NEW YORK, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- The federal government has been justly criticized for cutting back on its support of the arts throughout the nation in the past decade, but Congress is to be congratulated on its enlightened policy in continuing its support of international art shows exhibited by American museums.
The House of Representatives voted last month to raise federal backing made available to museums for insuring art works included in exhibitions that depend heavily on loans from other museums around the world. This funding, already approved by the Senate and expected to be signed by President Bush, would increase the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program from its current $5 billion a year to $8 billion.
It fits in well with the president's war on terrorism and its fallout in that government indemnity of art covers the effects of terrorism both in transit and at the exhibition site, whereas standard commercial insurance does not.
Also included in the bill is an advance in the maximum coverage for a single exhibition to $600 million from $500 million, not a dramatic increase but one that will be helpful in mounting blockbuster shows such as the recent "Manet/Velasquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contained many masterpieces from European collections.
Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, greeted the improvements in art indemnities by calling them "great news for both American Museums and museum-goers." She noted that it will help many small museums as well as large museums in mounting big shows from abroad. She cited "The Romanovs Collect: European Art from The Hermitage," a major loan show from Russia currently at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor.
The improvements in the indemnity program were made under strong pressure from the museum community that has been sorely beset by increasing costs of mounting important international art shows, especially insurance costs that have risen as much as 500 percent in the case of fine art. It shows what museums can do when they united in their efforts to win increased government support.
The public is almost completely unaware of the major role played by the federal government in making it possible to bring important loan exhibitions organized abroad or loans of individual artworks from abroad to American museums. There is always a notice of the indemnity program's role at the entrance to exhibitions and in catalogs, but it is generally overlooked or not understood.
But Congress has been privy to museum needs in this area for many years and created the indemnity program for the national Endowment for the Arts, to be administered by the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, in 1975. The nation's legislators are not unaware that American museums spend $5.2 billion annually on such core activities as exhibits, collection care and research, and most importantly, educational programming.
This figure, provided by the American Association of Museums, includes $1.1 billion for the care of more than 750 million objects in their collections that represent a major share of the nation's cultural patrimony. More than a third of these museums charge no admission to the public and 4 percent only suggest a donation for admission. The median cost for museum admission is $5, less than a ticket to the movies.
Congress also has been made abundantly aware that admission fees cover only a fraction of the cost of serving a museum visitor.
For every dollar earned per visitor, museums must find another $3 from other sources, including museum shops and restaurants, state and local governments, foundations, business and industry, and individual donors, according to the museum association. Some museums simply aren't making it and have been forced to cut back on visiting hours, the number of new shows, and the size of their staffs.
The Brooklyn Museum closed down for two weeks this summer for the first time in its history to save money. Many more museums may be forced to take such drastic measures unless more federal money is placed at their disposal in the form of grants and other assistance that measure up to the government assistance given the arts by most other industrial nations, particularly in Europe.
Congress' action in regard to the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program is a generous move in the right direction, and should be the first of many such loosenings of the national purse strings if the United States' cultural institutions are to survive while the nation as a whole gets back on its feet economically.