Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Italian slap

Eike Schmidt, new director of the Uffizzi (image taken from The Art Newspaper, Photo: Zuma Press/Alamy)

“A slap on the face of Italian archaeologists and art historians.” According to an article by Margarita Pournara in the Greek newspaper I Kathimerini, this was the statement of Vittorio Sgarbi, former Italian Minister of Culture, regarding the appointment of seven foreign professionals as directors of Italian museums.

Since the appointment was announced on 18 August, the issue was widely discussed in the media. 
According to the same Greek newspaper, some associated these appointments to the July closing of the archaeological site of Pompeii by the unions. They claimed that the incident, which greatly damaged the country’s image among tourists of various nationalities, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It gave Culture Minister, Dario Franceschini, the determination to go ahead and announce the appointments. I frankly don’t see how the two could be connected. Federico Guasti, Vice-President of Europa Nostra, commented that maybe foreign directors would not be as influenced or limited in their decisions and actions by unions (again, I don’t see the connection). Louis Godard, advisor on the protection of cultural heritage to the President of the Italian Republic, questioned whether the foreigners will know how to deal with the local professionals and whether they will understand the mentality.

Back in January, when the call was announced, The New York Times mentioned that a “Strong art history background, management experience and an interest in improving visitor experience [were] a must” and that the changes were intended to “give directors more influence over budgets and ease the way for them to raise private funds to help offset drastic cuts in state funding”. The newspaper also said that Italy’s museum directors are “typically experts in art history, archaeology or architecture but for the most part with little professional training in arts management”. Whilst, The Art Newspaper wrote that “Italy’s beleaguered state museums are famous for the strength of their collections but bogged down by outdated bureaucracy and insufficient funding. So the ministry decided to look for manager-directors with experience of the more financially attuned and efficient UK-US museum systems.” Furthermore, according to the Guardian, The new bosses will also need to bring a creative flair to financing, making way for alternative funding models such as philanthropic donations in the face of tight government budgets. (...) The directors will need to improve a wide range of museum services, such as bookshops and cafes, as well as handling some of the world’s most prized artworks.”

The 20 positions attracted 1200 Italian applicants and 80 foreigners. In the end, the posts were given to 13 Italians (four of whom are returning to Italy from placements abroad) and seven foreigners. The majority has got professional experience at an international level and half are women. These are not the facts that are of greatest interest to me, though.

After all the discussion regarding management tasks, a greater control over budgets, alternative funding models, a need to improve visitor services and to develop more visitor-friendly museums – issues that keep coming up in many calls for museum or other cultural organisation directors. What mainly caught my attention was the professional identification of the new directors, which is probably the way they have identified themselves: 14 art historians, four archaeologists, one cultural manager and one museum specialist.

Almost half a century after the creation of the Museum Studies Department at the University of Leicester (1966), I can’t help wondering why this sector insists on ignoring that arts management (and in this specific case, museology) is a necessary specialisation for those assuming the directorship of cultural organisations. This is especially true for small ones, that are lacking extensive teams of experts in the various fields. Arts management has grown into a specific scientific field, different from art history, archaeology, architecture, military history, engineering, physics, astronomy, etc. – considering the different existing types of museums. And it is a scientific field that has grown from within, it has developed inside the sector, with a deep knowledge and sensitivity regarding its specificities.

There is a constant fear that cultural managers will lose the sense of the importance of the arts. The will not. A cultural manager is not someone who worked in a supermarket before or sold cars a few days ago. This is probably one of the greatest misunderstandings, firstly among culture professionals. So every time the question of management comes up (including this time, in relation to the Italian museums), great concern is expressed regarding marketeers taking over from curators, research and conservation being neglected in favour of crowd-pleasing blockbuster exhibitions and shows; entertainement vs deep intellectual experiences; populism vs. elitism; the easy and the difficult; the many and the few....

Isn’t it time we all get more informed and updated? The decision of the Italian Ministry of Culture was not a slap in the face of Italian archaeologists and art historians (why should it be, they are good or even excellent archaeologists and art historians). It was a slap, though. The one we are used to witnessing in our field. Management tasks (strategic planning, communications, marketing, fundraising – all things that I, at least, did not learn in my archaeology course) are usually decided by entities and handed to professionals who have no technical preparation in such matters. Thus, all too often, what we see is experimentation on what has already been tested, the slow and out-of-context learning of what is already known, mistakes that have already been made. Basically, starting every time from zero.

In the specific case of museums, the preference for subject/collection experts lacking specialisation in museology has deeply influenced the development of these institutions and their relationships with people. Priority has been given to their object-oriented functions (collecting, preserving and researching), setting aside the people-oriented ones (exhibiting and interpreting), so that almost every effort to become more visitor friendly (physically and intellectually) is usually associated to populism, entertainment and dumbing down. It is not a question of choice, though. Elaine Heumann Gurian said it clearly and succintly for all of us: good museums are not “either...or...”, they are “and”. They need to be run by professionals who understand the importance and specificities of all their functions and the way they relate to each other in order to better serve their diverse – more and especially less knowledgeable - audiences.

Thus, the cultural sector needs and must be (well) managed, like every other sector. Not just because it generates and receives money, public and private. Cultural management is not only about money. Even if we lived in a world where there was no “money issue”, cultural organisations would still need good management: because they have a mission to fulfill, one that orientates every decision, one that doesn’t change whenever there is a government change, one that places the institution at the service of the society, one that promotes and defends access. Cultural management is first and foremost about fulfilling a mission, the institutional mission.

Alberto Garlandini, President of ICOM Italy, was also quoted by the Greek newspaper I Kathimerini. He said that new problems cannot be solved with old solutions. He expressed the need for open minds, with a sense of cosmopolitanism and a capacity to plan, thinking internationally. All this is more than needed, of course. But professional arts managers with solid and up-to-date knowledge and experience would come in handy too, where management is concerned. Here I see a connection that could help the sector avoid slapping itself in the face.

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