Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The New Cultural Reality

'This is reality': Spain slashes spending, raises taxes in $79B austerity plan

Spain announced a 65 billion euro ($79.85 billion) austerity package that includes tax hikes and spending cuts on Wednesday, a day after it won approval from its euro partners for a huge bailout of the country's stricken banks.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told parliament the country's future was at stake as Spain grapples with recession, a bloated deficit and investor wariness of its sovereign debt. He said the nearly $80 billion in savings will be achieved through 2015 by a hike in sales taxes and a series of spending cuts through 2015.

"We are living in a crucial moment which will determine our future and that of our families, that of our youth, of our welfare state," Rajoy said.

"This is the reality. There is no other and we have to get out of this hole and we have to do it as soon as possible and there is no room for fantasies or off-the cuff improvisations because there is no choice," he added.



Europe turns to corporate sponsors to preserve treasures amid financial crisis

The once-majestic 17th-century Palazzo Manfrin, one of this city’s most important architectural sites, is falling apart. Its white neoclassical facade is crumbling, several wooden doors are splintering, and its floor-to-ceiling frescoes have faded from age and water damage. The dire condition of the building has catapulted it to the top of the local government’s list for restorations. But after multiple rounds of cuts to its budget, there simply isn’t enough money.

So this year, local leaders made a painful decision. They put the palace up for sale.
Two years into Europe’s financial crisis, which has governments slashing spending in a bid to tame runaway debts, the region is facing a cultural calamity for which there is no emergency bailout fund. Historical buildings, churches, monuments, bridges, barracks, archaeological ruins and other sites are disintegrating from neglect. Local governments, desperate to find a way to preserve these sites before it is too late, are making up for budget shortfalls by hanging ads, selling usage rights and, in some cases, putting the structures themselves on the market.

In France, the caretakers of Versailles have agreed to let two hotels open on the palace grounds and have proposed ­licensing the image of the building for use on luxury watches. In Spain, planners eager for more tax revenue approved the construction of an office tower in the historic city center of Seville near the Gothic cathedral where Christopher Columbus is buried, ignoring threats from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to disqualify the city as a World Heritage site if the project proceeded. And in Greece, the government voted this year to open sites such as the Parthenon, the Poseidon Temple and Delphi to cinematographers willing to pay per-minute fees.

Italy, home to 47 UNESCO World Heritage sites and 60,000 documented archaeological ruins — more than in any other country — is at the forefront of this trend.

Interested in buying the Manfrin palace? It could be yours for $20.5 million. How about exclusive rights to use the image of the Colosseum on your products for 15 years? $27.5 million. A giant billboard on the Milan Cathedral? That’ll be $187,000 a month.

Companies such as Coca-Cola, Bulgari, Ford and Hyundai have jumped at the opportunities. But in recent months, such deals have come under fire. Citizen groups have staged protests and filed lawsuits to try to stop officials from selling out Italy’s cultural treasures for what they say are cheap, temporary returns.



Purists may be aghast at the thought, but financial realities have caused nations struggling with intractable budget deficits to turn to corporate sponsors in an effort to save endangered cultural sites.  

Despite all the howling presently voiced by those who view such measures as "selling out national cultural treasures for cheap, temporary returns," there is a problem that must be dealt with -- it takes money, lots of money, to maintain these cultural treasures, especially when they have been neglected for decades.

Those making all this noise have nothing but noise to offer. They have no solution to propose, other than that governments should somehow be forced to continue to pay for repairing and maintaining cultural sites, museums, and all the apparatus of cultural ministries, archaeologists, curators and others who have conscientiously and devotedly struggled to make state custody of monuments, archaeological sites and antiquities succeed.

The new cultural reality is that governments can no longer afford to do that. For many decades the true costs of state ownership and custody of all cultural treasures have been hidden by deficit spending --  passed on to future generations. Now there is an enduring financial correction and reform environment that has stripped away the deceptions resorted to in the past, and is forcing governments not only to deal with today's problems today, but also to deal now with all of the deficits that had previously been passed on to future generations. That is the cause of the European financial crisis: the nanny state is bankrupt.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Greece, Italy and Spain whose economies lie in ruins, which are being forced to make very hard choices between preserving "the past" and living through the present. In such straits, noisemakers howling about "selling out national cultural treasures for cheap, temporary returns" are in danger of appearing to value their personal ideological convictions more than the welfare and perhaps even the survival of citizens who are struggling to survive massive unemployment and scarcity of many necessities of life.

It would make a great deal of economic sense for the governments of Greece, Italy and Spain to now begin a systematic, carefully planned cultural property triage process, whose purpose would be to move from their present "possess everything" policy toward a "possess only the important things" policy. A well-managed divestiture process for redundant objects would raise a great deal of very badly needed money, and would significantly reduce the inventory of objects to be safeguarded and cared for, with consequent savings in facilities and staffs (which anyhow cannot reasonably expect to be funded at their present level in the present crisis).

This sensible approach, however, would involve a significant political confrontation with those who have been campaigning since the 1960s to create, maintain and expand the present utopian cultural property edifice, which is now tottering from the combined effects of its own unmanageable dimensions and the present financial crisis. It would require both common sense and political courage to do that.

Lack of common sense and political courage in determining and managing the cultural policies of Greece, Italy and Spain was what created the present unsustainable situation. It remains to be seen how that situation will now be addressed by their responsible authorities.

One thing is clear: there will be a very significant change to the present system. What is yet to be determined is whether that reconciliation with reality will be responsibly planned and managed, or whether political expediency will once again prevail - in which case reality will make itself felt in a much less desirable manner.



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