When it comes to cultural heritage, Italians like to boast that theirs is the richest in the world, even if they are chronically short of the money needed to tend to it.
Yet the art world is in an uproar over suggestions from Italy’s culture minister, Sandro Bondi, that the country should think of its state museums and archeological sites as generators of revenue. It hasn’t helped that Bondi has chosen Mario Resca, who ran McDonald’s Italian subsidiary for 12 years, to head a new ministry directorate to develop the museums and ancient sites. Resca has no experience in arts management, and commentators have joked that the government is serving up “fast-food culture” or a “McCaravaggio and medium Coke.”
But the deepest concern in art circles centers on the government’s apparent shift from a constitutional mandate to protect Italy’s cultural heritage toward an entrepreneurial model that exploits it. It is lost on no one that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who assumed his office for the third time in May, is a megawealthy businessman and proud of it.
“What’s at stake is the conservation and transmission of millenary values that one government must not be allowed to undersell or demolish,” said Marisa Dalai Emiliani, president of the Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli Association, a cultural research institute.
Last Monday the association organized a daylong seminar on the arts in Italy ominously titled “Cultural Heritage Emergency.”
A petition against the appointment of Resca, whose powers as museum supermanager include the authorization of loans and ruling on the cultural or scientific value of exhibitions, was circulated at the seminar and is now online. It has so far been signed by more than 1,100 people, the majority of them museum directors and art historians from around the world.
The appointment hinges on the approval of some Culture Ministry reforms that are to be considered at a Cabinet meeting next week.
Resca readily agrees that he might not have been an obvious choice for the job. But he says he is confident that he has the right skills to get the most out of what he sees as an insufficiently tapped national resource.
“I’m an outsider, and I know that there are concerns — it’s enough to read the papers,” he said, referring to the deluge of indignant editorials that have been published since he was nominated last week, but he said he saw room for improvement in state museum management.
Italy’s cultural patrimony is a “strategic asset like oil, with zero costs because it’s there,” Resca said. “Of course, you have to protect it and care for it, but it has a value that we can leverage and develop.”
Some say the choice of Resca was particularly galling because Bondi named him without consulting top-ranking Culture Ministry officials or its advisory board.
“If the minister had listened, he’d have heard that what museums really need is not a boss, but more flexibility — that is, more autonomy,” said Daniele Lupo Jalla, the national president of the International Council of Museums.
He said the chief challenge for Italian museums was not a lack of central leadership but the “unbearable heaviness of its patrimony, which costs a lot to maintain.”
As economies sputter around the world, the arts have been among the sectors hardest hit by government cutbacks and dwindling private resources. In Italy more than 1 billion euros (US$1.25 billion) have been slashed from the Culture Ministry’s budget over the next three years.