The hands of unbridled privatization (and Quagliariello) on everyone's cultural heritage

The Magna Carta Foundation chaired by Gaetano Quagliariello has put forward a bill to Minister Franceschini that, if approved, will devastate the cultural heritage system with unbridled privatization.

It is something that has been little talked about (and, therefore, few people know about), but this Tuesday the Magna Carta Foundation, chaired by Ncd parliamentarian Gaetano Quagliariello, presented at the Rome Chamber of Commerce, in the presence of Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini, a bill to substantially revise the role of private individuals in the management of culture in Italy. The news was given on the Foundation’s website, within which it is also possible to find the text of the formulated bill. We learn, meanwhile, that the minister has said that he shares the reasons behind the proposal, and that two Ncd senators, Laura Bianconi and Federica Chiavaroli, would already be ready to present it to the Senate.

I don’t know how many people in the cultural world have read this proposal, which, in its desire to promote a reorganization of the Cultural Heritage Code, takes on strongly disturbing tones, because if it passes, it will go on to disrupt the system of cultural heritage as we have known it up to the present day and in fact will go on to depower the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities in an extremely worrying way. However, it is only right to add that, at least for the moment, the passage of the proposal seems unlikely, not least because Franceschini himself has stated that it is “preferable to proceed step by step, without going from one extreme to the other. ”It is already rather alarming, however, that it was the minister himself who declared that he understands the reasons behind the Magna Carta proposal.

Gaetano Quagliariello
Gaetano Quagliariello

Reasons that to us at Windows on Art seem far from agreeable. It seems that the intent of the Foundation is to allow private individuals to get their hands on the heritage that belongs to everyone, going to hit the Ministry in what is its main mission: to safeguard the interests of the protection, conservation (and consequently, also the valorization) of a heritage that is public, that is, that belongs to everyone. Let’s be clear: private intervention would not in itself be a bad thing, on the contrary: where it can help to lift the fortunes of heritage, it is more than ever desirable. However, the logic of private parties does not always appear to be dictated by reasons of public benefit, and there are many examples. On the other side of the fence, the state certainly cannot be said to be blameless: if we have come this far, it is because we are coming from years of serious shortcomings and gross errors on the part of the ministry and those who have managed it to date. But let’s focus on the proposal and go in order.

The focal point of the proposal is this: the management of the cultural heritage should be open to “social subjects other than the state and local authorities,” and consequently, we read in the text, “necessarily those who decide on projects, research and initiatives will be solely and only the Governing Council of the institution itself.” Such an assumption contradicts what is written just a couple of lines above in the proposal, namely, “the state will have the duty to protect cultural property even if it is in the hands or use of administrations or entities other than the Ministry.” I have a hard time understanding how the state will be able to continue to guarantee its protection work if it is the Governing Council of the property management bodies that will decide on their fate, since projects, research and initiatives that concern cultural heritage cannot be separated from the subjects that concern their protection. What seems wrong in this proposal is the assumption from which these considerations start, namely the desire to incentivize “profit around cultural heritage” in order for heritage to become a source of “economic rent.” This summer, on the pages of our website, we published a translation of an article by Anna Somers Cocks that appeared in The Art Newspaper, in which the author clearly stated that “even perfectly functioning museums do not create profit” and “almost no exhibitions do.” Think of the Louvre, one of the museums most cited by those who advocate private intervention in museum management: the annual budget of the French museum, the most visited in the world, is covered 50 percent by state funding. Of course, a 50 percent budget coming from self-financing sources is a considerable sum (considering that the total budget amounts to about 200 million euros): but surely, this is not enough for the Louvre to create profit. In fact, in 2011, the Louvre had achieved revenues of 94 million euros, to which we have to add the 116 million euros endowment from the French state to enable the museum to meet its expenses: in 2013, personnel expenses alone amounted to 108 million euros.

All this for a very simple reason: the purpose of a museum is to preserve, enhance, and educate, that is, to make culture and not to make a profit. Evidently, those who elucidated this proposal did not ask themselves this question. And to verify this we need only focus on two points of the proposal (as a matter of brevity, I will leave the perhaps ungrateful task of reflecting on the other points of the proposal to the reader). The first point: we read in the proposal that after Article 115 of the Code, another one is to be inserted to provide for the establishment of “private-law entities, with an internal budget, aimed at improving the valorization and economic efficiency of the cultural sites that these entities will manage.” We also read that “the Ministry intervenes by participating economically in a one-to-one proportion to what the entity declares triennially, after an initial economic intervention that is decided by the Ministry itself.” So, to translate: the bill calls for private companies to be established, but they get lavish funding from the Ministry (in the ratio of one to one to what the entity declares every three years, and moreover after an initial economic intervention by the Ministry itself). On the last page of the proposal, however, on the subject of takings, we read that the bill wants to amend Article 110 of the Code in this way: “if such institutes [places of culture, ed.], places or individual properties are under the management or conduction of an entity of private law, the takings and proceeds shall be internally budgeted, that is, they shall be paid into the management funds of the entity itself.” In short, it is the usual Italian-style business model: privatization of profits and socialization of investments (and hoping that the private entity does not make a loss, of course). Is this really the future we want for our cultural heritage?

The second point: the proposed law aims to allow private entities to do what they want with cultural heritage. In fact, the proposal provides for the amendment of paragraph 1 of Article 48 so that the Ministry will be deprived of “the power to authorize the loan” of goods for exhibitions and expositions, “except for those works whose material integrity is seriously endangered by any displacement” (the rewriting of the article provides that “the loan for exhibitions and expositions” of all public works is not subject to ministerial authorization except for “those that the Ministry deems, for protection or decorum, non-transferable or transferable only after authorization”). And again, the proposal calls for the substantial abolition of Article 21, which makes the demolition of cultural property, its relocation, and the dismemberment of collections subject to the Ministry: in fact, the relocation of property and the dismemberment of collections will be removed from the permit requirement. The danger of this proposal is therefore glaring. It effectively clears the way for the reckless displacement of works of art (for example, if this proposal to date had already been law, Sandro Botticelli’s Venus could have quietly gone to the Reggia di Venaria Reale, as was being discussed this summer) and gives the green light to the destruction of possibly intact and centuries-old collections, because if this proposal passes, the Ministry would no longer be able to prevent their dismemberment.

And all this without any objective benefit to the community. As it has been formulated, it appears to be primarily an ideological proposal. It is not by taking assets away from the care of the Ministry that job creation, the circulation of ideas for the revitalization of culture, and even the economic return of heritage are encouraged. What is needed, on the other hand, are smart strategies to create synergies between the state and private operators: all that would be needed is for the Ministry to be put in the capacity to invest (and instead, since 2008, we have seen only cuts that have reduced the Ministry’s own budget by more than half a billion euros). I repeat: private individuals are not evil and their intervention is desirable and, nowadays, even necessary. Private individuals can bring lifeblood, they can participate in the debate with new ideas, they can foster the emergence of virtuous circles, they can promote high-quality enhancement. But problems are not solved by wild privatization as the Magna Carta Foundation would like to do with cultural heritage. Let us think about what would happen if this kind of privatization were conducted in other sectors vital to the lives of all of us, such as education and health care. Surely, one can imagine that it would not be a good thing. And I assure you it would not be good for cultural heritage either.

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