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Are Italy’s museum reforms enough to stop the rot?

1 June 2015

From the June issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here 

Red tape, nepotism, funding shortages…The Italian museum system has long been in need of an overhaul. But will the structural reforms introduced by culture minister Dario Franceschini be enough to stop the rot?

After many painful years of funding cuts and poor decision-making, Italian museums have finally been provided with a culture minister, Dario Franceschini, who is substantively attempting to rescue them from the chronic illness into which they have slowly slipped in the past 20 years. Notwithstanding a further spending review, some measures have been adopted that clearly signal an about-turn from the Italian government with regards to this delicately poised situation. And, as the minister has recently restated, the new path will also lead Italy ‘towards a greater involvement of private capital both in the conservation of, and innovative attitude towards its national artistic heritage’.

At the moment, the heart of the malady remains the same: the excessive influence of politics on museum management, in a country in which the 4,000 or so public museums are funded almost totally through public money. The symptoms are easy to identify: nepotism, stasis, poor interaction between institutions, the lack of independence of directors and curators in making cultural decisions, and an inability to develop meaningful relationships with private supporters. The problem is not just how much money there is, but also the way in which money is spent: that is badly, if not very badly, and with constant conflicts of interest.

The problem is structural and long-standing, and is a complex one to solve. The then-progressive policies adopted at the beginning of the 1970s, the golden age of the Italian ‘beni culturali’ (cultural heritage), are no longer realistic – and Franceschini seems to be aware of this. The measures taken so far, in spite of criticism, do demonstrate his will to move forward from the politics adopted in that period, which are today no longer in step with the times. And up to this point, the ‘Art Bonus’ is the most significant step ahead.

Statue of a muse in the newly reopened Domus Aurea, Rome.

Statue of a muse in the newly reopened Domus Aurea, Rome. Photo: Howard Hudson/Wikimedia Commons (used under Creative Commons licence [CC. BY 3.0])

This measure, which was approved by the Italian parliament last summer, offers a tax credit of 65% for the tax years of 2014 and 2015, and of 50% for 2016, to be spread over three years for private donors who decide to support restoration and conservation projects at museums, archaeological sites, public libraries and archives. There is no lower or upper limit on the funding. It is thanks to the Art Bonus – to give an example – that the leading Italian banking company UniCredit Group has just donated €14 million to fund the restoration of the Arena in Verona. Some €32 million is currently needed to protect the upper area of Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome, and any donor to this project will also benefit from the scheme.

In order to promote this fundraising, the culture ministry is planning to launch a dedicated website to display those restoration projects which have already been approved, and will be able to start as soon as the necessary money becomes available. Given Italian standards, this should be regarded as a big step forward, even though the parameters whereby a benefactor will be selected haven’t been specified in the case that more than one donor is competing to finance the same project. ‘But this shouldn’t be a problem,’ says Antonio Natali, director of the Galleria degli Uffizi: ‘This action is right and proper, especially for the many gems that receive little or no attention from the general public. In this way they may eventually find those resources that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to call on.’

A second important measure taken by the culture ministry concerns what Italians call ‘autonomia di spesa’ (spending autonomy). Many people may not be aware that public museums in Italy aren’t allowed to reinvest the revenue that comes from ticket sales, bookshops or venue hire. Everything that museums earn is paid to external financial authorities, which then redistribute the money at their discretion among the various institutions. If, on the one hand, this approach has for years ensured the survival of many more peripheral museums – supported, in fact, by the takings of larger institutions such as the Uffizi or the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – on the other hand it has been extremely demotivating for museum directors, who end up losing interest in promoting their sites, so conscious are they that their efforts will not increase the funds at their disposal.

Following recent reforms, however, 20 leading Italian museums selected directly by the culture ministry are now allowed to manage their own finances. This will also certainly imply more independence in exhibition programming, research activity, and conservation projects – and offer them the chance to construct their own identity and success. Among the ‘magnifici 20’ are illustrious institutions like the Galleria Borghese, the Uffizi, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, alongside museums that are less well-known internationally, such as the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and the Palazzo Reale in Genoa.

In order to improve the management of this group of museums – a step regarded as fundamental to the development of a more rational system – an international appeal for new directors was launched this year. There is now the possibility that, for the first time in history, these institutions which are so crucial to Italian national identity, and indeed for the cultural values they embody, will be led by foreigners. The current directors of the 20 museums will relinquish their positions to the newly appointed leaders. The sometimes obscure mechanism through which they were elected leaves no room for protests; on the contrary, many of the incumbents have actually submitted applications, in an effort to confirm their positions.

Is this a sign of serious Europeanism? Perhaps. The archaeologist Salvatore Settis, one of the most critical voices of recent years, regards this measure ‘as important and carefully gauged for the future of the Italian cultural heritage’. The culture ministry has revealed that 1,222 applications were received by the deadline, 80 of which have come from abroad. The president of the selection committee is an internationally respected figure, the president of the Venice Biennale Paolo Baratta, while the only foreigner on the panel is Nicholas Penny, outgoing director of the National Gallery in London. Also involved is Claudia Ferrazzi, formerly deputy managing director of the Louvre, now secretary-general of the French Academy at Villa Medici in Rome. ‘It is therefore going to be a very high-quality selection committee,’ Settis comments, ‘from which we shall expect proper choices in every area.’

The names of the 20 new directors will soon be revealed (possibly this month). They will have more appropriate salaries than their predecessors: the Uffizi director’s pay, for instance, will increase from its current €1,850 per month to €145,000 per annum, with a possible €40,000 in performance-related bonuses. Following the model of major international museums, the 20 museums will also be provided with a committee of external experts and a board of governors, and are expected to be able to stand on their own two feet within a couple of years.

However, in the opinion of Angelo Tartuferi, who is currently director of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, this new path will be anything but easy. Just like Antonio Natali, he has responded to the call for applications. ‘Museums like the one I direct,’ Tartuferi states, ‘can indeed count on relevant earnings, and I think they won’t have any problem. I wonder, however, how directors would manage to balance the books of museums such as the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, which could survive up to now thanks only to the proceeds generated by the big ones.’

Thus far, this modernisation of museums’ financing and management has not been matched with other necessary investments, such as that on digital infrastructure. Little has been done to improve the presence of Italian museums online, and to make their collections more digitally accessible to the public. The website promoted by the culture minister to mark the 2015 World Expo in Milan, www.verybello.it, does no more than map events taking place around Italy; and there are only Italian and English versions available, with nothing in Chinese or Arabic for instance. In a society that gets informed by, and disseminates information on the web, this is a very serious problem. Right now the websites of the leading Italian museums are still a long way from the models of MoMA, the Getty, or Tate. Just try googling the Uffizi…

Furthermore, there is little sign of anything being done to improve the dire state of the Sopraintendenze, the regional supervisory offices through which the culture ministry aims to protect the national artistic and cultural heritage. These are at breaking point, long understaffed and now suffering from a serious lack of funds. The old experts are not passing on their expertise to a new generation. Long the cradle of art historians, these institutions may soon turn into their graves.

At a local level, no big revolution should be expected. Besides the lucky 20, the state of most of the 4,000 public museums remains that of institutions almost entirely subject to local councils and therefore unable – since they don’t control their own operating budgets – to create the right conditions to attract private donors. A case-by-case assessment is needed, even though it is a point of fact that the major cities have responded to recent crises better than small cities and towns. The recently renovated Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, for instance, which reopened in March after seven years of works, seems to have won over the public completely. In Turin, notwithstanding severe financial distress, the town council has never stopped believing in culture, and today the city embodies a virtuous model for others. In Milan the Palazzo Reale and Museo Egizio are now beacons for a rich fine and contemporary arts scene. The civic museums of Venice, like those of Turin, are managed through a foundation and, with the additional support of many private patrons and museums, look to be in a healthy condition.

Whether or not the reforms are the correct path will depend on whether the government of today, and those of the future, hold consistently to the choices that have been made. Choices such as the one strongly advocated by the scholarly community and recently announced by Franceschini: of bringing back to their original locations those artworks currently kept in museum stores, or used as decoration in public offices – such as the furniture of the Dukes of Parma from the Reggia di Colorno, now scattered between Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the Quirinale in Rome, and the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. Apparently it is Franceschini’s wish to return such works to where they belong. And that really would be a victory.

Stefano Pirovano is the author of Scene da un patrimonio (Galaad Edizioni).

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Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 3.0)