by Peter Trippi
In May, the White House released details on its proposed Fiscal Year 2018 “skinny budget,” which will, among other things, give the 52-year-old National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) just enough money to wind down its activities and close permanently ($29 million vs. its previous allocation of $150 million). For now, let’s overlook the fact that the resultant savings are paltry when measured against the government’s $1.1 trillion annual budget. And let’s overlook the fact that NEA grants support arts events in every state, usually at organizations unable to replace that funding with private dollars because their communities are poor or sparsely populated.
Instead, let’s focus on something you may not know: closing the NEA will kill off almost all of our country’s temporary museum exhibitions of high-value masterpieces. Why? Because the NEA operates an insurance program that enables U.S. museums to organize ambitious loan shows that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Its offcial name is the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program, and here’s how it works in everyday terms. When your favorite regional museum (Houston? Denver? Cleveland?) arranges to borrow multi-million-dollar Rembrandt or Monet paintings from Paris or Chicago, it sends a list of those artworks to the NEA. The staff there ensures your museum is professionally operated and therefore a good “risk” — that it will transport and care for these precious artifacts properly so that they can return home to Paris or Chicago undamaged. The NEA then sends your museum a letter saying, “We trust you and we’ve got your back; you don’t need to pay an insurer hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash premiums to cover your risk. If you do something wrong, the U.S. government will pick up the tab.”
So surely we taxpayers have been losing our shirts on this since the indemnity was launched in 1975, right? No, actually, two claims totaling $4,700 have been paid, and 1,400 exhibitions have been mounted thanks to a cumulative premiums savings of $450 million. This means that you and your family have not necessarily needed to visit Paris or Chicago to experience Rembrandt or Monet. If the NEA closes next year, however, that’s it: all museums will either have to pay their premiums in cash, or cancel/dilute their shows. I live in New York City, so I am not worried: the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum will probably raise the money needed. But if you’re in Denver, Houston, Cleveland, or an even smaller community, you’re out of luck. Tough choices will be made.
In our information-overloaded age, it saddens me that most people have never heard of this program. That’s ironic because next year, its name will become famous when we read that your city’s big Monet show was canceled for budgetary reasons.
If this concerns you, please visit the website of the Arts Action Fund (artsactionfund.org) to learn how we citizens can alert our U.S. legislators. It’s actually as easy as tweeting #SAVEtheNEA, but the fund’s website is cool and has other interesting tips. See you on Twitter.