- - Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Rome court that monitors the government budget has warned that new austerity cutbacks in public spending on culture is putting the country’s immense heritage of museums and historic sites in jeopardy.

In its review of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s recent attempts to bring Italy’s huge debt under control, the so-called Court of Auditors — roughly equivalent to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — cautioned that the 2012 reductions are likely to result in neglect and deterioration of the country’s monuments, museums and archaeological sites.

The Italian review highlights a narrative common in Europe as austerity budgets slash traditionally generous funding for cultural sites and for the arts, leaving them bereft of support. A recent survey of 21 EU countries by Culturewatcheurope.com, which monitors European cultural developments for the Council of Europe, found that 11 EU governments had reduced funding for culture and the arts, and a number of others had made no increases.

The Italian review, for example, said funding for culture in Italy had been “reduced to nothing,” according to a report in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

An appropriation of $1.7 billion — 0.19 percent of the national budget, down from 0.21 percent two years ago — is expected to cover the financial requirements of Italy’s 3,430 museums, 216 archaeological sites, 10,000 churches, 4,000 gardens, 1,500 monasteries, 40,000 castles and towers, 30,000 historic homes, and 1,000 other historic sites, plus opera, theater, cinema, and numerous other cultural activities.

Days after the review was circulated to government departments, its warning became reality when stone and stucco sections of Rome’s Trevi Fountain, the elaborate Baroque landmark into which tourists throw coins and make wishes, broke off and crashed to the ground.

Scaffolding now encases part of the fountain as experts carry out a detailed survey of the facade. They blamed the damage on a freak snowstorm last winter, saying the exceptional cold spell had weakened some of the 18th-century stonework, but critics and a skeptical public cited the damage as an example of neglect because Rome lacked funds to maintain its numerous monuments.

The cutbacks include reduced subsidies to Italy’s opera houses. Milan’s La Scala, for example, announced that it faces a $9 million shortfall as a result.

And a recent visitor to Rome — a seasoned traveler — reported that because of staff reductions many of the city’s sites have shortened their operating hours or are closed without notification on their websites.

Elsewhere in Europe, repercussions from the cutbacks were plentiful.

In Greece, the poster child of the eurozone’s economic debacle, sporadic closings of museums and archaeological sites followed layoffs of more than 10 percent of the ministry of culture’s staff. In June, a television commercial paid for by the nation’s leading archaeologists warned that reductions in security personnel at museums have led to a spike in artifact thefts.

And earlier this year, Greek media reported that the government had relaxed its long-standing, very rigid rules that virtually barred location filming and commercial photography of the Parthenon, perhaps classical antiquity’s greatest landmark, and lowered the fees. The money was to be used to offset reductions in maintenance allocations.

In the United Kingdom, leading figures in the cultural world led the protest against government plans to cut 30 percent of its overall 2014-2015 subsidy to the Arts Council, the main body that dispenses funds to British cultural organizations.

“Arts funding is under unimaginable strain,” complained composer and impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber of “Phantom of the Opera” fame, in the House of Lords, of which he is a member. “Our creative potential is being strangled without any clear strategy for the long-term future.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s stringent budget cuts included lopping $12 million from the appropriation of the Cervantes Institute, which advances Spanish culture overseas, forcing the cancellation of many of its programs.

Mr. Rajoy also abolished several senior government posts connected with the arts. Spanish opera houses, including the Barcelona Opera, announced that they were cutting some productions because of lack of funds.

In March, the government in hard-pressed Portugal went one further and abolished its ministry of culture altogether.

Despite the crisis atmosphere, two countries increased their arts and culture budgets. Germany, the EU’s only solvent state, appropriated 7 percent of its budget for the culture sector, a slight increase over the previous year. The French government also voted a nominal increase to fulfill a campaign promise by President Francois Hollande.

Ironically, the signatories of the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which created the European Union, are committed to preserving Europe’s cultural heritage. But the Spanish magazine Semana (the Week) observed recently: “While Europe is trying to protect its currency, its fundamental values have been relegated to second place — and the consequences could be terrible.”

Meanwhile, the challenge of saving a valuable patrimony that defines who Europeans are — and attracts millions of visitors — could, before it’s over, change how a continent views the responsibilities of the state.

With government support dwindling, Europeans are reluctantly turning to corporate and private funding to fill the gap. Corporate contributions to the arts had long been regarded in Europe as an “Anglo-Saxon” (i.e., U.S. and British) concept.

In part, this was due to a lack of tax incentives to giving. But it also fit into the general view that safeguarding a country’s culture is the state’s responsibility.

Now, the European Union is encouraging its members to reverse that thinking, and make corporate and private giving more attractive. An EU study prepared last year for the European Parliament urged member countries to “show an increasing willingness to experiment with systems of private support to culture.”

The problem, the study continued, was that “very few new policy measures for encouraging private investment in culture have been implemented, thus showing that policies lag in their responses to current trends and challenges.”

Governments that have taken the plunge have almost invariably sparked fierce controversy. The Venice administration was strongly attacked by preservationists and historians for allowing huge billboards for Coca-Cola, Ford and other corporations to cover ancient palazzi in the heart of the city. But local officials insisted this was the only way to finance restoration of historic public buildings because the ministry of culture’s restoration budget has been cut.

In Paris, a 17th-century building on the grounds of Versailles will shortly open as a luxury hotel: The administrators of the landmark site don’t have the $7 million it would take to restore it.

And in Rome, the Italian entrepreneur Diego della Valle, who makes the highly expensive Tod handbags, won an agreement to donate $32 million toward restoring the Colosseum where gladiators entertained Roman emperors by killing each other. In return, Mr. Della Valle has exclusive use of the Colosseum image for 10 years.