Does economic sustainability come through building common sense?

By Anna Consolati

It’s been since I was studying to become a “cultural manager” 20 years ago that I’ve been hearing that the world of culture needs to think more like business, that storytelling is key, that we need to look at the Anglo-Saxon model, that they sell Stone Age up there as well, and that fundraising and self-financing are key and will become more and more so over time.

Over time so many of us have been knocking on the doors of Europe and I have become accustomed to Euro-planning. Of the relationships and co-designs at the European level I emphasize here the fundamental role for practitioners in the field, not only to find new economies, but more importantly to find links that go beyond competition and the preservation of one’s own little garden of strategies and skills, still tremendously practiced by us. Occasions, then, that will train entire staffs and open up organizational models different from those we are often used to in Italy, and that will allow us to nurture the strategic vision and future sustainability of the realities in which we operate.

But of these principles, of these new steps toward a cultural enterprise that is capable of inhabiting and surviving perhaps with new germinations in the contemporary context, how much is possible and practicable in Italy today? How many different speeds at which we travel and plan?

How can we ensure the economic sustainability of a cultural institution while promoting the core values of equity, inclusion and respect primarily for the staff and artists involved? How do we inhabit our principles?

This is my current mantra.

The balancing act is a daily challenge in a cultural world that still runs on the art of “bandese” and where we are always crushed by the constant call to participate in projects that require filling out online forms, descriptive parts, budgets, endless sessions of uploading administrative documentation. Will the project be successful? Will the co-funding be confirmed? Will the payment receipt have to be a copy of the bank statement or will the online accounting suffice?

Basic questions you will say, but economic sustainability for a micro cultural enterprise, is first and foremost a struggle with the still far-fetched harmonization of the procedures for participation in calls for proposals and their reporting, between entities that cumulatively concur to support our third cultural sector and all those that remained on the other side of the fence with the last reform. Because from banking foundations to municipalities, from regions to ministries without forgetting the EU, they all speak different languages and once again travel not only on different tracks but also at different speeds, going from camel caravans to Japanese high-speed trains. Because if the EU on the 2021-2027 seven-year period has scaled back the administrative project reporting part, accommodating a request from the sector, conversely, local governments and the banking foundations themselves are asking us for more and more data, and the administrative part again eats up a large chunk of our time.

My feeling is often that again I find myself right there in the middle, and that even the interlocutors who train and update us often forget that the bulk of culture-making in Italy still comes through micro enterprises. We talk about digital and artificial intelligence, for example, and we all have at least downloaded the PNNR TOCC calls for proposals to our desktop, but most Italian micro cultural enterprises don’t even have dual-language websites.

We are staff trained in the field, and multitasking is the soundtrack of our days, but the number of hats we can wear is running out, as the complexity of the scenario continues to increase and those who fund us are increasingly removed from our world and the rules of our market.

Trivialities? Utopias?

How to look for ways to close yet another gap? It is necessary and essential to promote a better understanding of the needs and challenges of the sector. Here the list of possibilities is long and goes from training programs to case study analysis to data collection, it goes mostly from having the courage to get the whole supply chain around the table.

While the vital role that culture plays in society and the economy seems to be a concept that has made a comeback in recent years, and impact studies demonstrating the economic and social benefits of cultural activities are multiplying, signaling that finally even the world of culture has realized that in order to survive it is necessary to get out of its bubble and learn other languages and metrics, there is still a lack of fundamental day-to-day work that impacts common sense. The social balance sheet is a tool that has come in very handy in recent years, first and foremost it has pushed us to systematize the collection of all the data, made us look in the mirror with often very positive spin-offs in staff empowerment, but it has also allowed us to expose more clearly to our stakeholders what the data and impacts are. And not just talking to our stakeholders. My mom realized what a job I’ve been doing for 15 years when I handed her our association’s latest financial statements. Transparency is vital, speaking multiple languages as well. Culture as a universal right, body language, innovation, artistic research, accessibility, sustainability, recognition and openness to differences, daily engagement, education, networking. These have been the key words that have redefined the identity of Oriente Occidente in recent years and that we are trying to make concrete, renewing our cultural pact with local, national, and international communities. Gathering the results, victories, false starts, and mistakes in a comprehensive account that tells the story of a year thus also becomes a fundamental tool for governance to read itself, to set medium- and long-term goals moving between economic and social sustainability.

Considering oneself a cultural enterprise today, however, also means looking at the more advanced models of other worlds, piercing the bubble, or at least being hosted at least for a while there. “Stealing” or it would be better to be able to say “sharing” the business models that also best suit the characteristics of the third sector by going to other territories. It happened to me a short time ago, thanks to an initiative that proposed pitches followed by 12 weeks of work together between the third sector and start-ups: we needed a minimum of three meetings to find a common language or perhaps I would even dare to say words in common, but from there the work we shared had meaning and value precisely because it forced us to think in a frontier terrain where everyone from their own bubble brought and built common sense.

So, is it time to say that we need to lobby? That we need to collaborate and push from below cultural organizations and interest groups to promote the importance of culture to policymakers? Is it time to be politicians ourselves? To learn to raise our voices, to learn to really create the future. Organize meetings, briefings, and debates to share, but really do it, here I repeat, perspectives and arguments, and go beyond that.

We need to create road maps. Create alliances by involving officials, businesswomen and politicians in direct collaborations with cultural entities. We need them to see, we need them to practice, we need to bring them and take them with us. Culture belongs to everyone, culture must find society again, on par with politics.

I can list again all the ways we find daily to survive economically, the management I put into practice to balance public contributions with self-financing, the levers of fundraising, the art bonus, the 5*1000, but on this we have manuals, great experts, and thinkers.

But to reweld the social pact we only have people, the people who make institutions, the people we must put around the table, and they must not be beyond our bubble, beyond our comfort zone, and with them build our future sustainability: economic, social, cultural.

Anna Consolati has worked at Oriente-Occidente Cultural Center since 2007, directing international projects with a focus on performing arts and accessibility from 2014 onward. Since 2021 Anna has been general manager and coordinates strategic planning and stakeholder relations. She has built and coordinated structured networks and events between public funding bodies, cultural institutions, and artists with disabilities, pushing for equity and with the understanding that diversity is an engine for creativity and innovation, as demonstrated by “Presenti Accessibili” in Milan in April 2022.