by Todd O'Dowd
Can taxes be cool?
If you’re referring to the staff at Fox Tax, then the answer is a resounding yes!
Founded by siblings Alyssa and Mark Fox in 2004, Fox Tax has been the go-to tax resource for many Twin Cities artists and musicians for over a decade, helping artists of all stripes in town solve their tax issues. In addition to being two of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Minneapolis-St. Paul arts and cultural scenes, the Fox siblings’ offices in Northeast Minneapolis is one of the most acclaimed art galleries in town, presenting a staggering display of some of the most important artists in the local art scene.
On the eve of their massive 10th anniversary party on Saturday, April 19 at the Soap Factory, we chatted with Mark Fox about his and his sister’s long, strange trip to entrepreneurialism.
Todd O’Dowd: Not many people know the story on how this all began. What made you (a) go into accounting, and (b) start your own firm?
Mark Fox: Alyssa and I took a college job at a tax place back when she was 19 and I was 21 (she might have been 18). We stared just answering phones and helping out, and we liked it. Both of us were wrapping up psych degrees and wound up switching over and then ended up working at the same firm after college.
Then, as we got sick of working for someone else, we realized we would enjoy our jobs more if we got to work with the clients that we wanted to work with; which happened to be artists and musicians and creative people that we hung out with outside of work.
TO’: Well, that answered my next question since I know you have so many local artists of all stripes in your client roster.
MF: Basically we were friends with these musicians and artists. At the same time I was working at that tax place, I was working at the old Loring Café and I hung out at the Foxfire and had become friends with a lot of those musicians who were coming up at that time.
TO’: In doing my research for this interview, I came across this interesting tidbit: You and your sister wrote a book?
MF: Yeah. We made a tax organizer (The Creative Tax Planner: A Guide for Artists & Musicians) that was less of a book and more of a day planner / organizer / three-ring binder zipper thing. It had two zippers. One had a three ring binder in which we made our own calendar pages and a glossary of different expenses for artists and musicians and income and expenses sheets that they could keep track of money coming in and money coming out. And then the other zipper pocket had slots that were labeled by other expense categories and they could put their receipts in. Now, we’re in a smart phone era full of apps to do that, but at that time it grew out of a need for artists to keep track of their stuff.
TO’: When and how did you and Alyssa decide to use the office as a gallery space?
MF: Well the book lead into it. Alyssa and I had been doing our friends’ taxes on the side, but when we came up with the book is when we came up with founding Fox Tax in 2004. We spent the first two years working out of my townhouse; Alyssa had taken my dining room table, turned it sideways, and that was her desk. I was in the spare bedroom and clients would come and hang out in my living room. So the entire townhouse had turned into a tax office, and we quickly outgrew that. We had been looking for a space, and we just happened to come upon the space that we found, the price was right, and it was a beautiful space.
Meanwhile, my house had already sort of turned into a gallery with my clients’ work just because I like art. So all the way from my front door all the way up the stairs to my little bedroom office was littered with art all the way up and different people that I knew. So it just kind of made sense for Alyssa and I as it was just the two of us and we had 2500 feet in that giant warehouse, so it just kind of made sense to promote our clients and they would promote us. And that’s been a business philosophy of ours; by helping each other out, we both win.
I read a book by Robert Wright–I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him – but he wrote a book called Non Zero, which did a whole sociological analysis of history from this perspective that says that man and society has evolved in situations where one plus one does not equal three. It was this non-zero-sum game where civilization advanced when we figured out ways to work together rather than kill each other.
TO’: Of all the shows that you’ve had in the gallery, which ones have been your favorites?
MF: Oh, man! You expect me to answer that? (Laughter)
TO’: No, I mean I know they’re all your favorites, because it’s a very personal curatorial process…
TO’: But which ones made you say, “This turned out better than we could have imagined?”
MF: Well, my favorite show we had in there was called These Are A Few Of Out Favorite Things, and it was me, Alyssa and Emma Berg, who was curating at that time. The three of us picked out five favorite artists each and we made a huge collage that went all the way up to the ceiling and it was a beautiful smattering of all of our favorite things. We put up one or two pieces per artist we filled it salon style and stacked it up pretty high. That was a great show and we left it up for tax season and it made tax season happier for me because it was like seeing all of my favorite friends and pieces of art.
TO’: How did you come up with the idea for the anniversary party?
MF: We just decided that it was crazy that ten years has passed already! (Laughter). Each tax season is kind of a blur but, you know, after ten years we’ve had these relationships with the same clients for a decade and we’ve seen everyone grow and develop together and it’s been awesome to have that inside look at the creative culture of Minneapolis. So we thought it would be fun to throw a big party and celebrate. We always have an Accountants’ New Year’s party every spring…
TO’: Of course.
MF: …but we decided this one had to be bigger.
TO’: And I’m impressed with what you have got done for it. You’ve got Chowgirls, you’ve got Johnny Michaels, you’ve got Mark Mallman and Solid Gold…
MF: …and Jake Rudh…
TO’: That’s right! Are they clients then, or good friends, or both?
MF: I will neither confirm nor deny that but I’ve known all of those people for quite some time.
TO’: Now that it’s Accountant New Year, what’s next for you?
MF: What’s next! I mean, we’re still going to be busy working for a while. We filed a lot of extensions this year. I think everyone was just really depressed over January and February over such horrible weather and I think more people than usual just slacked on it, so we filed hundreds of extensions. The schedule’s already booked starting next week for the next couple of weeks. No rest for the wicked accountant!
TO’:Last Question: Considering this art scene, what is one thing you would tell people to be worrying about regarding their money and their taxes?
MF: I don’t know. It’s a challenge to make money in any creative scene right now. It’s difficult in music, writing–everything, you know. The digitization of everything has changed things so much that the normal income streams are in flux, so it’s about creative ways to make money. But my advice to almost everyone is figuring out a way of combining your talents and interests. If that’s art, great. If it’s something else… well, that’s kind of what we did with our business. Our talent is definitely not art, it’s logic and money; but our interest is the creative field. So I figured out a way to combine those two to something that worked.
For artists it’s always the challenge of figuring out what you’re good at how do you do something different and in a way that can turn into a career if that’s what you’re looking to do with that. And then it’s just making people track their expenses. That’s the great part of being an artist usually is that you’re life – the only thing that you spend money on is what you’re interested in. If you can take and make it into a business, then you get to write off all of the things you get to enjoy.
Fox Tax will be celebrating its 10th Anniversary with a huge celebration at the Soap Factory on Saturday, April 19 starting at 6 pm, featuring a happy hour with appetizers by Chowgirls Catering and cocktails by Johnny Michaels, live music by Mark Mallman and Solid Gold, and a special DJ set by Jake Rudh.
Photo Credits: MN Originals, Minneapolis StarTribune