The Private Sector Bail-Out of Europe’s Culture Industry

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This summer, the Internet warmly embraced the birth of “Monkey Jesus,” a tragicomic attempt by a well-intentioned octogenarian in Spain to restore a decaying fresco by herself. But the ape-ified “restoration” wasn’t just a source of countless online memes; it was a grim symptom of a crisis metastasizing across Europe. Struggling under unpaid debts and forced into austerity, governments in countries like Spain, Greece, and Italy are slashing their culture budgets in search of potential savings. 

That’s put Europe’s artistic and cultural heritage at risk, and not just from well-meaning senior citizens. In the past year alone, thieves have twice taken advantage of the reduced security at museums in Greece (where the culture budget has been cut 74 percent since 2009), stealing such famous works as Picasso’s “Woman’s Head”. Meanwhile parts of Rome’s Colosseum and Trevi Fountain collapsed this summer after the city failed to pay for standard maintenance work. (There are also long-term economic consequences to consider: According to a series of reports released by the EU, culture is an efficient investment for European countries. Last year, the governments of Spain, Greece, and Italy spent less than 1 percent of their budgets on culture and earned, respectively, 11 percent, 12 percent, and 4 percent of their total revenue through tourism.)

But the question remains: if Europe’s going to prioritize cultural upkeep, who's going to pay for it?

Generally, the EU wants national governments to pony up. (“The upkeep, protection, conservation, and renovation of cultural heritage are primarily a national responsibility,” said EU culture ministry spokesman Dennis Abbott, adding that it is the individual states’ job “to invest in the upkeep of our cultural heritage” to maintain the tourism industry. ) But taxpayers in debt-laden countries don't seem terribly sympathetic to that notionwhich should perhaps come as no surprise given the anxiety over more basic cuts to the welfare state.

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That leaves the private sector. A report commissioned by the EU recommends that individual museums and sites make “a transition from institutionalization to community-based services” by reaching out to private and international actors for financial help. And, increasingly, that’s exactly what cultural institutions across the continent have been doing.

So far, the private sector help has often come in the form of direct sponsorship of programming. (Madrid’s Prado museum now relies 60 percent on private donations.) But cultural institutions have also been creative in seeking other ways to leverage their assets. In an attempt to defray maintenance costs, the Greek government has eased permit regulations for renting out ancient monuments such as the Acropolis and the Oracle of Delphi for private events. (The fees for renting these monuments has also been slashed fees by half, to $2,000 a day.)

Meanwhile in Spain, Seville’s Old Town, a beloved UNESCO World Heritage site, is putting up a 40-story banking tower in the town center; the mayor has promised to funnel the millions of tax revenue to upkeep and restoration. And Diego Della Valle, of the international shoe giant Tod’s, has pledged €25 million to the renovation of the Colosseum, in exchange for exclusive rights to use the image of the building.

Unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of skeptics, mostly from the art world. The monument rental plan has Greek archeologists up in arms, calling it “sacrilege.” UNESCO has threatened to declassify Seville’s Old Town as a World Heritage Site, and outrage about selling the image of the Colosseum has led to a lawsuit, temporarily delaying renovation plans. 

In particular, the sight of Venice’s famed Doge’s Palace, which is now draped with Coca-Cola billboards, has raised alarm in the international art community. “Covering the Doge’s Palace in Venice was a very poor decision that was strongly contested and should not be repeated anywhere else,” explained Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, the president of Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Italian National Trust). “If Diego Della Valle is willing to pay for the restoration of the Colosseum he may also use this to promote his brand in the world, but without any personalization of the monument such as putting billboards on its façades.” 

But the local politicians and culture directors who struck these deals are continuing to operate under the “desperate times call for desperate measures” maxim. Della Valle’s contribution to fixing the Colosseum has brought an end to “a nightmare and an obsession, that the most famous monument in the world is not in a condition equal to its importance,” said Rome mayor Gianni Elemanno, who solicited multiple private donors when government funds ran dry.

But the precedent Alemanno cited in defending the renovation was less auspicious than he likely intended. The last person who funded such a fundamental overhaul of the Colosseum, he says, was Benito Mussolini.

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