Trump's new threat to the arts?

April 15 2017

Image of Trump's new threat to the arts?

Picture: Met Museum, detail of Rubens' 'Atalanta & Meleager'

Much has been said by the US arts community about President Trump's first budget, and its proposal shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts. I haven't written about it, for the sums involved are quite small; the total NEA spend per year of about $148m is tiny by US government standards, and in any case represents only a fraction of total US arts funding. In the US, healthy tax incentives and a culture of personal giving mean it's possible to rely on private philanthropy. The abolition of that annual amount would be a shame, but for most arts institutions in the US not terminal.

But I had lunch with a US curator this week who told me that the proposed closure of the NEA presents a more alarming threat to the US museum sector, thanks to the NEA's indemnity programme. Currently, the NEA provides billions of dollars a year of free government-backed insurance to US museums, which significantly facilitates loans for exhibitions. The only cash cost to the government comes in the very rare event of a claim, so the liability does not figure in the NEA's annual $148m total. But if the NEA goes, then so too does the indemnity programme. And thus by extension, many international loan exhibitions in the US will cease, or become too expensive to stage. Institutions simply cannot afford the insurance cover themselves.

Here's a case study from the New York Times:

Similarly endangered, advocates say, would be many art exhibitions that entertain the country, sometimes stopping at small and large museums. The cost of insuring the art shown in these exhibitions can be offset by a federal indemnity program administered by the National Endowment for the Arts. So when the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati staged “Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape,” the most expensive project it had ever put on, the indemnity program paid for most of the insurance cost of bringing 54 on-loan paintings (out of 55 in the entire exhibition) to Cincinnati.

We have a similar indemnity programme here in the UK. Fortunately, nobody has suggested abolishing that. Yet.

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