2020-10-21 Paola Dubini

Support the “Culture of Proximity,” Now More Than Ever

The funding of cultural organizations should be considered an investment in the quality of people’s lives and as support for the local community. In these difficult months of the pandemic, the classic distributors of financial resources – public entities, banking foundations, patron families, businesses – must more than ever pose the question of whom to support. To do so, it is necessary to follow some useful guidelines to provide an impetus to a fundamental sector for our society.

We know that many cultural organizations are intrinsically fragile: poorly capitalized, very dependent on cash flow, often self-referential and stuck in niches. We know well that cultural organizations – in particular those “of proximity” such as theaters, museums, libraries, and third sector entities with prevalently local aims and funding – are going through a very difficult period from a financial standpoint. And finally, we know that they are in excellent company: apart from a few sectors and a very small number of companies that are deriving great economic benefits from satisfying the immediate needs of consumers, these months with the pandemic have been difficult for many business and families, many local areas, and many non-profit entities. While for some 2020 will end with relatively limited losses due to a series of emergency measures, the prospects for 2021 are not rosy. In full Covid fatigue (that according to the WHO regards 60% of the global population), all organizations must rethink their investments and priorities.

In this context, it is not unrealistic to imagine that the classic distributors of financial resources at the local level (public entities, banking foundations, patron families, businesses) are the recipients of numerous requests for help from non-profit entities that provide philanthropy, research, and assistance; and from cultural entities. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the donors, and of businesses in particular, we can imagine a sense of embarrassment and slight irritation when faced with many requests for support, and a temptation to “pull back,” including in light of the difficulties many businesses are living through.

On the other hand, it is necessary to consider two important aspects:

  • culture is a merit good. Whether we are speaking of cultural heritage, and thus our past, or live shows, and thus an element that creates social value and entertainment, or libraries and cultural associations that work for cohesion and education, it is precisely in moments of difficulty that we most need their presence and vitality;
  • some areas are destined to suffer from processes of cultural desertification. Although remote working allows people to reside anywhere (provided there is a good internet connection), the choice of where to live now depends on many factors, including “quality of life.” This certainly has to do with safety and health, but also with the possibility to make people feel “at home,” that is, in a welcoming, pleasant, stimulating, and educational context. Culture is the infrastructure that makes places attractive from this perspective, whether for residents, temporary visitors, or tourists.

I think that support for cultural organizations is to be considered as an investment in the quality of local communities; a patient investment, with returns that may not be rapid, but are certainly seen over the long-term. Since resources are scarce and requests are many, I expect that at this moment, donors are posing the question of whom to support more than ever. I propose a check-list, based on a series of discussions held with cultural operators and their supporters in recent months, in which we have been skating on thin ice.

  • Posture. Cultural organizations typically work in four directions: identity, sociality, education, and attraction. For everyone, the pandemic has meant operating in a system of growing constraints and with production capacity heavily limited. After the brusque stop in the months of the lockdown, the recovery has meant not only a change in speed, but also a change in attitude: it is no longer a question of returning to the theater safely, but of the theater becoming the measure of a new way to participate in city life; it is no longer about resuming school trips to museums, but of finding the way to ensure that the visit to the museum is integrated in the school experience, such that the museum is an active part of an educational community, in a moment when the school is the object of our maximum attention. At equal conditions, I suggest seeking organizations that are posing the problem of how to be part of structural solutions to emerging problems.
  • Resilient organizations and entrepreneurial organizations. The adjective “resilient” is very often associated with cultural organizations to indicate their ability to react to a shock. It is typical for resilient organizations to change pace quickly; it is typical of entrepreneurial organizations to change posture and make those around them change as well. At equal conditions, I would support those who are entrepreneurial, because they have probably posed the question earlier of how to be sustainable, on the one hand, and how to be an integral part of a changing system, on the other. Is our theater able to innovate while respecting tradition? Is a cultural association able to be contemporary? Is a museum able to maintain its fire without adoring the ashes? Is the library able to be a meeting place, and not only a depository of books? Are archives and libraries able to engage their public in the production of new knowledge? If the response is affirmative, it is time to stand with them, without any qualms.
  • Organizations attuned to cultural work. It seems strange to indicate among key principles of cultural organizations the attention to cultural work. Yet there are many that – in general due to problems of overall financial sustainability – consider copyrights a tax and not compensation for intellectual activity, that hire people with the promise of remuneration that never comes, or that do not invest in production or in youth. The times require responsible behavior by everyone, including cultural organizations.

Among the effects of the pandemic, I fear there will be a reduction of the number of cultural organizations. In some areas, the risk is that the reduction of the variety and quality of cultural activities will be irreversible. It is the responsibility, and I believe also the interest of everyone, to ensure that this does not happen, but that the most capable cultural organizations can help reconstruct a local community that represents us, that helps us create a future worthy of our children and that is attractive for residents, an indispensable precondition for being desirable for those who wish to visit. It is their job, it is time to give them trust, due to a sense of collective responsibility, but also of interest and opportunity.