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by Thomas Hoving
Something amazing, indelible, long-lasting and profound just happened to all art museums in the United States. Something that will change them forever. And for the good!

The massive sea change was unheralded. Virtually unreported. A domestic indemnity provision.

Passed in August 2008, the new domestic component of the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program provides up to $5 billion in insurance coverage for exhibitions from U.S. collections on view in U.S. museums (for details, click here).

This means that loan shows from one American museum to another will have the impossibly high insurance premiums indemnified up to gazillions, in a program administered by the National Endowment on the Arts.

This is as important as the landmark Arts Indemnity Act of 1971, which gave birth to countless loan shows from foreign countries.

How this monumental change came about was utterly unplanned.

Back in August 2006 John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was contacted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Do you want some American paintings on loan for 18 months? We’re making renovations.


So, Buchanan and Met American art curator Morrison Heckscher went through the usual complicated negotiating roundelay. Eventually the de Young chose 90 super pictures that would buttress and compliment the stunning De Young American holdings. Buchanan knew it would be a sensation in San Francisco. A series of educational and social events was planned for the historic loan.

One small detail -- what about insurance?

The Met trustees demanded -- responsibly, for what else could they do? -- dollar for dollar coverage. The evaluation was just short of a billion bucks. The Met trustees also asked for earthquake and natural disaster coverage.

The tab? $9,000,000.

Buchanan knew he could never raise it, probably couldn’t even get together a consortium to pick it up. He tried negotiating with the Met, but no matter how he reduced the show and cut back on its run, he couldn’t get a premium lower than $3,000,000. He had to turn the marvelous offer down.

Then he and his board chairman had a crazy idea. Why not get their dynamic senator Diane Feinstein and Speaker of the House Senator Nancy Pelosi to pressure congress for a full art domestic indemnity to be managed by the NEA?

Various exalted museum and political souls had been trying for years. No luck.

Helped by the AAMD and a bunch of museums across the country, they did it! Sen. Feinstein introduced the measure in the Senate. Speaker Pelosi coaxed into an omnibus spending bill. Politicians heartily approved an arts project that would not cost taxpayers any money. Win-win.

Recently John Buchanan went back to the Met -- what about that loan, guys? Sorry, he was told by museum president Emily Rafferty, no American paintings left to loan.

Not even one? He’s not heard back.

As they say, no good deed .  .  .  .

THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.