Ten urgent priorities for the next minister of culture

What are the ten proprities that the next Minister of Culture will have to tackle? We tried to identify them through a discussion with various insiders: from labor to contemporary art, from peripheral territories to participation, here are the challenges to be addressed.

CulturalItaly has emerged devastated from two years of pandemic. This is not a statement tinged with sensationalism: there are data certifying all the serious difficulties the sector is going through. Federculture’s latest report released worrying data on citizen participation in culture, which has seen dramatic collapses: between 2019 and 2021, Italians have shied away from cultural activities, with museums reporting 72 percent less participation, cinema 81 percent less, theater 85 percent less, and concerts 82 percent less. Same results found by Nomisma: 4 out of 10 Italians have stopped attending culture. Collapsing attendance necessarily means drastic reductions in spending on culture (the Impresa Cultura Italia-Confcommercio Observatory found a 47 percent drop in average spending per family), with consequent drops in revenue for all activities, public and private, in the sector. And with the crisis looming on the horizon, there is reason to believe that the situation will not improve, since the past has already shown us that, in times of difficulty, culture is among the first sectors to suffer. Worrisome data also come from labor: Federculture certifies thatcultural employment has decreased by 6.7 percent compared to 2019.Istat calculated that 55,000 jobs in culture have been lost during the pandemic.

This is the bleak scenario that the next minister of culture will face just after his appointment. Since 2018, the year of the past elections, many things have improved: public spending on culture has increased, although we are still far from the European averages; digitization has made remarkable strides; before the pandemic, the overall number of visitors to our museums knew conspicuous increases (although significant differences between the center and the peripheries remained); and a great many institutions have renewed. So the new minister will have a good starting point, but the challenges that await him will be many, difficult, and will come in what is likely to be a new period of crisis. With the idea of offering constructive input to whoever will sit in the Roman College after the new government is formed, we have identified, after close discussion with many insiders (some of whom are mentioned here, many others preferred to remain anonymous), ten priorities that should guide the new minister’s actions.

Il Collegio Romano, sede del Ministero della Cultura. Foto di Finestre sull'Arte
The Collegio Romano, headquarters of the Ministry of Culture. Photo by Windows on Art

1. Investment: bring public spending on culture in line with the European average.

According to Eurostat data, Italy ranks fourth in Europe for public spending on culture, where public spending means the sum of what both central and local authorities spend: with 5.1 billion euros in 2020 we rank behind France (16.6 billion), Germany (15.3) and Spain (5.5) and are just above the Netherlands, which spends 4.1 billion on culture. This is better than a few years ago, when spending was around 4.6 billion euros, but if we look at the figure in light of the ratio to total public spending or GDP, the comparison with the rest of Europe is pitiless: we allocate only 0.7 percent of public spending to culture, against the European average of 1 percent (worse than us are only Cyprus, Portugal and Greece, while Germany, Spain and France score 0.9, 1 and 1.2 respectively), and on the ratio of spending on culture to GDP we stand at 0.3 percent against the EU average of 0.5 percent, followed by Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. In relation to GDP, Spain is in line with the EU average, Germany is at 0.4 and France at 0.7. It is unthinkable for a country like Italy to continue to remain below the European averages for spending on culture: it will therefore be a priority to try to bring Italy’s public spending on culture as close as possible to the European average. Investing in culture means having more returns (Fondazione Symbola reports have shown the multiplier potential of investments in culture), getting more participation, starting a virtuous circle that will make the sector stronger.

2. Incentivize participation

It was mentioned in introducing this article how the restrictive measures put in place in an attempt to combat Covid-19 have had an almost annihilating effect on participation. It will therefore be a top priority of the next minister to boost participation. We have long been proposing on these pages a revolution on museum tickets to broaden the audience: discounts and free tickets for those who are not employed, conventions between cultural venues (thinking in a broader perspective also of cinemas, theaters, sports facilities and so on), forms of season tickets, reductions for those who visit museums during the last hours of opening or for those who decide to visit only part of the museum (and thus initiatives that also incentivize return to the museum: extending the validity of the ticket could be one of them). Then, we could think, as we suggested back in the spring of 2020, about introducing tax deduction systems for those who buy culture (museum tickets, guided tours, cultural services in general). And instead of free Sundays, which could be safely outdated, there could be more frequent culture days with token-price admissions, as has been done in the past with cinema, when discounted Wednesdays were instituted, and as is being done these days with the Cinema in Feast event. In addition, new ways of storytelling are also needed: in this sense, a work by Antonio Lampis, former director general of Italian museums, who with real examples suggests ways to enhance the value of cultural places, may be useful. All initiatives that should encourage audiences to participate will then be supported by massive publicity campaigns: in this sense, the Ministry, with its post-pandemic campaigns inviting audiences to return to the cinema and theater, has opened a path that will have to continue to be traveled frequently.

3. Addressing the problem of understaffing

The competition for the 1,052 theater assistants that began in 2019 and ended this year (with new supervisors starting work this week) has brought new recruits to museums, but it will probably not be enough to make up for the under-staffed situation in which many institutions find themselves, starting with libraries and archives: by now, one can no longer count the number of institutions that have been forced to reduce their opening hours and services to the public. To realize this, one only has to type in the right keywords on search engines. Moreover, the shortage of so-called “janitors” is but the most conspicuous deficiency, since it leads to the closure of portions of museums, or causes the reduction of opening hours, but there are also gaps among less “visible” profiles, namely technical ones: for example, surveyors, laborers and administrative workers, i.e. figures that often require specific professional skills. Their absence often causes the necessary lengthening of procedures. The criticality of understaffing is now there for all to see: it has been highlighted by the Court of Auditors and by the Ministry itself, which in the period of reopenings after the first pandemic confinement, spoke of a “very serious organic shortage.” Minister Franceschini himself is well aware that staffing gaps are one of the most important problems to be solved. Moreover, valuing professionalism also means recognizing the dignity of cultural volunteering, a noble and important activity that cannot, however, be used to fill gaps or save on labor.

4. Relaunching peripheral territories

In the opinion of the writer, one of the main merits of Minister Dario Franceschini lies in his insight that Italy cannot neglect peripheral territories and that, indeed, the Italy of the future will be a country that will rely heavily on areas far from large centers. Just think of the key role they can play in redirecting tourist flows, decongesting the most toured areas. The Ministry of Culture’s plan on the boroughs is a first, positive piece (although everything has yet to start, but the premises bode well) of what it is hoped will become a mosaic capable of guaranteeing local realities a role that is not secondary to those in the city: we therefore expect infrastructural upgrades, serious investments to reduce hydrogeological risk and to consolidate historic buildings in need of intervention, collaborations with cities, openings of new tourist itineraries (one could take as a model what has been done on the theme of ancient pilgrimage routes), investments in diffuse heritage, incentives for participation also for local communities since museums and cultural institutes are first and foremost presidia of active citizenship. It will therefore be important in this sense, notes Domenica Primerano, former director of the Tridentine Diocesan Museum and president of the Italian Ecclesiastical Museums Association, to have a government that can “mature a broader understanding of the role that culture takes on in our society.”

5. Streamline bureaucratic procedures.

It is noted from many quarters that the baroque nature of bureaucratic procedures is felt to be an increasingly pressing problem. The Franceschini reform, in this respect, has struggled to be incisive. Certainly, staff shortages do not help here either: few officials dedicated to protection cope with increasingly onerous workloads, with the result that timelines are getting longer. But it is not just a matter of staff shortages: it is also a matter of procedural efficiency. What this means was well summarized, for example, by archaeologist Philippe Pergola in one of his 2019 contributions: “We come up against the dictates produced by extreme and finicky bureaucratic processing, with the need to provide both for concession requests, and in the course of work, or to balance each campaign, a mass of documents to be reiterated from year to year, at the time of ’concession’ renewals, with no possibility of referring to the ’unexpired’ documentation acquired a few months earlier. It is also [...] about the prescriptions related to conservation and restoration, in which the ’concessionaire’ can be forced to carry out works that are as non-essential as they are costly, in the absence of possible ’independent’, external opinions, as is the case in France.” For this reason, Serena Bertolucci, director of the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, suggests, “it would perhaps be useful to create territorial working tables, or technical secretariats where at least major projects can be dealt with all together, administration, preservation, enhancement so as to refine the proposal and start a process when the proposal is shared (always respecting human times though).”

6. Complete the National Museum System

Launched in 2018, the National Museum System, however much it has grown over time, has not yet taken off to date: there are only 380 museums that adhere to it, out of the approximately five thousand that should be networked. Yet it is an important project to equip museums with minimum quality standards and create opportunities for collaboration among different institutions. Adele Maresca, president of ICOM, points out to us that “an increase in the quality of cultural projects and services, at which the constituting National Museum System aims, will only be possible if there is (through regulations, ad hoc investments and direct and indirect support measures) a consistent strengthening of qualified personnel in national and local structures, and the diffusion of visions, languages and innovative tools with training and continuous updating programs.” The work will therefore have to proceed with greater concreteness, “also with a view,” Serena Bertolucci further emphasizes, “of a cultural subsidiarity that can no longer be postponed. Big museums supporting small ones even if only in the question of sharing competencies, which seems to me to be the only way to try to ensure quality and effectiveness for some services that are fundamental such as educational services, registers, planned conservation, and true (and not improvised) communication of culture.”

7. Promoting contemporary art

Something has moved in recent years on the contemporary art front, long neglected: the Italian Council and the Contemporary Art Plan may just represent the beginning of a policy that will have to take into account the creativity of our country, where there is no shortage of good artists but they must be put in the conditions to work peacefully. Just as our museums must be put in the conditions to show themselves up to date in the eyes of the Italian and international public. There is much to be done in this area: first of all, a real “New Deal” would be needed, a vast program of art production and acquisitions of contemporary works for museums (our institutions, it is well known, buy very little). There is a need to strengthen existing programs, put in place capillary controls on Law 717/49, also known as the “2% Law” (which requires administrations to allocate a percentage of up to 2 percent of the total amount of works of art for new buildings to the acquisition of works of art), question the possibility of thinking about public spaces for contemporary art on the model of the German Kunsthalle, use disused spaces in cities to create centers of contemporary art production, imagine systems of tax deductions on the purchase of artworks. The Contemporary Art Forum in 2020 forwarded several other proposals on which a discussion can and should be reactivated.

8. Bringing young people closer to culture

Without young people, culture cannot survive. There are, meanwhile, young cultural professionals, who are often demoralized because they do not see their professional skills adequately recognized. “Trained to work in the field of cultural heritage, bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D., graduate school, often passionate and competent, they are offered collaborations on a VAT number, with inadequate compensation and no certainty”: this is how Primerano sums up their situation for us. Others, on the other hand, get caught up in the abuse of volunteer work, a practice that “takes away oxygen from the circuit of heritage protection and enhancement, if (and it is all too often) it does not support an effective staff, but simply replaces it without any attention to the kind of professionalism put in place, often very scarce of course.” The first “approach,” if we can call it that, should be that of young professionals to the work for which they are trained. And then there is, again, the issue of participation. Therefore, we need to review the “18app” program, which has often been underutilized and has not been exempt from abuse, and convert it, if anything, into a system of vouchers linked to activities, experiences (visits to museums, participation in concerts or theatrical performances), trips and stays in cities of art, which benefit not only 18-year-olds, but a broader range of young beneficiaries.

9. Public-private collaboration and new financial instruments.

The ArtLab platform, ahead of the September 25 consultations, has prepared a document Culture is Future that contains many important proposals for the next government, including the “Development of dedicated financial instruments (microcredit, guarantees, training vouchers, matching funds, etc.) and strengthening of existing ones.” When we talk about public-private collaboration, we should not think, simplistically, of companies that organize events inside museums: the topic is much more complex and goes from the development of funds to the extension of the so-called tax credit for companies that invest in art, from funds for internationalization (all elements well pointed out by ArtLab) to the Art Bonus tool that, from 2015 to the present, has allowed the realization of important projects. Tax measures to facilitate the provision of resources to culture will therefore have to be expanded so that the support that private individuals can provide to culture becomes increasingly effective.

10. Research.

Five years ago we were already pointing out how little research is done in Italian museums and superintendencies, and that this issue fails to find its proper place in the cultural debate. In the last two years the Ministry of Culture has devoted more attention to archives and libraries, but the lag towards research still has not been bridged, nor can it be said that the drafting of protocols with universities is widespread practice, although the situation has clearly improved compared to previous elections and by now opportunities for collaboration between museums and universities are becoming more frequent. Last January, on these pages, Francesca Bazoli argued the need for a “strengthening of the link between museum and university institutions under the sign of mutual permeability, to be realized both at the level of scientific or educational collaborations and, again, in the use of museum spaces or in forms of privileged accessibility to collections and archives for the benefit of students.” It is time to fully explore these possibilities.

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