Public to benefit from art indemnity system

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

If you’ve ever thought that the ¥1,500 admission ticket at the average touring exhibition in Tokyo is too expensive, consider this: The cost of insuring artworks for trips to Japan is around 0.2 percent of their appraised value.

So, imagine a Vincent van Gogh exhibition with 20 paintings, each valued at $50 million, or ¥4 billion (many of van Gogh’s works are worth more). The museum will be forking out ¥160 million to insurance companies. To cover that cost alone, it would have to sell more than 100,000 of those ¥1,500 tickets. That’s more than most exhibitions in Japan achieve, and of course there are many other expenses to be met.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, if Japan followed the lead of every other country in the G8 (except Russia) and created a national indemnity system, then museums wouldn’t have to pay to insure touring artworks.”

Guess what? It just did.

Attempts to change the law in Japan tend to progress like giant oil tankers. They are excruciatingly slow to start, but once they’ve hit a decent speed, there isn’t much that can stop them.

Thus, the move to create a national indemnity system — where the national government guarantees the safety of borrowed artworks and pays out should any liability arise, thus obviating the need for private insurance — started way back in 2001. By the beginning of this year it had finally built up enough momentum that even the March 11 disaster couldn’t stop it. The law was enacted on March 29 and came into force in early June.

Unfortunately, many countries, including France, are now reluctant to lend works of art to Japan because of fears of radiation leaks. Those concerns aside, it has just become a whole lot easier for Japanese museums to borrow works from overseas.

“A national indemnity system is part of the essential infrastructure that allows museums to host large international exhibitions,” explained art-policy expert Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, of Tokyo-based NLI Research Institute. “Knowing that the Japanese government will cover the costs of damage or loss to the artworks will also make major lenders more comfortable about lending works to Japan.”

Insurance costs generally take up 20 to 30 percent of an exhibition’s budget. Under the new system, which was modeled on the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program in the United States, museums will still be required to take out private insurance for the first ¥5 billion of the borrowed works’ value. Thus, with the van Gogh exhibition envisaged above, if the total value of the show is ¥80 billion, the museum will still have to pay ¥10 million in private insurance (0.2 percent of ¥5 billion). But that is a lot less than the ¥160 million they would have to pay to insure the works at their full value.

The museums set to benefit from the system are currently trying to work out a unified strategy by which this saving can be made to benefit the populace.

Masanori Aoyagi, director of the National Museum of Western Art and the current chairperson of the Japanese Council of Museums, which had lobbied the government for national art indemnity since 2001, explained to The Japan Times that, “Our member institutions may decide to extend the free admission program for students so it includes all students of high school age and below.”

Now that the law has been put into force, the Agency for Cultural Affairs, which is operating the new system, is seeking applications from museums interested in taking advantage of it.

Museums have until the end of this month to apply for exhibitions commencing between October this year and January 2012.

Not all exhibitions will be accepted.

It has been decided that each year the government will announce the value to which it is able to indemnify artworks for that financial year. This year, they announced that the total value of all works indemnified must not surpass ¥550 billion. In other words, seven exhibitions, each valued at ¥80 billion, could be covered.

The Agency has established a set of criteria to determine what kinds of artworks, exhibitions and borrowing institutions will be eligible for coverage by the system.

Hence, the exhibition must be for more than 20 days and must be open to the public. The organizer must have demonstrated proficiency at hosting similar exhibitions. The artwork must be tangible and have been made or at least been added to by the hand of an artist (a dinosaur fossil, for example, would not be eligible).

Applications will be assessed by a committee of experts set up within the Agency’s chief advisory body, the Council for Cultural Affairs.

Once an exhibition is selected for coverage by the indemnity system, the organizer will be required to follow a strict regimen for exhibition operation. Condition reports for each of the artworks in the exhibition will need to be submitted, as will a facility report documenting the temperature, humidity and other particulars of the museum environment.

Aoyagi explained that the implementation of the system should result in better standards of practice at museums throughout Japan.

“This is something we discovered when researching the U.S. system,” he said. “Once that system had been implemented, there was a great improvement in security and other measures taken at museums.”

One group that stands to benefit from the new system, in addition to the museums themselves, are media companies involved in staging large-scale exhibitions.

Exhibitions such as the National Art Center, Tokyo’s “Post-Impressionism: 115 Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay,” which was co-hosted with Nikkei Inc. last year, will be eligible for the system.

To insure that the savings accruing from the implementation of the indemnity system are not pocketed by the private sector, however, the law stipulates that revenue generated as a result of the new system must be fed back into art exhibition management. Hence the suggestion of granting high school students free admission at the museums in question.

“The idea of the program is to help maintain the cultural richness of the life of the people,” Aoyagi said. “We hope to make that happen.”