At tax time this year, Javier Marin gently placed his payment on cotton padding in the back of a Treasury truck. Like the 38-year-old sculptor's last dozen tax returns, this year's payment was driven off to be put on display in a museum.

Marin is one of 824 Mexican artists who are trying to pay their taxes this year with paintings, sculptures and etchings instead of cash. The unusual program that makes this possible recasts the most detested of all government bureaucrats--the tax collector--into the role of arts patron.

"Nobody likes the tax man," said Juana Ines Abreu, director of cultural promotion and patrimonial heritage for the Finance Ministry. "But we're the nice face of the Treasury. Instead of accountants, we have curators. . . . No other country in the world has this program."

In a nation where tax dodgers are the norm and where a culture of private donations to public museums has been slow to develop, this incongruous blend of art and taxes has allowed government bean counters to amass and display one of Mexico's largest art collections--3,000 works that span the four decades since the practice began.

"The program is sensational," said Marin, who has exhibited bronze sculptures of the human body throughout the world, including shows in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. "The government is putting together a collection of the best work of the best artists in the country."

The art-for-taxes effort has proved to be a cultural gold mine for this relatively poor country, allowing it to add hundreds of new works to its public collections annually--even in years of economic crisis. Now wealthy nations are taking notice. Last year, program directors were invited to address a U.N. conference in Stockholm on alternative arts financing for some of the globe's most prosperous countries.

"What country in the world is rich enough to buy a whole new art collection every year?" remarked Patricia Perez Walters, coordinator of the Mexico City museum that houses the best of the Mexican Finance Ministry's collection.

The program was created in 1957 as an alternative to seizures of artists' works as payment for back taxes. The idea is grounded in ancient Aztec and Mayan traditions that allowed subjects to pay off tax debts with goods or labor. But the plan also appealed to the school of Mexican muralists, led at that time by Diego Rivera, who believed that art should not be confined to private galleries visited by the few, but should adorn public buildings visible to the masses. Under the payment-in-art program, the public--the owner of the works--was seen as the ultimate beneficiary.

The policy also had a more practical purpose: to free the nation's creative sector from some of the drudgery of bookkeeping. "I'm not so good at accounting," confessed Miguel Castro Lenero, a painter who has participated in the program for nine years. "I don't really understand all that stuff, so it seemed like a much better idea to just give the government a painting."

"Now, instead of having an accountant who knows nothing about art and who has no rapport with an artist, we send a curator to their studio who can speak the same language," said cultural director Abreu. "They act as the artists' translator to the accountants."

But the plan is not without controversy among the artists. It also has detractors who question why a cash-strapped nation subject to devastating economic cycles should indulge in filling museums with art and funding traveling exhibits.

"Some people say we should not be doing this," said Finance Ministry spokesman Marco Provencio. "But we've been doing this for years. People benefit from it."

In recent years, the government has been struggling to make the program more artist friendly and the artwork more accessible to the public, while ensuring that the collection gathers the best work of the nation's top artists.

Many artists complain that the program is elitist, favoring the famous while overlooking new or less recognized talent. "They say the program is open to all artists, but they give themselves the luxury to take only the art that fits their collection," complained Miriam Lechuga, a painter and engraver who is president of the Mexican Artists Society. "Many artists have told me they went there only to have the jury look at their work and say, 'Who is this person, anyway? I don't know his work. Besides, he always gives us horse paintings, and we're full up with horses.' "

Felipe Ehrenberg, 56, head of the oversight committee of the Mexican Society of Visual Artists, complained that the government ignores new art forms. "It works under very old parameters," said Ehrenberg, who does not participate in the program. "Any artists involved in 'new' arts, like performance art, digital art, installation art or laser prints, can't pay in kind. The current fiscal measures force artists not to change, which is part of the nature of art."

The program's coordinators admit a certain elitism and grouse that over the years, some artists have used the program as a way to cast off works they cannot sell or pieces that are inferior. "We're really interested in master works," said museum coordinator Perez.

Five years ago, in fact, when a presidential decree opened the program to a wider range of artists, the committee that screens the offerings had "terrifying visions of neon bullfights painted on black velvet," director Abreu said at the Stockholm conference.

Instead of a battery of number crunchers poring over paper returns, every work of art submitted as a tax payment is evaluated by a committee of art experts who judge its value and quality with eyes as ruthless as any tax investigator. The committee of experts is scrutinizing this year's offerings.

The number of registered artists submitting works in lieu of cash has surged: In the past five years alone, the Finance Ministry has accepted 1,522 works of art--equaling the number of the previous 36 years.

Each year, the committee rejects 60 to 75 percent of the offerings, demanding that the artists submit higher quality pieces. Only the best of the works end up in the country's most prestigious museums and galleries. Those of lesser quality are sent to small galleries and museums outside the capital.

"We have to take all of it because it's a tax program," said Abreu, who has been working with the program for the past 23 years. "Then we have to decide: 'Where in the world are we going to put all these paintings?' "

The lowest quality work is donated to government offices where "instead of a calendar or a photo of their kittens, people have a real work of art," Abreu said. "It may not be good, but they have it."

The financial worth of the expanding collection is as closely guarded as a state secret. Program directors say the collection, which contains works by two of Mexico's most famous artists--Rivera and Rufino Tamayo--includes 800 "museum-quality" works. "We see it as a fantastic cultural wealth you can't measure in dollars," Abreu said. "It's a richness you can't quantify."

CAPTION: For nine years Miguel Castro Lenero has paid his taxes with his art.

CAPTION: Sculptor Javier Marin, sits with his work entitled "Woman." The Mexican artist is allowed to pay taxes with his works. "The program is sensational," he said.