Why the pandemic pushes us to think as a global community. Filippo Del Corno, city councilor for culture in Milan, Italy, speaks.

How the Covid-19 pandemic will affect the global community and how it will be acted upon locally: we talked about this with Filippo Del Corno, councillor for culture of the City of Milan.

The health emergency due to the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic has called into question many aspects of our lives that we took for granted, and will force us to rethink them. It is not only about how we live our daily cultural experiences, which are likely to be subject to unprecedented prescriptions in the near future, but it is also about rethinking our patterns of development. We talked about these issues with Filippo Del Corno, councillor for culture of the Municipality of Milan, setting the reflection on a double track: on the one hand, what Milan is doing these days and what it will do once the emergency is over, and on the other hand, how the emergency will impact some processes taking place globally. Interview by Federico Giannini.

Filippo Del Corno
Filippo Del Corno

FG. Alderman, what is the situation of cultural institutions in Milan? How are they working in this very difficult period, what are the ongoing activities?

FD. The city’s cultural institutions are reacting to the health emergency in a very unified and coherent way. On the one hand, there is the blocking of activities open to the public, with the necessary reshaping of workloads and components related to the presence of staff (many have activated, where possible, the measures that the government has put in place for income support, or the formulas provided by the rules on the redundancy fund to make sure that there are no dramatic effects on employment). It must be said, however, that many cultural institutions immediately sought to continue to do public service: they have understood that the importance of their presence is that of being holders of a public service that consists in the production, dissemination and popularization of culture, and they have therefore activated online programs, from virtual tours of museums (in this respect all institutions have carried out very significant initiatives) to the socialization of their own archives (I am thinking of some entities active in the field of entertainment, or of what the Cineteca Foundation has done, in a virtuous way). On the other hand, there are also some subjects that have imagined using (in some cases even in an almost creative way) the dimension of socialization of culture through the web by building ad hoc content. It is clear that none of this is a substitute for the experience of sharing forms of cultural expression: everyone’s goal is to return to having open museums, open theaters, open cinemas, open libraries. But it is equally true that, at this stage, to interrupt the dialogue with the city would have been on the one hand very negative, and on the other hand would have been a nullification of what is instead an awareness of mission that the city’s cultural institutions have, namely that of always expressing a public function.

We start precisely from the assumption that institutions should continue to deliver, even in other ways, their services, because culture remains fundamental: we are discovering this day by day, even very trivially, because at this time without music, without films, without books, in essence without the most living and concrete products of culture, we would be much worse off indeed, and culture is one of the few things that keep us alive at a time when our basic freedoms are minimized and our social relations are zeroed out. The problem, however, is that culture is perhaps still talked about too little, and in mass communication there is no room for the point of view of culture. And in the face of this problem there are those who still hope for a public awareness of the importance of culture, and on the opposite side there are those who imagine a future in which culture will continue to struggle with the myriad problems that accompanied it until before the pandemic. How do you see the situation?

I think the issue of the importance of cultural production in societies is a recurring theme, and I don’t think today’s society experiences conditions that are so glaringly different from those that have occurred in other eras of history. From this point of view, I think we have to activate with great responsibility a very concrete assessment of what is in fact, in today’s society, the role that culture can express. The answer I have given myself is that culture is the greatest tool for sharing cognitive heritage. The sharing of cognitive heritage is the one that more than anything else can weave a bond of community. I think this epidemic is telling us that we can no longer afford to think in terms of city communities or local communities: community has become global because, in fact, an event as tragic as the outbreak of a virus, which occurred in a very specific and identifiable part of our planet, had in a little less than two months a capacity for a truly global effect. And so we have to think that ours has become a global community, and that consequently culture, from this point of view, can be an extraordinary tool for sharing cognitive assets globally, and no longer just locally. This is an extremely fascinating and interesting challenge, not least because, in a sense, it echoes some of the founding characteristics of any phenomenon of artistic or cultural expression. It is clear that the presence of a global position on the issue of the importance of culture is crucial: let us not forget that, a few days ago, three ministers of culture from three very relevant European countries were able to take a common position, a widely shared position, and I imagine that if we put all the ministers of culture from all the countries of the world at one table (as Minister Franceschini already did on the occasion of Expo 2015), then we would be able to register a broader consonance of views and even focus of objectives than we would register on other tables. So here culture has this mission in front of it, a very important mission, and clearly there is a need for the media communication tools to also take great responsibility to emphasize how this frontier of goal and objective, which culture can express as a tool, should be considered as a very important element, and then to enhance all the occasions and all the circumstances in which this valence is expressed with positions such as those taken by the three ministers.

The famous adage suggests to think globally, and to act locally. Obviously, when there is to be a fresh start, a lot of work will need to be done in Milan. The problem is that at the moment we do not know when we can start again. In any case, whatever the forecast, do you guys already have a plan for restarting?

We have several intersecting plans, however, on a level that is not directly governable by the world of culture, that is, what will be the medical and health prescriptions that will accompany the reopening of cultural venues. Our first goal is precisely to open the places of culture, to return to making sure that the experience of culture has that crucial characteristic of sharing, which is based on the physical and concrete openness of spaces. This, however, will have to take into account, inevitably and rationally, the medical and health prescriptions. So on the one hand we will have to try to make sure that all houses of culture gradually reopen and return to facilitate that experience of sharing culture, but on the other hand to make sure that this happens within a very precise perimeter, which is what the health authorities will prescribe. We don’t know this element fully yet: we know that there will be quotaed capacities, we know that there will be a requirement for the use of medical garrisons, and then our concern will be to make coincide, but to converge, on the one hand the desire and the need to reopen, and on the other hand compliance with health prescriptions. We will certainly develop a very broad communication plan that gets the city back into the habit with the cultural experience, and so all our communication tools will certainly be acted upon to give the city full awareness of what cultural experiences will restart (and how they will restart), also to make sure that the autonomy and independence of the subjects of cultural production, which have made the wealth of our city in recent years, are free to express all their energy of project, all their energy of proposal.

However, we will have to imagine a very different scenario from the one we left before the outbreak. In recent days, the City of Milan has released some data, which tell us, for example, that the civic museums alone are losing 400,000 euros a week. In your opinion, should we imagine that the restart will have to do without several resources, so will there be cuts, or will there be different action, or at any rate how will today’s losses affect the future?

They will affect in several directions. The loss of the civic museums is the most absorbable one, but let’s think about the loss of theaters, which no longer have their box office open, and let’s also think about other crucial players in the dissemination of the city’s culture (I’m thinking of independent bookstores, for example, which have lost most of their revenue capacity, although many have activated interesting alternative forms of home distribution, but clearly this cannot make up for the closure). In a sense, the overall picture is one of total revenue glaciation for all cultural organizations in the city: economic measures will therefore have to be extraordinary, but the government will have to take them. We have seen that the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities has allocated 130 million euros of emergency fund for those active in the field of performing arts, and we, as culture aldermen of twelve cities regional capitals, in a table of relationship and consultation with the ministry, have asked that a share of these resources go to those subjects that are not traditionally financed by the Single Fund for the Performing Arts, and therefore to those smaller and more fragile realities, which act on the territory, which very often are not known at the national level, but instead are invaluable for cities. I imagine that, alongside this, others will be the measures that the government will take to equip cities with extraordinary tools from the point of view of economic support for cultural production and dissemination. Clearly we will then also have to rely on generosity of a patronage nature: we know that there are a great many private entities that in the past have not failed to support culture through donations and sponsorships, and we need to make sure that the government takes a great measure of defiscalization of all private interventions in support of culture, and then imagine, for example, that Art Bonus is not an instrument limited, as it is today, to measures to protect the nation’s cultural heritage, but that it can be extended to support activities, which will allow us to have many private entities capable of intervening in support of cultural activities with the prospect of a tax benefit like the one Art Bonus provides. After that, I believe (and I hope it is a widely shared opinion) that the economy of culture will restart the moment its importance is fully understood from the point of view of the current balances of economic and employment value production capacity. I recall that culture and creative enterprises generate 10 percent of Milan’s city GDP, and that today women and men working in cultural production entities or creative enterprises generate a figure located between 9 and 10 percent of city employment. This figure, which we cultural workers have always claimed as necessary for measures of economic attention to be taken on this sector, now becomes an inescapable fact, on which the measures that the government will take, and that Europe will of course take, will have to be centered. I am already thinking that, in terms of the government’s direct support initiatives for municipalities, there will have to be an expenditure fund tied to the support of cultural activities, so that there really is a new direct investment activity on the entities that produce and disseminate culture on the ground.

Moving from the cultural industries to tourism, the data tell us that in 2019 Milan touched the record of 11 million admissions, a figure that will obviously be drastically reduced for 2020. I’d like to know in your opinion how the flows will change, that is, whether there will be a return to mass tourism in the short term or whether in the years to come tourism will be a proximity tourism, and in any case what will be the strategy of the City of Milan?

Let’s say that the dimension that I was recalling earlier, that is, the need to understand that the community is a global community, will greatly influence the future of the movement of this community. The indicators (which are very partial for the moment anyway) tell us that mobility will be very, very reduced. So, that dimension of cultural tourism that was so broad and so widespread, which we had experienced in these 20 years of the beginning of the millennium, will probably be greatly reduced. I don’t know if it’s such a negative perspective: maybe that model of tourism also had negative components, which we underestimated. Probably this health emergency will also provoke a rethinking of the real policies of attractiveness of the territories, which, however, are also responsibly connected to the sustainability not only of the economy but also of the environment and social sustainability of the city communities. Let us not forget that Barcelona, well before the coronavirus epidemic, had been able to signal to the cities of the world the great risk that mass tourism brought for the balances of cities. Milan will have to rethink itself, but it has an advantage: even in the impetuous development that there has been in recent years, the city has always been able to profile a type of visitor capable of determining a flow presence that is consistent with what is the welcoming capacity of a center like Milan. I think that, in the future, travel flows will be increasingly determined by the principle of overall coherence of the attractive capacities of individual territories. Milan, of course, will have to play a great deal of its attractiveness on the theme of the great importance that, in our city, has historically been played by the development of creative thinking, and therefore imagine that future visitors to Milan will be those who, more than any others in the world, will be involved in and attracted by the element related to creative thinking, its testimonies, its manifestations. I believe that many elements of the “Fare Milano” strategic plan that we announced in 2016 will still be extremely valid, indeed perhaps they will become even more so, because they will specify and qualify a form of the city’s overall offerings that will be able to go out and positively affect the desirability of the Milan destination for certain specific categories and certain specific segments of travelers of the future. We will all, however, travel in a very different form. I can’t give statistical answers because it’s still very early to tell, but we can try to do an empirical test by calling all our friends and girlfriends and asking them where they hypothesize they will spend their vacations this summer: all those who perhaps had planned to travel abroad, perhaps even to Europe, will tell us that they will stay in Italy and that they will probably develop vacation and tourism plans that are very much tied to territorial proximity.

Speaking of creative thinking, you are not only a councillor for culture of the City of Milan but also a composer, and I take advantage of this element to open a brief thought: in this situation perhaps so far there has been a bit of a lack of artists, or at any rate of those who are able to develop a thought that goes beyond the mere elaboration of the statistical or biological. So I would like to try to think about the impact of the epidemic on the profile of relationships: from your point of view, how is this pandemic changing the relationships between people, and consequently how will it change the way we live, even in small daily habits?

Right now we are experiencing the emergent condition of the pandemic, so we do not yet know (and have a hard time predicting) what the “stabilized” consequences of the emergency will be. However, it is clear that the sharp and abrupt downsizing of sociality will also have very significant consequences from the point of view of how we imagine the role of a creator or artist in society. I always very much agree with what a great composer like Luciano Berio maintained when he said that art has never been deaf to history: in a writing from the 1950s that I have had the opportunity to reread these days, he asserted that the civilized world and human society, even in all their critical phases, are transformed as if they were a living body. That is, a parallelism occurs between what happens in human society and what occurs in nature: the civilized world elaborates symbols, elaborates the languages and objects of its own existence, and the artist himself is the first to identify with its temporality. Berio said that the artist creates for his civilized world and not for a future immortality. However, I can say that the way society relates to rituality connected with artistic and cultural reflections will change a great deal: new forms of rituality will develop that will greatly influence the creative aspect. However, it is very difficult to say how this will happen.

One final question. In your interview with us more than a year ago, you concluded by foreseeing a future like the one imagined by Jacques Attali, that is, a future in which nation-states will have less and less importance and in which instead the nerve centers will be large supranational entities and large metropolises like Milan. In light of the event that shocked the world this year do you still hold the same view, or is this pandemic a kind of hiccup toward such a future?

I have been thinking a lot about this issue these days. I don’t think the pandemic is a hiccup, but a very strong signal, which I would articulate along three lines of thought. The first: this pandemic has demonstrated and revealed the fragility of the cities’ development model. Perhaps we had been lulled unwittingly into the image of an unstoppable development model, which was what all the cities of the world were going through. And as is often the case in history, a completely occasional event (the circumstances under which this epidemic spread have characteristics of occasionality and exceptionality that we will then have to really reflect on one day) instead demonstrated the great fragility of that model of development. It is somewhat as if we have realized that that idea of development that cities were and still are cultivating needs to be challenged. The second level, which will be very impactful, is that of solidarity between cities. Right now cities are talking to each other much more than nation-states are, and they are sharing strategies to deal with this epidemic with infinitely greater speed and also mutual utility. And so, in a sense, this is a conservative fact of the theory made my own by Attali’s far more influential original. Today I know perfectly well what my Shanghai colleague has been thinking with respect to the possible reopening of places of culture, and I have a form of immediate sharing of ideas and strategies that instead, on the nation-state front, I see very limited and slowed down. Let us also not forget that it was the mayors of the cities who raised the first cry of alarm with respect to the need for nation states to immediately equip themselves with tools to protect against the pandemic when it became evident. The third element, the most complex one in my opinion, is related to sustainability: beyond the very rhetorical, and to me also very annoying, forms with which a return of nature to the cities was suddenly celebrated as a positive fact (as if a fox spotted in Quarto Oggiaro or a dolphin off the coast of Venice represented a saving message: they are circumstances that instead denote and signal the exceptional nature of a situation that is causing first and foremost many victims, but also a global socio-economic crisis that will have very serious consequences), we need to acknowledge the fact that the environmental sustainability of the development model that cities have been thinking about in recent years has been too timid. There is a need for cities to have the ability to really put environmental sustainability at the center of their development policies. And this will also mean rethinking many aspects, many goals and many strategies. But this rethinking will be the way in which, in a much more conscious and responsible form, cities will really show that they are able to drive the change and transformation needed for the future. These days, when everyone is talking about crisis, I always use to remember that the etymology of “crisis” comes from a Greek verb meaning “to choose.” It is at the time of crises that the big choices are determined. Crises are very negative because of the tragic consequences they bring about, but they represent exceptional circumstances in which one has an enormous responsibility to make choices.I believe and hope that cities will be able to make the right choice from the point of view of their future development model.