Despite Italy’s civic museums set to reopen nationally on January 15, Venice’s mayor Luigi Brugnaro has made a controversial decision to keep those of the canal city shuttered until April 1. The move has reignited residents’ frustration that their city is too often seen as an open-air museum abused as a cash cow thanks to tourism.  

Venice’s residents fight constantly to prevent their city from being envisaged as a tourist’s playground. Now, they feel they’ve been betrayed from the inside. Their mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, has decided not to reopen the city’s civic museums, including the Doge’s Palace and Ca’ Pesaro, with the rest of the country on January 15. He reasoned, “I’m doing what any good family man would do. The opening of the museums depends on whether people can travel freely, on the pool of users. Our museums depend principally on the tourists. There is a business logic, an entrepreneurial culture in making things work. Should I be ashamed of administering a public asset like a business enterprise, of making it profitable?”

Brugnaro’s businesslike attitude has angered the historic city’s residents and fueled a debate about the purpose of cultural institutions in a city. Venetian online newspaper Ytali has orchestrated the signing of a petition to call for the reopening of the city’s museums. It has already attracted some 3000 signatures that include renowned art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, Venetian art expert Deborah Howard, and Paola Marini, ex-director of the Gallerie Dell’Accademia. 

The newspaper’s appeal reads, “ytali proposes to its readers to sign the appeal which we publish here below, in defense of the cultural life of the city and of its cultural institutions; they are being severely affected by the crisis underway, and not being protected by those who have the institutional and political responsibility to do so. It is an appeal for solidarity with the workers in a sector that is vital to the social and economic fabric of the city.”

Venice’s civic museums employ 84 full-time workers and 500 external staff, all of whom are currently furloughed. The prolonged closure means, “employees – mostly on unemployment – have an uncertain future ahead of them, with heavy reductions to their already thin salaries,” as Ytali writes. 

More than this, Brugnaro’s extended closure makes a clear statement that he values the historic city of Venice above all for its economic possibilities. Brugnaro is a businessman from mainland Mestre where his main support lies. Residents of the historic city of Venice, however, were generally opposed to him at his last re-election due to his focus on boosting tourism and its economic interests. 

Brugnaro’s blinkered focus on the profitability of the city’s museums negates their other functions. Jane da Mosto is an environmental scientist and founder of We Are Here Venice (WahV), a non-profit association dedicated to safeguarding Venice’s future. She says, “The mission of WahV is to address the fundamental challenge facing Venice: to remain a living city. The preemptive announcement of the Civic museums’ total closure for the coming months was disturbing because it overlooks the importance and significance of the museums as cultural assets. Visitors and exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of real work invested in scientific research, cataloguing, development of learning, conservation and maintenance.”

Ytali similarly comments, it “leaves us speechless as it equates the museum system with a service exclusively for tourism; not taking into account that all over the world, great museums carry out fundamental tasks of study, conservation and care of the materials entrusted to them.”

Da Mosto also adds that, “Other museums, managed differently, have instead embraced the consequences of lockdown as a gift of time for these equally essential activities that pay off differently, indirectly and richly.”

In contrast to Brugnaro’s devaluing of museums as local resources, other tourist hotspots around the world are seeing cultural institutions seizing the opportunity to reconnect with local audiences and use low visitor numbers to ensure COVID-safe visits. Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Max Hollein, said, “The local audience is really the central audience. It’s an audience that has grown up with the institution and comes to you again and again. They have a much closer connection because they enjoy and notice constant changes within the institution.”

The Washington Post comments, “That massive museum halls like the Met’s are newly bustling with life serves as proof that cities are not “dead.” It would be easy to relegate cities to the list of things that covid-19 has killed … But the successful 2020 reopenings prove that city museums provide visitors a front-row seat to the art and culture that travel often affords.”

Venetians, who frequently find cultural activities in their city inaccessible because of the overwhelming tourist numbers, could greatly benefit from their city’s heritage resources in this period. As Leader of the opposition in the town council, Monica Sambo, told Ytali: “Why should the amenities of the city be considered relevant only to tourists?”

Da Mosto comments, “many of these museums have spaces that could and should be made available without jeopardising the spread of the virus for community activities including education and recreation for families, schools, students. With more sensitivity and flexibility from the side of the institutions, our lives in empty Venice could be more enriched and enriching and more people would choose to come and live here.”

The Veneto was designated an orange zone yesterday, meaning its museums and galleries must remain closed anyway. But Brugnaro’s move made it clear to Venice’s residents that their desire to use the pandemic as a springboard to combatting overtourism will find little support from their mayor. As Ytali writes, “[Venice] will have to invest a lot in the coming months if it wants to take a different path from those already known, putting culture first.”

We Are Here Venice relies on donations to fund their work advocating the safeguarding of Venice and evidence-based approaches to policy making. Please contact info@weareherevenice.org if you would like to become a member or contribute via PayPal, or consult their website.

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