"Research-based innovation and entertainment: this is what Italian cultural institutions need." Umberto Pastore speaks

Interview with Umberto Pastore, managing director of Creation, a company active in cultural and heritage services.

Operational since January 2021, one year after its establishment Creation has become one of the most interesting Italian entrepreneurial realities in the field of services for culture and cultural heritage: conceived by a group of partners with more than fifteen years of experience in the sector to their credit, Creation caters to public and private entities (such as museums and foundations, for example) with a wide range of services (communication, exhibition planning, brand design, video and graphic design, media campaign planning, social media marketing, and more). The basic idea is that culture should look at design with an innovation-oriented approach. Here’s how Creation was born, what it offers and how it has positioned itself in the market: we talked about it with Umberto Pastore, managing director. The interview is edited by Federico Giannini.

Umberto Pastore
Umberto Pastore

FG. I would like to start by asking you what Creation is, what are its strengths, who is it aimed at, how is it positioned in the market of cultural operators.

UP. Creation was born to respond to the challenges of the historical moment we are living: during the period of restrictions due to the pandemic, we saw a real media frenzy. Many museums flocked to social media in order to be visible, as a survival tool: it was then that the communication gaps of most Italian cultural institutions became apparent. Today, as we live in the era of reopenings, many of those limitations exist, even on the terrain of re-programming and re-planning. Creation’s idea, from the beginning, was to put in the field a cultural startup that could satisfy, in terms of services, all the shortcomings that have emerged during this long phase of change, through experience, expertise but also innovation, at all levels, including in terms of approach and process. Starting with the dual field of action, with communication being integrated with cultural design (exhibitions, events, conferences, everything that means designing culture). That this was a need of our counterpart was also confirmed to us by the museum directors with whom we interfaced to test our business idea. It must be said, however, that not all cultural operators seem to have shown the right awareness to deal with the moment we are living in. They have not always taken stock of what has happened, and the importance of renewing even the proposals has not been fully understood. There is a certain stalemate in some cultural contexts. Creation believes it is the ideal interlocutor, being able to guarantee both speed of intervention and detailed knowledge of the sector as well as of communication tools, both traditional and cutting-edge. In fact, we have people in-house who work on design content and aspects of museum innovation, such as new technologies, in order to be up-to-date and responsive to all needs. The corporate structure is made up of women and men who over the years have built and grown service companies (web, distribution, video, advertising) in the field of culture. In addition, the people who work for and with Creation have skills that cut across the company’s specific fields: we have art historians, graphic designers, videomakers, social media managers just to name a few. We collaborate with selected freelancers to represent innovative and “fresh” figures and to be able to best translate the content we intend to offer. Also regarding cultural planning, we are for all intents and purposes proactive in bringing a distinctive quid of innovation. Let the exhibition we curated for Gallipoli Castle last summer, entitled A Sea of Stories and imagined in the form of a multimedia narrative centered on the very history of the host site, be a practical example: the visitor entering the castle of Gallipoli encountered three virtual historical figures (Renaissance architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini, landscape painter Jakob Philipp Hackert, and the Czarina of Russia Catherine II), played by three actors who informally recounted, as if it were a journey through time, why they were there and what linked them to the territory and local history. A tale as a narrative prelude to the immersive show that distinguished the second part of the exhibition, with the projection of a 3D videomapping on the giant dome of the Ennagonal Hall. An integrated modality, then, involving the dissemination of historical content through innovative and accessible forms that encourage informal learning, all at an absolutely fair price (5/7 euros). Cost balance, after all, is also an important issue. We believe interesting things can be accomplished at sustainable prices. The moment demands it. Then in our proposals there is the constant desire to favor original projects: in a few days we will open our first photography exhibition, a genre we are betting on without reservation (I say this as a great fan of the genre, and as someone who has worked with many great photographers, from Sebastião Salgado to Steve McCurry via Letizia Battaglia) also because of the low cost of realization, which better suits the needs of the municipalities and entities with which we collaborate. The exhibition we will open at WEGIL in Rome on February 4, 2022, entitled Alberto di Lenardo. The Unseen Gaze of a Great Photographer, perfectly represents our idea of going to work with photographers who are just a step away from being definitively consecrated to the general public, artists who have already received critical recognition and reached an international dimension, but in Italy are not yet properly known. In the case of the exhibition to be held in Rome, Creation has even gone to an unheard of name in photography, going for an absolute premiere, a retrospective of a great artist to be discovered, Alberto di Lenardo, never exhibited beforenow but published in a print volume by the London-based Mack publishing house, highly appreciated by the international press, which has discomfited, in relation to the Friulian photographer, such high-sounding names as Vivian Meier, for the personal story that consigned him to history only posthumously, and Luigi Ghirri for the poetic gaze with which he portrays moments of everyday life and the intimate, landscape contexts of his travels. This is one of Creation’s hallmarks: the client can also rely on us for novelty in terms of cultural proposals. These skills, together with the deep knowledge of the culture sector and the approach devoted to innovation, have the possibility to express themselves at their best especially when inscribed in an overall vision. Creation has its surplus value precisely in this ability to offer 360° strategic consulting, which is why we are partners with active entities such as national leaders in the cultural sphere and in the organization of exhibitions, but also with museums and municipal administrations that we support in the development of certain operational areas. The strategic vision is the quality that is recognized to us and the ability for which we have become consultants even to a giant like the Fondazione Musica per Roma, which relies on Creation for strategic consulting on communication precisely and for some ad hoc projects such as the exhibition on Adrian Tranquilli, Un Unguarded moment, which can be visited at the Auditorium Garage, a new exhibition space in Rome.

Un mare di storie, videomapping al Castello di Gallipoli
A sea of stories, videomapping at Gallipoli Castle.
Alberto Di Lenardo, Sappada, febbraio 1959
Alberto Di Lenardo, Sappada, February 1959
Alberto Di Lenardo, Gita a Capri, maggio 1965
Alberto Di Lenardo, Trip to Capri, May 1965

Returning to the specific world of museum institutions, what do you think are the aspects on which museums should focus at this historical stage? And how do you intend to support them?

Let me preface this by saying that often, in our field, we proceed by fads. Let’s look at what happened with Clubhouse: in the very short term, many people flocked to this new social. I myself have tried it and tested it. I have seen art influencers do anything to appear first and create their own follower bank. Now the phenomenon definitely appears to have waned despite the run-up a few months ago. We all remember the ads in the style of “the first museum on Clubhouse” and the like, or the first rooms where people talked about culture. Here is one of the typical scenarios in our industry, following a fad so as not to fall behind without wondering what communication, or strategic, objective it responds to. That’s kind of what happens when they say inside the museum that you need to get people to interact with new technologies. There is too much talk about the tools, and less about the strategies to achieve the goals. Museums, while continuing to be places of research, preservation, and exhibition, should focus on accessibility and enjoyment of their collection, whether it is made of objects or stories, aiming to raise the level of educational offerings, which is the real mission of the museum institution, facilitating the understanding and knowledge of their heritage. It is from this angle, from this point of view, that indeed new experiences of fruition are needed, which are also virtual and digital as well as physical. But there is something more important that Creation feels it is promoting. Museums and cultural institutions need to work on building audience loyalty. To achieve this, entertainment services are also needed. That does not mean marketing the goods stored in the exhibition halls, but rather offering spaces, equipment and opportunities for a better “user experience.” So that the visitor, especially the proximity visitor, is encouraged to return to the museum also as a place to spend their leisure time. To read, meet, listen to music, to attend a show, performance, review or conference, to see installations in addition to the works, to enjoy innovative technological instrumentation or simply to relax. Creation is focused on all of these aspects: on the quality of the cultural proposal and on entertainment, where “entertainment” includes within it the specific issues of communicating that content so that it is accessible and usable: we provide keys that foster informal learning, through a new kind of approach that can have a multilevel mental activation cost.

Andinnovation, after all, means not only digital, but also adopting new formae mentis.

We at Creation are always trying to look at what others are doing, because we basically live in the age of post-production and all we do is repurpose ideas and content into new forms. One thing that has struck me a lot (and which is somewhat lacking in Italy), for example, is that of linking tourism to culture (there is always a very blurred boundary between the two words and between the two sectors), and I am reminded of what they did to boost tourism in Flanders by organizing exhibitions on Flemish painters: so there was a mixture, a combination, to give life to a tourism approach linked to culture. A winning, light-hearted approach that we need to think about, to engage the public more. I would also like to mention the Rafa Nadal Museum, opened in Manacor, a museum centered on the tennis player, his trophies, his memorabilia, but founded on the idea of “come and live Rafa Nadal’s passions”: so there is, for example, the story of his interests that you can literally live through mountain bike or F1 simulators. It’s a place where the line of insight and the line of entertainment marry. Creation speaks a very broad idiom and caters to different types of museums, large, medium and small. And speaking of small museums, new technologies lead us to look at them in the light of untapped potential: if we think that a small facility can put itself in the limelight with a good social strategy we also realize that investments on this type of activity can be low, but the important thing is to have someone to help you in the process. Creation was born a little bit to act as a glue to the small/medium museum that doesn’t know where to turn (or even to the mayor of a city that has a system or network of museums) and relies on us as a consultant or even as an operational activity to manage services. It is with great pleasure, in this direction, that we can say that we have been following the Civita Association’s Report 2021, entitled Next Generation Culture. Digital Technologies and Immersive Languages for New Cultural Audiences, a key moment of reflection and investigation on topical issues such as digital transformation and innovative practices of fruition and interaction of cultural heritage. Themes that are as dear to us as ever. In short, I invite our potential partners to visit the creationculture.it sitoweb, a platform where they can find the services we offer but also a container where they can deal with current topics in our field, through interviews and articles collected in our blog. A site where Creation’s attention to a certain kind of graphic design that is inferred from outside the world traditionally related to Culture and updated to contemporary taste can also be grasped. While keeping faith with the specific aspects of the Culture sphere, we believe that we must always remain active in looking at what is happening outside, trying to cultivate new ideas that are sustainable and quickly expendable in an ever-changing market that we ourselves, when asked, try to address.

You mentioned earlier that museums are currently experiencing a stalemate on both communication and design. This observation gives me an opportunity to introduce a topic on which I would like to open a parenthesis: in your experience, what are the resistances, the obstacles, the difficulties that an entity such as yours finds when it has to interface with museums (especially public museums, I would say) and how do you with your new reality intend to overcome them?

There are two issues to be addressed: the first is museum expectations. That is, the moment the management of the institution commissions consulting work manifesting a communication problem, it often tends to impose its own idea to which it would like us to adapt. And sometimes this creates a disconnect with the client (after all, if a museum relies on us, it is because it somehow wants guidance). It remains clear, on the other hand, that the wishes of museums will always be respected, however, often, paradoxically, it is precisely the abundance of internal non-role figures intervening in communication that limits growth processes. The second problem concerns staff in terms of management and optimization. Creation makes it possible to transform some of the resources deployed by museums from mere expense items to real investments. With our approach, we focus on training internal museum staff who are initially unsuitable for carrying out certain activities. Of course, one cannot imagine that such staff growth will be immediate. And such a collaboration with the institution on duty would involve the consultant following the dual activities of goal maintenance and training. But we believe this opportunity is critical: our approach is not that of the company being called in to do a service that disappears from the moment it is provided. Rather, we focus on mutual growth. Of course: one might object that such a procedure would imply that the museum once it has trained its resources would make itself autonomous with respect to the consultant, with respect to us. This is true if understood in the long run, but we have to be good at constantly looking at all aspects of innovation that can be proposed to the museum, so that we always have new ideas, new projects, new content to propose, to the point where we become real partners. That’s it: that’s our goal, to become an extended consultant to the museum, on communication ideas and cultural design. It is clear that design is much more structured in today’s museums: think for example of the figure of the curator, which is already quite defined. Whereas the figure of the communicator is much less institutionalized. And then we often talk about communication too easily, without having the specialization that the field in question requires, and this can sometimes also be a limitation: I am referring to having a well-defined idea, which leads to hiring someone simply to implement and not so much to get advice and make a path together.

Speaking of museum staff, I think about the fact that public museums have a staff with a very high average age, and probably this, in daily work, could translate into serious difficulties when working on digital or communication. Could this be an obstacle? Or is there somehow a change of mindset in public museums despite the average age of the staff?

I don’t think it’s so much an age problem (although it’s clear that working on social activities with older people can make operations more complicated): in any case, the staff you find within the museum is one of the ingredients on which to prepare specific work. I know directors who are very good at working with people, able to transfer certain skills even on people who had never had a digital approach before. Many times unskilled staff even in the absence of certain skills have in them particular inclinations or sensitivities in the direction of those technical skills to be acquired. The skill lies in managing people, in being able to motivate them and provide them with the tools to get up to speed. However, the public system probably needs to change in terms of mentality. Even before a turnover, one should aim at a redistribution of roles, having older profiles take on coordination, relationship management tasks. We must, in essence, channel them according to individual possibilities and potential. Certainly today there is a need to welcome new professional figures to deal with communication by going to develop specific initiatives. Many major museums have relaunched themselves precisely when they have gone to touch on these issues, and to do so they have included emerging figures, perhaps not exactly young given that in Italy the term “young” is rather relative. In addition to figures with special skills related to the use of new software systems and new technologies, we then need to make the ultimate digital shift, with the ultimate goal of intercepting new audiences. But there can be no digital transformation without coordinating figures capable of directing these new resources.Audience development is also a very important issue to address: today we hear a lot about millennials, we say you have to have an account on TikTok, and it is good that there are all these tools, but I say that upstream there has to be a clear line of communication: paradoxically, it is better to have a museum that positions itself on one or two channels (and one of those two can also be public relations), rather than those that are on all platforms, but do it poorly, without knowledge and without respecting a proper line of crossposting.

You say in your company presentation that your business responds to “the changing needs of the market”-I would like to understand how the market for culture has changed in recent times and how you have entered the market.

The market is changing because people’s needs, which are cyclically changing, have changed. In any case, it would be difficult to answer the question by presenting an exact picture of the current situation, which cannot be defined except in its outlines and which would, among other things, have to be immediately re-photographed as new trends arise. If I had to answer in a few words, therefore, I would say that the changing market needs impose on those entering it first and foremost this kind of elasticity. Then there is the issue concerning the budgets of cultural institutions, and the funds that will be devoted to them. What will be decisive, however, from our point of view, will be the approach: if we are rigid in our approaches and strategies of communication, of cultural planning, regarding the models to be applied to museum management, we would only be re-proposing things that have already been done, already seen, which may not necessarily work again, but which it is easy to foresee as no longer fitting or sustainable to the times we are facing. Then there is a very important aspect that we have to keep in mind and that is a great innovation: the small museums have realized that they can talk right now. We Culture practitioners should not underestimate the small facilities, the small municipalities that aspire to create cultural content. The other fundamental indicator of market change comes from the need for speed in interpreting contemporary needs. From our point of view we will operate having in mind the watchword “speed,” of interpretation, of strategy, of intervention, which does not mean giving up proposing models of the past. But we will always do so with the public and its changing needs in mind. At this stage we must be vigilant in grasping what is happening in this period of adjustment toward a return to full attendance of cultural venues. We have noticed this recently by following the communication of an internationally renowned music festival, the Roma Jazz Festival, which only at the last moment was able to take advantage of 100 percent capacity and which necessarily had to cope with a decrease in foreign attendance. We worked by foreseeing ongoing interventions, calibrated to the dynamics found in itinere also for the magnificent exhibition on Renaissance sculpture The Body and The Soul from Donatello to Michelangelo, promoted and produced by the Municipality of Milan-Cultura, Castello Sforzesco, Musée du Louvre and realized thanks to Civita Mostre Musei of which we were partners in communication. Returning thus to the specifics of museum institutions to date, what seems vital is to begin to “make the visitor aware” of the museum of the future. The difference will therefore be made by the message conveyed and the awareness of the user, by being informed. To be so, the visitor must have someone working for him, the museum, who must necessarily work on the customer journey. The problem is that the customer journey models in the Covid era have all been turned upside down. The challenge is to observe and apply methodologies with speed. There are some colleagues and some companies that in the area of communication come up with sharp and precise strategies. I, on the other hand, think that communication is an experimental process, a trial and error process. It is a broad reasoning: we are not talking, after all, about mathematics, because the approach to digital has led us to ask questions like, “I make a banner ad, I get those numbers, but how much does it all come back to me in the ticket office?” However, there are also those who go to see the exhibition by the famous word-of-mouth, and how does that evaluate from an impact perspective? There are so many variables that lead to the final act of buying a ticket, and they are and must be testable in the field, but it takes a (if you will) “liquid” approach, because in communication there is no syllogistic approach: there is a set of activities done on the basis of experience, on the basis of analysis, and on the basis of attention to future needs. Today’s market, therefore, presupposes speed and application of theories that need to be tested and analyzed very quickly in order to understand what the real fruits of all this activity will then be.

Mostra il Corpo e l'anima da Donatello a Michelangelo al Castello Sforzesco
Exhibition The Body and the Soul from Donatello to Michelangelo at the Castello Sforzesco
Theon Cross al Roma Jazz Festival
Theon Cross at the Roma Jazz Festival
Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Joe Lovano al Roma Jazz Festival
Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Joe Lovano at the Roma Jazz Festival

You also offer yourself as a partner to those museums that need an interlocutor to valorize their collections. On the “valorization” discourse, in recent times, there has been a lot of discussion and often out of turn, and I think moreover that on collections the discourse has been addressed little or not at all. According to what I perceive is that in Italy the valorization of collections is done much worse than in many other countries, even neighboring countries, and in this case I am referring to both the public and private sectors. I would like to know how you feel about this issue and what could be done to improve the enhancement of our museums’ collections.

I had the good fortune to work at the Centre Pompidou, and when I was there the thing that struck me was that in that ministerial system (as much as it has been perceived over the years as very innovative) there was a major problem: that is, there were so many works, because the museum kept acquiring them. So, they focused on its brand by opening the Centre Pompidou Metz branch: they enhanced the collection in this way. The Louvre then did the same, and in Italy that’s kind of what they are trying to do with the MAXXI L’Aquila (and already the fact of creating a connection with another place somehow means enhancing the collection). Recently, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam opened the Depot Boijmans, a grand operation to musealize its repository. Almost a revolution by returning the museum to its primordial purpose: to preserve and exhibit. As a testament to how these issues deserve debate, Creation discussed this in its blog. But I agree wholeheartedly on the point: there is a problem, and there is a lot of discussion about it especially at the European level, of the fruition of collections. In Italy there are wonderful but little-known public collections: I give the example of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palermo or the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, which have beautiful but really little-known collections, then I think of other museums that have incredible collections, like the Mart in Rovereto. Not to mention photography. I mention a Swiss case that I particularly esteem, the Museum of Photography in Lausanne, which we talked about in our blog in view of the move to the new reality of Plateforme 10 that will materialize this’ year. Well, they too are facing the same problem, because of all their holdings they manage to exhibit during the year at most 2 percent. And in this case we are talking about a place that is devoted to fruition and innovation, so, we are not talking about a museum that has a conservative approach, but one that is questioning how to expand the accessibility and fruition of its collection. Here the issue of cost opens up, a real problem: more effort would be needed but I think, just to give an input with respect to what could be the innovation of Creation (but in general on what our vision is), that there are many museums and many realities willing to organize smaller format exhibitions, of twenty to thirty works, thus making their collections usable in much more provincial contexts. One should be able to create small functional models. One solution could come from the fragmentation of the collection, as long as we do not lose the thread that distinguishes it. The logic of cultural popularization is very important: why, for example, is certain sports particularly talked about in Italy today? Because as soon as you watch a news program, it is fed to us, whereas to find an art column you have to go looking for it. If we created a lot more cultural events, people would be like induced to enjoy more culture, automatically going to generate demand: it is a typical process of the economy of culture, so first you have to create a supply, then the demand will come. I cite, for example, the model of the Auditorium in Rome: when it was built, the goal was precisely to create a container that could give a supply that would go on to self-supply a subsequent demand. Of course, there must be the economic conditions to realize such enterprises, and here we come to a somewhat more critical point, because funding for culture, which is as necessary as ever, cannot afford a welfarist approach. Imagine a mayor who has a network of museums at his disposal and wants to nurture culture in his area. He must be able to decide to focus on cultural initiatives, investing public money, knowing that he can generate an inducement. Ideally, we would get to have an “American-style” approach, where a network of funders, including private ones, manage to finance an exhibition or certain projects with only the opening night, turned into an exclusive event for the occasion. At that point what happens is that “the city or regional elite” funds the exhibition, the public benefits, and everyone benefits. Something that in Italy to date is really complex to achieve!

A very last question, which I realize is rather personal: to close, I would like to know what was the path that led you to open this new reality, and thus to venture into such a demanding challenge, in such a historical moment as the one we are living...

I was born as a contemporary art historian, and I have always been comfortable in museums: there are, for example, those who do yoga or those who go to the beach, I go to museums. For me they are a place of peace, where I feel good. Then I realized that I was also very interested in the management part of culture, I like the museum as a place, said trivially. Then I was lucky enough to do a master’s degree with the Trentino School of Management, which focused a lot on group dynamics, opening my mind to other subjects such as anthropology, economics, marketing, communication: so I had a smattering of other subjects, also quite practical, which led me to have a somewhat hybrid, transversal profile. Then I remember that at one point, a few years ago, people started talking about what characteristics museum directors should have. I remember the famous “art historian or manager” diatribe: today in my opinion they have to have both skills, this was another issue that I was very passionate about. Then add the experience over the years, with publishing, exhibitions, communication, getting to know artists and gallerists, which brought me to a climax, to make me reflect that maybe I had the experience and the passion and realized that it was probably time to be ready for a new adventure. And in this sense, the point of view of the partners, who believed in the new Creation reality by espousing the project and making it their own, also played a great role. We all found ourselves at a historical moment in our careers where we felt the need to reshuffle the cards on the table, to create something different and new that responds to contemporary needs. And here I am now in my new role, which for me implies a lot of new things, for example, from the administrative/bureaucratic point of view, but at the same time it embodies the transversality of my whole path, touching on the themes of communication, innovation, cinema, photography, anthropology, psychology, art, all of which result in cultural design tout court. Finally, also important is the theme of trust: there are important figures who have believed in Creation despite the unknowns of a fledgling entity. We are basically a startup but it is as if we have been in the industry forever. The feedback we have had seems to have proven us right.

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