test. Fletcher and Reichert, too, would end up feeling shackled before long, but that story comes later.

In the meantime you may wonder, how, exactly, is this art? It's a legitimate question, and there's no tidy answer. But try this: By incorporating their family, the duo transformed daily life into a round-the-clock performance.

Like most conceptual artists, Fletcher and Reichert don't make the kind of art you can hang on a gallery wall. There's usually no object to sell — no painting, no sculpture, no framed photo. "These guys don't make art work like that," says Cheryl Meeker, cofounder of the online art journal Stretcher, who serves on the board of Death & Taxes. "That's what makes them so interesting."

"We always try to do work that's profound, not necessarily profound in a material way," Reichert explains. "We try to do work that really impacts our lives and hopefully the lives of others. I guess we do this through performances and actions rather than finished work that's on the wall somewhere."

As you might expect, the two artists are a little peculiar. Reichert, who came to the United States from Germany in 1995 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, where she met Fletcher, is friendly but intense. With her straight chin-length blond hair tucked behind her ears, she speaks earnestly about one of her early art-school projects, a series of "saliva paintings" that consisted of Reichert licking the walls of a gallery.

Fletcher is the more overtly silly one in the partnership, even if he's the one who keeps a foot in the real world, so to speak, by working a day job as a businessman. But even that blends into his art. Before becoming a financial planner, he spent almost seven years selling insurance. He calls it a seven-year "performance." He thinks he got fired for holding after-hours "gallery openings" where he hung his friends' art in the company's conference room without telling his bosses.

Art and life are inseparable for the couple. In fact, they practice a distinct brand of conceptual art they call "life art," which blurs the lines between reality and performance. But can living your life be called art? It's the same conundrum presented by the proverbial tree falling in the forest: If there's no audience, was there really a performance?

That, of course, is a philosophical question. From a practical standpoint, as Reichert and Fletcher would soon discover, Death & Taxes wouldn't merely turn their lives into art; it would turn their lives into a burden.


James Philpot is sitting at his office in downtown Oakland, trying to figure out what the heck these two artists are doing here. Philpot, a businessman who sold SpeeDee Oil franchises on the West Coast, is a counselor for the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a national organization that gives free advice to small-business entrepreneurs on getting their companies off the ground.

Fletcher and Reichert have come to SCORE to craft a business plan that will attract investors for Death & Taxes. At least that's what they say. Unbeknown to Philpot, he's a player in one of the couple's life-performances.

"I'm still not getting the point. ... I have a hard time understanding what you're striving for," the befuddled consultant tells Fletcher and Reichert.

"It's an attempt to privatize our lives and change it in a way that makes our lives more profitable," Reichert says.

Philpot remains skeptical. "You want to be profitable, but you don't have a product."

Seeing the consultant's confusion, Reichert allows that Death & Taxes isn't truly a product-based business. It provides a service, she says.

A service?

As Fletcher explains, Death & Taxes has been hired to streamline the household budget and activities of its clients — Fletcher and Reichert — so they have more money and time for their art. In truth, the business is failing. Death & Taxes has only complicated their lives, and has not made it more efficient or profitable. At the time they met with Philpot, they were projecting a $10,000 deficit by year's end.

Fletcher won't concede that the company has no products. There are, for instance, the quarterly corporate reports, which catalogue the couple's household expenses in excruciating detail — the $1 Fletcher gave to a panhandler; the $83.79 Reichert spent at Target on shoes, a skirt, and underwear. The bound reports — of which one hundred are printed each quarter — also have "financial highlights" sections that describe savings and unexpected costs, such as "A parking ticket sparked a stress-related incident that resulted in Sean accidentally throwing a morning newspaper through the front window of the house." Stanford University bought a $175 yearly subscription to the reports.

The couple also sold an empty Savarin coffee can for $48, the exact amount they needed to buy their daughter new shoes. Death & Taxes had obtained a corporate discount when buying the coffee, so the couple declared the cans as products of their project.

To Philpot, coffee cans and quarterly reports sound neither like products nor art. He tells them, gently, that venture capitalists are probably not going to invest in their little company because, well, VCs actually want to make money from their investment. "If you had a product," he ventures, "a tangible product people could feel, and it caught on ... "

The conversation turns into a discussion on the meaning of conceptual art. Fletcher explains that while the project may sound weird, they're hardly the first conceptual artists to push the definition of art. In the '60s, he recalls, artist Robert Barry did an installation consisting entirely of invisible radio waves (which could, however, be picked up on gallery visitors' radios). Barry would then "catch" the waves in a box and sell the box, Fletcher says.

Reichert makes the point that it's the artist, not the finished product, who gives a work its value. She cites Andy Warhol's painting of soup cans, which leads her back to the Death & Taxes coffee cans. "It's not the price of the coffee can," she argues, "it's the price of the thinking that went into the work."

"I'm still seeing Andy Warhol with a product, you know," argues the oil-change franchiser. "They're all over the place, and prints of him in different colors, and I can understand the concept. I think he's a traditional artist."

Obviously, the artists sitting in his cubicle are not. Fletcher and Reichert's first collaborative life-art piece featured them having couples therapy with a counselor in front of an art gallery audience. After Isabel became pregnant, they tried to sell the naming rights of their unborn child on eBay in a piece they called "Bait." (No one took the bait, so they named her Lucy.) In the past year, they hired a paparazzo to stalk them as if they were movie stars, and take their photos doing mundane things like drinking coffee at Starbucks. They also secured a patent for a totally useless invention called a "dust reorganizer" that takes dust and blows it around.

Philpot plays it completely straight. He begins going over the basics of assembling a business plan to send around to investors. "You formed a corporation, and you're taking a business approach to your art, so you might as well follow through with it," he advises.

The meeting concludes with Philpot telling them how he once was on the same plane flight as Andy Warhol. The artists pack up their video gear and thank Philpot, who offers a polite goodbye, but still looks like he can't figure out what in the hell this is all about.


Death & Taxes began as an artful tax dodge. Fletcher and Reichert were inspired by Paul Kos, an artist friend, who had an installation featuring a parrot named Pablito he had trained for more than a year to sing "The Internationale," a Socialist anthem. Of course, the parrot had to be fed. At the end of the year, Kos wrote off the cost of bird food on his taxes, which drew scrutiny from the IRS. A government auditor told Kos he couldn't deduct groceries. But Kos argued that these weren't his groceries, but food for his singing parrot — his art. Surprisingly, the IRS let him write off the expenses.

His experience got Fletcher and Reichert thinking about the possibilities for people who view their lives as art. "We were asking questions about taxes," Reichert recalls. "If your life is the artwork, then shouldn't it be possible to deduct the living expenses that we label as art?"

Fletcher says they realized that if their art were accepted in its purest form — as life — "it may present the largest loophole ever."

Getting from that "eureka" moment to reality took the couple more than a year. Fletcher says he and Reichert are very secretive about their ideas in the early stages. They fear that if they tell all their friends about a fledgling project, they'll lose the motivation to carry it out. The first person they told, in June 2005, was a white-collar criminal attorney.

They knew they would risk being audited, since the IRS doesn't usually allow deduction of routine personal expenses. Their attorney worried that the feds would come down on them for what he called an "illegal on-shore tax shelter." An accountant the lawyer recommended suggested they could survive an audit if they described their business as a service that "assumes the responsibilities of budgeting, managing of the cashflow, and paying the bills of its clientele."

On January 3, 2006, Death & Taxes Inc. was registered with the secretary of state as an official California corporation. The "taxes" part of the name is obvious, while "death" referred, in part, to a work by the late conceptual artist Joseph Beuys called "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare." The full name was catchy, too, a nod to Benjamin Franklin's famous axiom.

Once in business, the couple installed a punch-clock with time cards in their dining room. It's the standard machine many businesses use for hourly workers, although Reichert and Fletcher give it a new twist: Upon returning home from their day jobs, they would punch in to life at Death & Taxes and record their time spent living. When they left for work in the morning, they'd punch out.

Besides adding to their artistic mischief, they hoped the clock would help keep the taxman at bay. As Fletcher explained when it was installed last March, "The intention of the project isn't to avoid paying taxes, but the method we've chosen to file may raise a couple of eyebrows. We believe time cards will provide additional evidence to any would-be auditor that we're serious about what we're doing."

But over time the artists moved away from the tax angle. Fletcher says they felt they could only take that idea so far. "If the piece stopped at taxes, it wouldn't have been successful," he argues. "We wouldn't really need a board of directors because we could just ask our friends to help with the corporate accountability. We also could have done our own tax return because I think we would have pushed that envelope as far as we could, and no self-respecting accountant would have signed the 1040."

The couple, however, lacks a clear answer for what their project means now. Ditto some of their board members. "The more you talk about it, the more confusing it gets," concedes Sue Mark, a West Oakland artist. "I still don't quite get what they're trying to do."

That much quickly became apparent to Marcia Tanner, who resigned from the board after feeling she was a passenger on a rudderless ship. "I think maybe they started it without thinking it through," the former director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art says. In her mind, the duo wasn't willing to take enough risks and push the limits of absurdity far enough. Early on, Tanner suggested they sell shares to the company, but Fletcher and Reichert refused because they wanted to be able to claim a loss on their taxes if the company ended 2006 in the red. "I just began to wonder what the project was about and whether it was realizing its initial goals," she says, adding with a laugh, "not that I knew what those goals were."

Board member Stefan Jost, director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, thinks he has it figured out: The couple's piece, in his view, is a biting commentary on the modern art world. Artists are obsessed with making it big and getting rich nowadays, he says. Yet few will talk openly about their profit motives. Fletcher and Reichert, he believes, have created a project that on its surface openly embraces the concept of getting rich off your art, and uses a corporate model to get the point across.

Indeed, the artists gleefully appropriate corporate language to make exaggerated pronouncements in their reports: "The deregulation and privatization of the art markets create an enormous opportunity for Death & Taxes," reads Chairman Spore's "message to shareholders" prefacing the company's first-quarter report. "Just as painting was the primary media of the 19th century, and abstract expression was the innovation of the 20th century, conceptual art will be the primary source of art in the 21st century."

In reality, Fletcher and Reichert are the sole shareholders.

"What I like about this project," Jost says, "is that it acknowledges the obsessions with money and financial gain. But then (ironically) they don't manage to be successful at it, at making money."

Fletcher and Reichert encourage divergent interpretations of the meaning of their project, and revel in the ambiguity, which they believe enhances the work. "It can be more profound if it sits on the fence," Fletcher says. "We're not antiprivatization, we're not talking about the corporatization of anything. It's really — you're not quite sure. So when you see it or read about or experience it in some way, you have to think, 'Where are they on this?' And it stays with you for that reason, because you're not sure."

If pressed about the piece's meaning, they say it's a comment on the trend toward privatization of social and cultural institutions. That's a maddeningly unsatisfying answer and a mixed metaphor to boot. Exactly what are they privatizing? Their private lives? If anything, they've turned their private lives inside out for everyone to see. It's absurd.

Absurdity, indeed, is a running theme in conceptual art, and Fletcher and Reichert's work is no exception. "There's always a smile behind it," Spore admits. "But it's not a joke, it's not a one-liner."

As to whether it's art, Spore says there's no use in debating it: It's art if they say it is. Sue Mark concurs. "What Sean and Isabel are doing, the art part comes from being artists," she says. "But beyond that, it's an interesting experiment. They're taking their personal lives and opening it up to a group of relative strangers."

Of course, experiments can yield unintended results.


A woman with a clipboard is going through Fletcher and Reichert's refrigerator-freezer, cataloguing its contents. "Wow, you have a lot of bread in here," she says, surveying the frozen landscape. Soon Reichert is holding four unfinished loaves. "Why do we have all this bread?" she asks aloud. The artist puts the loaves aside as a friend captures it all on a camcorder for use in a documentary down the road.

"Oh, wait," the woman with the clipboard announces. "More bread." After she's finished with the fridge, she inspects the cupboards, and to her disbelief finds even more bread. Clearly, the auditor has uncovered a case of severe corporate waste and inefficiency in the kitchen.

The food auditor is Beth Lisick, a Death & Taxes board member better known as the Berkeley-based author of the memoir Everybody Into the Pool. Just a few months earlier, Fletcher and Reichert knew her only in passing. The board's mission is to oversee the couple's spending and lifestyle, and Fletcher says he and Reichert avoided recruiting friends for the slots. They wanted people who would be more objective, even cut-throat, in forcing them to adhere to the corporate bottom line.

Lisick's goal in visiting the artists' home off Oakland's 35th Avenue is to advise them on how to shop for groceries efficiently. In the corporation's first month, Fletcher and Reichert went overboard — one grocery bill alone amounted to more than $200, which put the couple on a path to go dangerously over budget on food.

So Lisick is taking inventory of what the starving artists already have so they don't go to the store and buy something they don't need — like another loaf of bread. After completing her inspection, she sits down with Fletcher and Reichert at the dining room table to plot out their meals. The key is menu-driven shopping. "If you're planning what you eat," Lisick tells them, "then you aren't running out at the last minute and buying things and spending money you wouldn't if you were more organized." With her help, Reichert and Fletcher plan their dinners for the next two weeks: Roast chicken and corn on the cob; turkey cutlets, rice, salad; grilled chicken and vegetables; and pizza (Lucy's favorite).

In another cost-control measure, the board nixed Reichert's request to buy a new computer when her old one died unexpectedly. Eventually, the board let her buy a used Apple G5 on Craigslist for $1,000, saving hundreds of dollars over what a new one would have cost.

Artist Sue Mark finds being a Death & Taxes board member a little uncomfortable sometimes. She never asks close friends about their finances, she says, but here she is examining the couple's most minute expenditures, right down to their Q-Tips. It was Mark who instructed them to sell a piece of their project to buy their daughter a new pair of shoes.

She thinks the artists are brave for opening up their lives to scrutiny. "It's like having an advisory board on how to live your life," she says. "That could be handy if you have the right people, but it could also be terrifying."

Months after Lisick's visit, Fletcher does a quick visual inventory of food on hand and sits down at the home-office computer with a template he's created to plan meals. Filling it in every other week is just one of the many pesky tasks required to keep the family business running. Added up, these little shopkeeping chores take up almost all of the couple's free time.

As Fletcher types in the menus, Lucy runs around the house with a friend from next door. The couple watches her at play, and both feel a twinge of guilt that they haven't had more time for their hyper little daughter over the past year. "These weekends where we're entering receipts into QuickBooks, she's kind of going, 'Hey, guys, play with me,'" Fletcher says.

Running Death & Taxes is like moonlighting at home. When Fletcher and Reichert come home from their day jobs, there's always something that needs to be done for the company: Documenting receipts, compiling information for the quarterly reports, transcribing tapes from the last board meeting, scheduling, updating the Web site (MyDeathand Taxes.com). "It's much more exhausting than we thought it was going to be," Fletcher says.

As the year progressed, Reichert in particular grew tired of their experiment. They had less time for Lucy, and they argued more — often over trivial business matters. After they joined the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, Reichert suggested they have business cards made to hand out when they went to Chamber mixers. But Fletcher dismissed cards as clichéd. Instead, he championed an idea she had made jokingly to hand out bananas with company stickers on them.

Then there was the simple fact that they didn't have time or money to do fun things. To balance their budget, they practically zeroed out their entertainment allowance, notwithstanding their Netflix subscription (which the board had them scale back at one point). Having to ask for permission to spend money gets old, even if it is in your fiduciary interest. Before they became a business, Reichert says, she could just go out and buy her daughter a new pair of shoes. "Now I have to wait for somebody to buy a coffee can before I can buy new shoes for Lucy," Reichert complained. "It's crazy."

As the one-year deadline approached, Reichert foresaw the project's imminent end with relief. But her husband didn't feel the same way. As their final scheduled board meeting approached — the one where they would decide whether to dissolve the company — Fletcher felt they should keep it going. A conversation the couple had with Santa Cruz environmental artists Helen Meyer Harrison and Newton Harrison in September had made Fletcher think they should perhaps start anew. The Harrisons thought the taxes angle was, at best, tangential, and they dismissed the company's name as misleading. They suggested a catchy alternative: Losing Money Inc., The Business of Living.

"In point of fact there's a lot of things that I think we wanted to do with this project that we haven't been able to do yet," Fletcher argued prior to the meeting. "And there's a lot of potential to do even more. So, as exhausting as it is, my feeling is that we should push it further. We should pay the corporate tax and take it at least another six months, or even another year. There's a part of me that conceptually feels that most businesses fail within the first three years, and if we're gonna give ourselves time, why stop at a year? Why not do what most businesses do and give it a three-year stretch?"


As he does at every board meeting, Death & Taxes chief financial officer Fletcher does a PowerPoint presentation of the company's fiscal outlook. About a half-dozen board members sit around a conference table at the Oakland Art Gallery in Frank Ogawa Plaza; two others listen in over a conference-phone speaker. "We still spent more on food," Fletcher says, the company balance sheet projected behind him, "but we think we've got that under control so by the end of the year we won't be that much over on food than what we predicted."

He also reports that during the past quarter, a PG&E technician came to their house and turned off the stove's pilot's light, which should save the business $2 a month. "That last piece — there was a conversation about dissolving the company, because our intention when we started this project was to dissolve the company before December 31 if we weren't profitable with this piece," Fletcher says. "If we don't get to talk about that tonight we can talk about that on another night."

"I think we need to talk about that tonight," Reichert quickly interjects. "I'd like to say that first, Sean wants to keep this going and I don't." The room bursts into laughter.

In the end, Sean doesn't put up much of a fight. After spending yet another weekend entering receipts into spreadsheets, he's tired, too. Running a corporation is often tedious, hardly the romantic notion of the artist who experiences his work as a catharsis, the liberation of a burning creative energy (think Jackson Pollock attacking the canvas, or Jimi Hendrix improvising a wicked guitar solo). That's the thing about conceptual art — the real catharsis comes from the hatching of the idea, not necessarily its execution. "If we were to keep it going we'd have a find a way that wasn't as labor-intensive," Fletcher tells the board.

Board members jokingly ask if the work can be outsourced to India or whether the management team could be replaced. But when the quips die down, board member Maria Porges cuts to the chase: "When you initially proposed the project, I thought the one-year time was a very elegant proposal with a start and an end. It's a very long time for a project to continue with the kind of attention and focus you've given it. It doesn't seem to me from my point of view that you'd get much more out of it going past the year point."

Fletcher and Reichert agree to think it over and make a decision the next week. Four days later, they send out an e-mail announcing that they've decided to dissolve Death & Taxes at year's end.

Calling your life art is one thing; turning your family into a corporation is another. Normal corporations have employees to handle data entry and other day-to-day work. In a very real sense, the bureaucratic realities of living as a business overwhelmed life as a family.

Asked why they decided to pull the plug, they turn toward Lucy, who is engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with a friend. "Because it's hard on us," Fletcher says, "it's hard on her."

The project isn't entirely finished yet. The couple still have to file their taxes, which could result in an audit. They are in the process of finishing their last quarterly report, and are planning a going-out-of-business sale on their Web site, to pawn off artifacts such as the time-clock ($250), their Chamber of Commerce membership plaque ($500), and a black leather executive chair ($150).

Say what you will about the corporation as a work of art — it was a remarkable life experiment, and a testament to the length the artists were willing to go for their project — one that few people, apart from board members and readers of this article, will likely experience.

But now, thank you, Fletcher and Reichert are ready to start imitating life.

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