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The economic value of Italy’s cultural patrimony

Rome, 24/11/2010, National Roundtable

The discussion at this roundtable session got underway with the incisive observation that managing and exploiting a vast and valuable cultural heritage requires a well-thought-out cultural policy, and a continual balance to be struck between preservation and economic development, between making use of this asset and ensuring it is not “used up”, and between the conservation of ancient artistic works and nurturing contemporary art.

It was noted that little more than 0.20% of the Italian state budget goes to the cultural sector, whereas the average in Europe is higher and in France it is 1%. Moreover, the revenue generated by the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities does not end up in the Ministry’s own coffers but rather those of the Treasury, which then manages its allocation. This procedure, which was introduced in 2007, aroused a fair deal of criticism among the participants.

Cultural heritage, it was stressed, continues to have an intrinsic value – be that educational, social or artistic. Its preservation remains a fundamental responsibility and is the prerogative of the state. Also viewed as indispensable, however, is the role played by the various local-level cultural heritage boards (the so-called “sovrintendenze”), though several participants criticized aspects of the way they are run as being stuck in the nineteenth century and outmoded.

Italy has 44 UNESCO-designated world heritage sites, which should be accessible to all and whose preservation and development, it was felt, should principally be the responsibility of the authorities. The problem is not simply one of financial resources. Indeed, there was talk of reserves of available cash of around 650 million euro, demonstrating that the real issue is actually a chronic inability to manage the money on hand. The recent tragic collapse at Pompeii, which was much discussed by the participants, should not be seen as the outcome of a lack of resources, but of years of less than thorough – as well as inefficient – management practices.

Protecting cultural heritage should not, some participants insisted, entail hindering the country’s development, by holding up important public works for years. In recent times, the Ministry has jumpstarted around 100 projects that had been stalled for one reason or another, resulting in delays and an increase in the costs involved to complete the work. This was not seen as undermining the rationale for decisions made by those in charge of the various cultural heritage boards, who – it was conceded – carry a heavy responsibility in terms of preservation, but rather, as pointing to the need for a system of “standardized” rules applicable across the country.

The participants emphasized, however, that although the state earmarks just over 0.20% for cultural heritage, it should not be forgotten that the culture industry accounts for 2.3% of Italian GDP. It was therefore felt that a more pragmatic cultural policy was called for, which favors a shift in paradigm involving more investment and less subsidies. Investment in culture should also meet the criteria of offering definitive solutions, timeliness and transparency.

Significant results have been achieved through cooperation between the public sector, which should be tasked with setting overall project strategy, and the private social sector, which should work to ensure art reaches audiences that otherwise lack access to it, whilst increasing efficiency and operating according to sound management principles. In this regard, the recent Caravaggio exhibition in Rome, which attracted 488 thousand visitors and generated 30 million euro in induced revenue, was seen as providing a useful example of what can be accomplished.

Other positive experiences that were highlighted include the 14.9% increase in museum admissions recorded during the first nine months of 2010, as a result of coordinated promotional and advertising campaigns carried out by cultural heritage boards and museum curators, as well as an original initiative involving young students, who through their creative efforts succeeded in raising the number of visits to the catacombs in Naples by 300%.

Some participants, however, noted a deterioration in public cultural policies in Italy. They pointed, in particular, to the negative effects produced by the cuts brought in by Law 122 of 2010, which they felt had heavily undermined the basis for cooperation in this sector between the public and private spheres, and consequently discouraged private investment in culture. Many taking part in the roundtable called for the introduction of laws that provide tax incentives aimed at encouraging private enterprise to invest in culture. It was also stressed, by way of conclusion, that improving the management of cultural heritage preservation and exploitation activities is not just a matter of taking advantage of tax concessions, but also of changing the prevailing mindset. In this regard, mention was made of the many museums in Venice that have joined together in a foundation which has now become self-sufficient and generates a turnover of approximately 20 million euro, with an increase in tourism flows of 7.3% being matched by a rise in museum visitors of 9.3%. Italy’s magnificent cultural heritage, it was felt, may thus be viewed as a form of “sleeping” capital that needs to be revived through the application of creativity and courage, as well as with a combination of prudence and well-advised policies.