Here is a ritual that takes place at the formal opening of almost every major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. When director Earl (Rusty) Powell says his thank-yous, he mentions Alice Whelihan. In the audience, a small, dark-haired woman bobs up to applause, and very quickly sits down again.
Museum directors around the country don't have to ask that question. To them, Ms. Whelihan is a fairy godmother. Her magic wand is a federal program, backed by the U.S. government, that indemnifies blockbuster exhibitions against loss or damage of art works on loan from foreign and (since 2007) U.S. lenders as well.
As the administrator of the Art and Artifacts Indemnity Program, Ms. Whelihan saves cash-strapped museums millions of dollars in commercial insurance premiums that many (not to say most) could never afford to pay. The program is administered by the National Endowment for the Arts on behalf of the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and all indemnity agreements are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
"We indemnify a painting from the moment it leaves the lender's wall through the duration of the exhibition and back to the wall," says Ms. Whelihan.
Insurance costs have soared since the Sept. 11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina resulted in a further hike for museums located in so-called disaster zones. The program's authorized ceiling has increased correspondingly from $250 million at its inception in 1975 to a current limit of $10 billion at any one time for international exhibitions and $5 billion for shows with loans from national institutions. The range per single exhibition is between $750 million and $1.2 billion.
The website for the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program says more than 250 museums nationwide had by this year held a total of over 1,000 exhibitions and saved $312 million in insurance premiums. But the reality is that, without the program, many of the shows would not have been mounted. Recent landmark indemnified exhibitions include the "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals" show at the National Gallery of Art, the "Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections" show in New York, the "Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman" exhibition in San Diego, and "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde" exhibit due to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in February of 2012.
An advisory committee of museum directors and art specialists whose members change periodically examines every item in each application from would-be exhibitors, establishes values, and then makes recommendations. But there's no question who's in charge. The museum exhibitions that get the green light from Ms. Whelihan's indemnity program are heavily publicized, but she herself has a reputation for keeping a very low profile.
Ms. Whelihan rarely gives interviews. (This article is based on a combination of her e-mailed replies to questions, and an earlier conversation.) Soft-spoken and self-effacing, she says, "We review every object on a case by case basis: We have very strict standards, and we don't relax them."
Ms. Whelihan joined the NEA in 1976 from the Museum of African Art, where she was assistant to the director, and has run the Arts and Artifacts program since 1980. The program lays down tough specifications for packing, shipping, security and lighting. The fragility of older works is becoming an increasing concern among museums; there is a trend, for example, towards not lending early old masters.
"Fragility and stability are assessed," Ms. Whelihan acknowledged in a recent email, "but age alone is not a qualifier. We have successfully indemnified ancient art from China, Mexico, Greece, Ukraine, and Roman art, and - as an aside - there are plenty of contemporary works that are more fragile than older ones."
Thanks in part to rigorous, state of the art packing standards, damage has been negligible and insurance payments consequently low. So far, the government has had to settle two claims. In the past 36 years, a damaged Jean Arp sculpture had to be repaired, and two paintings were stolen in Israel when they were returned from an exhibition - for a total cost of $104,700.
The program does not cover a rising concern in the art world - ownership claims that block the return of works loaned for exhibition. "We strongly encourage U.S. museums to apply for immunity from judicial seizure through the U.S. Department of State to avoid disputes," Ms. Whelihan says.
In 2007, Congress amended the Art and Artifacts Indemnity Act to add a domestic component. For the first time, artwork loans for exhibitions within the United States became eligible for indemnity coverage. This shift reflected developments in the museum world, Ms. Whelihan says.
"Security issues, and high transportation costs, and especially the economy have affected the level of exhibition activity in the United States in the last few years," she explains. "Museums are organizing more exhibitions using their permanent collections, and sharing their collections with other U.S. museums, and we're now indemnifying them under the program."
Ms. Whelihan, whose small office in the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue is decorated with images from blockbusters she has made possible, will not disclose how many applications from would-be exhibitors are turned down, although other sources assert that some requests do fail to meet the program's exacting standards.
"We do not discuss rejections," says Ms. Whelihan, sounding somewhat like a kindly but firm schoolteacher.