Development of culture in the coming years: here’s why governance processes will be increasingly important

By Antonio Lampis

After decades of increased predictability, we are now witnessing strong and rapid changes in almost every developed country that have and will have an increasing influence on the development of culture.

The first is that of the now ubiquitous availability of data processing tools that we call artificial intelligence and which certainly because of their sudden, unforeseen and easy diffusion, will have a major impact on the relationship between those who are in charge of or intend to protect and/or enhance cultural heritage, the work of artists and the usual or new target audiences.

The second change is brought about by the increased frequency of changes in the political orientation of populations and consequently of central or local governments and, of course, also the changes that are expected or already taking place among religious institutions and in those who manage particularly incisive instruments in shaping consciences.

In the face of such changes, organizational governance of the cultural sector takes on an increasingly important role and deserves more attention.

It is now evident how much awareness is growing of the importance of cultural participation, support for creativity, and the preservation of tangible and intangible heritages (more or less identity) for physical, social and economic well-being. Consequently, stronger and more strategic public policies and actions by private parties are expected.

In Italy and in several European countries, the need for an organic law on culture, good for all sectors and all institutional levels, central and local, is now inescapable. In particular, in Italy, such a law would help to overcome the superficial habit of thinking that the management of culture lies almost only in the Ministry, instead better remembering and linking the role of the Regions and large municipalities, already today decisive for the life of cultural institutions. An organic law would also be essential to recognize and enhance the very important expectations of small municipalities or whatever communities other than the better-known and more populated centers are called. A contract that recognizes better economic and legal treatment for workers in the cultural sector has been awaited for decades, and the new changes would also make it necessary with a code of ethics, almost generally mandatory, for any relationship between private individuals and public funding, concessions, partnerships, and so on.

Ministry and culture departments can legitimately maintain their leadership position if the excellent qualification of officials and trained management will return to be undisputed. This qualification, which should be taken for granted, has been one of the glories of Italy’s past, but it has been weakened in recent years due to a number of factors, including civil service regulations that have led to a leveling of career requirements and opportunities; the lack of continuing education; the uncontrolled layering of personnel from disused institutions and welfare-type employment projects; unreasonable staffing shortages; too many interims; inhumane workloads; and the difficulty of relating productively with businesses and attracting talent from other sectors, both public and private. To restore confidence in the Italian cultural system, it is necessary to address these problems and restore rapid, efficient and transparent selection systems and new career opportunities that enable young officials and managers to excel.

Greater synergy between the state, regions and local authorities will be indispensable to redefine and promote (including with more appropriate salaries) cultural competencies. It will be necessary to achieve greater uniformity and transparency in some crucial processes, foremost among which is the selection of managers and the implementation of an employment system that pays the specialist better and does not elevate him or her to the role of manager just so that he or she can be given a decent salary, while conversely leaving management to people who have demonstrated that they can do the difficult job of managing. It will be important to get away from any self-referentiality, from worrying too much about the degree taken in youth, the judgments of colleagues and consequently too little about artists, visitors or spectators. In parallel, the field, which inevitably chases the speed of artists’ thinking and the volatility of audiences, must be freed from the sword of Damocles typical of the Italian regulatory system, the criminalization of error. Public commitment to culture will have to be increasingly directed toward fostering inclusive participation of the most young people and fostering the genesis of jobs for younger generations who have not succumbed to the lure of more practical work, but have stubbornly wanted to study art history, archaeology and other humanities subjects. For politicians and managers active in the cultural sector, qualified, stable and well-paid youth employment should be a primary goal, and I can testify that when it is achieved it becomes the source of the best job satisfaction.

A key challenge lies in the relationship with education and expanding capillary offering practices.

In fact, accessibility to culture should be improved with a radical ameliorative rewriting of the synergies between cultural institutions and schools through increased lifelong learning practices and the progress of universities in the third mission, the relationship with the territories. Of course, increased cultural participation could also be achieved through digitization and the use of technology. The digital divide could be better overcome precisely by increasing the supply of lifelong education, especially also by not excluding people in the third age. I remember a clear intervention by Michele Trimarchi in the volume The Viral Spectator where he pointed out how obsolete the way of doing culture and education was today and how an educational cultural system could reconfigure itself to the test of the times. I hope that in Italy it will be the Ministry of Culture that becomes the reference for lifelong education that goes beyond regional initiatives alone and becomes a stable national program. We also need it for the PNRR, which requires ministerial initiatives (the calls). That is why I have indicated this perspective to that Ministry, hoping that it will be taken up.

Cultural production is already undergoing a real revolution today. Not only the content has to change, but also the way people approach culture. This means increasing practices outside of institutions, outside of museums, theaters, to people’s homes, in the backyards of apartment buildings, in small villages as has been done in the province of Bolzano for many years now.

This radical perspective of transforming the making of culture and doing education will also have to reevaluate the role of teachers, cultural workers and artists. Reevaluating also means, and above all, paying them much better and significantly increasing staffing levels. There is no public money better spent, not least because today we are witnessing the failure of a great many families who burdened by economic and social difficulties, are no longer able to give educational supports in early childhood and youth regarding affective education, relational education, the basic things that then make the participating citizen, the citizen who does not believe in fake news, the active citizen from a democratic point of view.

Governing change better means acting so that teachers, cultural workers and artists are available in greater numbers and are better paid so that they can stop saying, as is often the case, this is not my job, when a ‘fill-in’ for the deficiencies of other social institutions becomes inevitable. Important in this process are the elderly who can continue to learn not only by attending continuing education agencies, but by remembering that the best way to learn is to teach, thus turning them when possible into mentors, inside families, associations, and continuing education agencies. This circularity of lifelong education is another prospect for making it solid from a structural economic point of view and from the political support of a future Parliament and Governments.

It is increasingly easy and spontaneous to think that cultural production can be easily digitized and thus more widely disseminated and even become more international, thanks to increased online enjoyment. However, I believe that the real prospect for the value of culture lies in proximity and the consequent return to live, traditional, small-scale performance forms customized for the local context, in neighborhoods, courtyards and small towns, and in new inclusive forms of particular categories hitherto on the margins. It is clear that the tools of artificial intelligence will make it possible to overcome in hitherto unexplored ways the need for synthesis of verbose content and especially many of the obstacles posed by differences in language and communications with people who are deaf or blind or have other cognitive or cultural mediation needs. Here one can really expect revolutionary change and it is worth preparing to invest as of now. The opportunities are enormous, not only for museums and cultural venues, but also for theatrical performances, for new access to melodrama in small and large theaters, for classical music, which, as the most famous BBC director, John Tusa, used to say, would always need a few introductory words and a few images to be better understood. Today, almost suddenly, all the words, in all the languages of the world are available to those who offer culture, all that remains is to put their studies and skills to use, while also analyzing the new harvest of data offered by digital platforms. Obviously, it will need that all cultural workers be much better trained in interdisciplinary knowledge and new technological potential to be able to establish direct, empathic and authentic relationships with people from every continent or with people who are very distant in age, knowledge and lifestyle. This also means revising study paths with the necessary urgency. Achieving these new goals therefore requires more intelligent public and private patronage and an alliance between the world of culture, intellectuals, historians, anthropologists, scriptwriters, sociologists and tourism operators. It is not good to continue to leave a crucial sector for spiritual, social, health (we now know well that culture lengthens and improves life in proper health terms) and economic recovery to self-referential instances fostered by the complaints of those who cannot enjoy their well-deserved retirement and by the insistent voice of some bad teachers who have contributed to the multiplication of those whom in some of my writings I call the young-old: they are the complicit in simple affairs who cloak themselves in the complicated bureaucratic procedures to mask their inconsistency. The figure of the young-older person is encountered not infrequently, especially in large power-center cities. It is a man or woman no more than close to forty years old, usually descended from distinguished personalities in administration or politics, who are likely to have spent their childhood at the table with ministers, heads of state, well-known professionals or intellectuals, cardinals and princesses. Already in high school they seemed old and arrogant, imagine them with a little power: they are those people who write incomprehensible texts, demand obsequious behavior and an exaggerated formalism that they take pleasure in and that is a cloud of smoke for them, in their lack of experience, useful to maintain the little power they have earned. The defense and reiteration of those heavy-handed formalisms, inherited from their grandparents, has guiltily slowed down the administrative machine in recent decades. To defend them even today is to fail to realize that the world has changed and, above all, that the time factor has assumed a much more important role in the public machine and in the lives of citizens and businesses that work inevitably suffering the rhythms from what we call, precisely, turbo-capitalism. On bad masters I wrote again: Italy’s cultural heritage, for decades left in the most obvious disinterest, has in recent years acquired a sudden limelight that cannot but make cultural workers very happy. However, at the same time, it has also awakened the interests of an undergrowth of careerists, mediocre scholars who are indignant about the management of heritage without ever having had any experience with it, politicians who are unpresentable or on the bench in search of offices and roles, keyboard lions, old and new parties et similia.

New rules of organizational governance and an effort toward real and transparent modernization are indispensable. The alternative to such an effort is clear: museums, shows, and concerts that become postcards of themselves that tend to bore audiences and lose them from making an effort to seize the opportunities of new technologies and new ways of storytelling. This is what has happened with the oil conception of culture that has created the monster of art cities, now places of obsessive eating, examples to be fled like the plague, lest we have to make the new generations a people of waiters.

The issue of the increased frequency of changes in the political orientation of populations and consequently of the top management of those who run public affairs or enterprises and institutions of great social impact is equally connected with the opportunity to review the rules of organizational governance (the governance) of the cultural sector. Such change has so far been predominantly addressed by focusing almost only on people and little on open and transparent change management processes. At the change of orientation are placed, with too much haste, a few exponents of the same, sometimes experts, more often authors of some popular or journalistic text or with passion for the subject or still with blatant party affiliation taken, not so much out of passion, but out of a desire to accelerate too slow careers.

I have given the examples to be avoided and among the many instead methodologically virtuous ones I will mention here just one: the establishment by law in 2004 of the Day of Remembrance. The law announced as favored, by institutions and bodies, the implementation of studies, conferences, meetings and debates so as to preserve the memory of those events. These initiatives are, moreover, aimed at enhancing the cultural, historical, literary and artistic heritage of the Italians of Istria, Rijeka and the Dalmatian coasts, in particular by emphasizing their contribution, in the past and present years, to the social and cultural development of the territory of the northeastern Adriatic coast and alsò to preserve the traditions of the Istrian-Dalmatian communities residing in the national territory and abroad. The same law recognized the Museum of Istrian-Fiuman-Dalmatian Civilization’ based in Trieste and the Historical Museum Archive of Rijeka based in Rome, providing for its funding along with other research institutions in Italy and Croatia.

Therefore, the most fertile and correct path to follow is as follows: if a new political leadership points out, quite legitimately, the lack of attention to historical events, personalities, cultural orientations (recently it has , for example, been thought so, from more parts, for the so-called right-wing culture) it is good to activate the higher councils, the councils, the Parliament itself and the regional councils by making the arguments explicit, by setting goals to the leaderships and institutions (which beyond any personal or private conviction will have to implement them, with the guarantees of open and plural confrontation, a true cultural heritage to be always protected), by allocating resources, by promoting with explicit acts new areas of study, popularization or celebration, by initiating a consultation process involving all stakeholders.

Greater pluralism of orientations while respecting freedom of thought, science, teaching and art is in everyone’s interest, and knowing how to govern changes, old and new, is nowadays a new, urgent political, cultural and professional challenge.

Antonio Lampis is a public manager in the cultural sector since 1997. From 2017 to 2020 he was general director of museums at the Ministry of Culture. From 1997 to 2017 he headed the Italian Culture Department of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, a position he helds again from September 1, 2020.