Bringing the World’s Treasures to the American People

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This bronzed image of the Hindu god Vishnu, created in the 11th century, was included in the National Galley of Art's 1997 indemnified exhibition Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

1975Priceless canvases painted by Picasso, fragile terra cotta warriors from ancient China, a gilded baroque silver tea service used by nobility in one of Russia’s most opulent palaces. These and other irreplaceable objects have been carefully packed in crates and shipped around the globe so that the American people could enjoy them and marvel at the cultures that created such astonishing works. Given the tremendous value of these objects, their owners require insurance prior to shipping. That’s where the government steps in. The Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program was created by Congress in 1975 for the purpose of minimizing the costs of insuring international exhibitions. The program, administered by the National Endowment for the Arts on behalf of the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, has indemnified more than 800 exhibitions, saving the organizers more than $185 million in insurance premiums. In 30 years, only two claims have been made, totaling $104,700. The program has a substantial impact on the country's museums, large and small. "We would not have been able to mount the number of foreign shows we do without the indemnity program. It would really limit our options because the insurance costs would just be prohibitive," according to Earl A. Powell III, Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. "Because of this program, members of the public get to experience tremendous works of art that they wouldn’t normally be able to see unless they could travel to the countries of origin. That’s out of reach for most Americans."

Painting of a landscape at night, rendered in rough blocks of color, blues, greens and white with some dashes of red.

Edvard Munch: Psyche, Symbol and Expression included 28 indemnified works, among them this painting, Starry Night, on loan from Oslo's Munch Museum. This exhibition, presented by the McMullen Museum of Arts at Boston College, provided Americans a rare look at the works of this fascinating Norwegian artist. Photo courtesy of the Munch Museum

Many of the Gallery's shows provided the only public access to rare items. In the case of its exhibition titled Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory, virtually all of the objects came from sites that were inaccessible for many years due to unrest and war. Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico largely contained works from remote provincial sites in Mexico that receive few visitors. Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868 gave Americans an unusual chance to view many works from private collections that most Japanese have never even seen. Besides making rare works of art more accessible, the program has also encouraged museums to take better care of their precious possessions. "Because of its strict guidelines," says Powell, "the packing and shipping standards have been upgraded and now even serve as a model to the European institutions." Current shows being indemnified through the program include Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY; Dada at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Gauguin and Impressionism at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX; and Courbet and the Modern Landscape at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA.