The Economy Sustaining Contemporary Art

Necessities and Prospects for the Art System’s Commitments

Francesca Guerisoli, Marilena Pirrelli

What are the energies sustaining Italian contemporary art? What is the relationship, in art patronage, between intelligence and economic questions? There are many bodies that support art who would be capable of forming a strong network, at both the financial and intellectual levels. But seen as a whole, the economy of Italian art appears weak and the welfare system standing behind the individual artist is rather fragile. In our opinion, what is missing is a network strategy and the ability to form connections.

Preliminary considerations

If today, thanks to the Culture Ministry’s (MiC) Directorate General for Contemporary Creativity (DGCC) we have a searchable map of the Places of Contemporary Art[1], there is still no list of Italian professional artists: the only one available is that of authors enjoying SIAE resale rights[2]. This, despite the fact that the Social Statute for Artists (2006/2249), not yet transposed into law by Italy, calls for the creation of a European professional register, “in which their status, the nature and duration of their successive contracts, as well as the data of their employers or service providers who engage them could be recorded”. Italy thus lacks the measures regarding the commercial, social security and tax aspects of the artist’s life, such as would qualify his/her activity professionally. So, here, we will speak of the economy sustaining contemporary Italian artists without being able to define the precise corpuswhich this analysis addresses. We thus intend to take a snapshot of what has been done in recent years, across the commitments of public institutions, associations, private patronage and corporations. This survey of today’s terrain cannot rely on aggregate public data, since there are no studies or consultable databases for contemporary art that record the production, exhibition and circulation of the present-day creativity activated by the various public instruments in operation. It should also be borne in mind that the system is still rather young: the Directorate General for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Peripheries (DGAAP), which has evolved into the Directorate General for Contemporary Creativity and is responsible for representing and supporting the art and languages of the present, was only created in 2014. Although several instruments have been put into operation by the DGCC in recent years, the road to building a robust system still seems a long one, whose development requires alliances and, above all, a shared strategy across the public and private sectors.

Public support

The Italian Council– a bando, or call for funding applications – is the flagship among the various tools in support of contemporary art that have arrived as complements to Law 717/49 (better known as the “2% Law”)[3], over the last twenty years. Created in 2017 to promote the production, knowledge and dissemination of contemporary Italian creation in the visual arts, it involves artists, curators, public museums, foundations and private institutions, fostering the formation and increased extension of public contemporary heritage. Ten editions have been held, with a total budget of € 12,592,135.14. . There were 642 applications and 147 winning projects: 90 new productions and acquisitions that add to the collections of Italian museums; 48 exhibitions, participations in biennials, triennials, festivals, group shows, international publications, residencies; 9 scholarships.

The Italian Council is thus a useful tool on several fronts, from the international positioning of Italian artists to the support of new productions. It complements the PAC (investment plan), created in 2001 for the acquisition, production and valorisation of works of contemporary art and creativity intended to increase Italian public collections, with 100% financing for the winning projects. . The Plan, with an authorised € 5,164,569 in annual spending since 2002, was put in place thanks to Decree Law No. 162 of 20 December 2019. This latter authorised an additional expenditure of € 4.5 million for 2020, € 2.5 million for 2021 and 2022, and € 500,000 per year from 2023 for proposals for the acquisition, production and valorisation of works of the present. For 2022, the total budget is over € 3 million.

Negli ultimi due anni, a tali strumenti la DGCC ha affiancato bandi come Cantica21, In the last two years, the DGCC has further added calls for applications such as Cantica21, on the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, and SF_2020 Strategia fotografia. In this first case, especially noteworthy is the collaboration between the foreign ministry’s Directorate General for Contemporary Creativity and the Directorate General for the Promotion of the Country System, in the internationalisation and worldwide promotion of Italian contemporary art through the diplomatic-consular network, whose 82 Italian cultural institutes are already well-used to activity in the field of exhibitions. Meanwhile thephotography strategygives concrete form to the Culture Ministry’s new focus on this medium: € 1.3 million has been allocated “for the acquisition, commissioning, preservation and valorisation of Italian and international photography and photographic culture”.

In parallel with the actions implemented by Culture Ministry, there is the activity of local administrations, of which we can only have specific and local rather than aggregated evidence. Indeed, ISTAT’s surveys on culture spending regard very broad thematic categories. Having said that, it is notable that, according to the 2021 edition of the BES (Fair and Sustainable Welfare) report, the public spending that Italy reserves for culture is among the lowest in Europe[4].

Contemporary museums also need discussing on their own terms. The AMACI association, founded in 2003 and now comprising 24 contemporary art museums, is currently updating its handbook of good museum practices, which it hopes will also include recommendations on the economic treatment of artists exhibiting in public museums. The relationship between museums and financial support has its unfortunate aspect: generally speaking, the museum does not pay the artist anything except for the production of one or more works for an exhibition and reimbursement of expenses. Moreover, it will come as no surprise that this habitual modus operandi in relations between institutions and artists, combined with the crisis caused by the current pandemic, has resulted in an 11.9% drop in employment and 26.3% drop in added value for the performing arts and visual arts within the cultural and creative production system in 2019-2020 [5].

However, the discussion on economic questions certainly does not stop at the mere disbursement of money: emerging more and more clearly on various fronts is the need to establish a parallel system of private stakeholders in support of the creation of visual art and collection. Alessandra Donati, author of I diritti dell’arte contemporanea (2011), notes that the Italian legislative framework on this subject is very limited and fragmentary, not being the product of a systematic, coherent programmatic design[6]. Among the actions to be urgently supported, there is, for example, the implementation of the “Art bonus” which, established by law no. 106 of 29/07/2014 and subsequent amendments and additions, introduced a tax credit for voluntary cash contributions in order to support patronage of cultural heritage. Since its introduction, the Art bonus has had on its books some 2,187 beneficiary bodies, over 26,000 patrons, 4,905 contributions and € 643,315,388 million. However, contributions regarding contemporary art are sporadic, amounting to € 2,700,367 (equal to 0.42% of the total collected) and distributed among the GAMeC in Bergamo (€ 1,383,500), Mart in Trento and Rovereto (€ 65,087), Museo di Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce in Genoa (€ 85,000); two contributions for MA*GA in Gallarate (since 2016, € 485,580 + € 36,000), Galleria Nazionale in Rome (€ 124,000 + € 13,000 + € 8,200); and a major restoration contribution for Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato (since 2020, it has received over € 500,000).

Private support

Collectors, foundations, associations, independent spaces, artists’ residencies, in various capacities involved in the production and promotion of the younger generations of artists and professionals, have always played an important role in supporting artistic production and building and nurturing dialogue with local communities and international networks.

It is not uncommon for collectors, much like art galleries, to support their own artists, such as new productions for awards, biennials and exhibitions. According to a survey conducted in 2020 by Intesa Sanpaolo PB in collaboration with the Miart gallery owners, this does not mean big collectors: Italian modern and contemporary art collections have an average of 155 works, over 40% have less than 50 and 60% less than 100, with a clear preference for contemporary art (94%), associated with post-war (46%) and modern (21%) works. Purchases are influenced more by the prestige of the artist (42%) than by the price (36%) and most collectors buy on average of fewer than 10 new works each year (88%) with an annual budget of under € 100,000[7].

Foundations, associations and corporations pursue an important activity in support of Italian artistic production, especially when it comes to young artists. Their activity is well outlined in the report Le organizzazioni private dell’arte contemporanea in Italia. Ruoli, funzioni, attività (2020), produced by the Comitato fondazioni arte contemporanea, Associazione Civita and Intesa Sanpaolo[8]. The study encompasses some 63 organisations: 39 foundations, 19 associations, and 5 joint-stock companies (whether Srl, roughly equivalent to LLC, or S.p.a., roughly equivalent to PLC). The main activities include the organisation of exhibitions and exhibition activities (by 83% of associations and 74% of foundations), followed by the establishment of residencies (as in the case of 72% of associations and 46% of foundations). Associations stand out for their support and promotion of emerging artists (as 94% do), in particular young artists, and in their launching of calls for applications and open calls (44% as compared to 36% of foundations), as well as for artistic co-design without production (33% and 21% respectively). Foundations, on the other hand, have a relatively primary role in the setting up of scholarships and research grants on a national or international scale (8% vs. 6%, respectively).

Residencies appear an especially interesting element, here, given the inherent capacity of these subjects to network. According to the aforementioned report, some 59% of the sample (37 organisations) have set up artists’ residencies, and almost 8 out of 10 develop artistic projects in partnership with public institutions or other private organisations. Beatrice Oleari, planner and co-founder of FARE, AIR – artinresidence and STARE, the new Italian association of artists’ residencies, tells us that there are around fifty residencies operating on an ongoing basis in Italy. A residency programme costs from a minimum of € 2,000 to a maximum of € 8,000, and most of them pay the artist’s living and production costs and/or provide for afee.

Finally, there are many prizes dedicated to contemporary art in Italy, though none is so prestigious and well-financed as to be able launch or seal an artist’s career in the international system, in the manner of the Hugo Boss Prize, the Turner Prize, the Prix Duchamp or the Future Generation Art Prize for talents under-35, worth $ 100,000. If we do want to give an overview of the Italian prizes, the most prestigious is the MAXXI Bvlgari Prize and the oldest is the Lissone Prize, created in 1946, which opens the doors to the city’s museum, the MAC, followed by the Termoli Prize, in 1955, which gave rise to the MACTE. The Club GAMeC Prize combines the initiative of friends of the museum with the artistic research of this Bergamo institution; the Acacia Prize expresses collectors’ commitment to the promotion of rising artists. TThere are also many prizes awarded by private collectors, such as the DucatoPrize, and corporate prizes such as the Furla Prize, the Cairo Prize, Carapelli for Art, Artisti per Frescobaldi, and the recent Ala Art Prize. Of particular note is the Max Mara Prize for Women, established by the Collezione Maramotti, for the exhibition collaboration with London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

In perspective

This brief excursusshows how in recent years the Italian government has focused its attention on contemporary art, both by financing new productions and acquisitions and by promoting Italian art, added to the substantial activity carried out by the private sector. However, there is still a lack of coordination and organic networking between the public and private sectors, although some synergies have been set in motion, such as that with the Committee of Contemporary Art Foundations, which in 2015 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Culture Ministry followed by the establishment of a Steering Committee, thanks to which a dialogue was opened with the body then known as the DGAAP.

However, a dangerous gap must also be noted. While they have a rate of higher education qualifications (43%) almost double that of the rest of the economy (23%), cultural workers, including contemporary art workers, in responding to the training requirements of cultural enterprises, show a mismatch between the skills required by the market and those offered by training courses (Excelsior Information System). Today, the required hybrid, creative, digital and managerial skills are each lacking. It is not surprising, then, that contemporary work is characterised by multiple job holding, or by the phenomenon of the working poor and the difficulty of insertion or re-insertion in the job market[9]. These data were confirmed by the survey on emerging artistic careers carried out in 2020, in a project promoted by the Associazione per il Circuito dei Giovani Artisti Italiani (GAi; association for young Italian artists): the “visual arts” sector is the least remunerative, whereas the “other areas” characterised by professions more linked to the cultural and creative industries (e.g. publishing, cinema, design) are the ones employing those who declare relatively higher incomes, upwards of € 19,000 a year. Strictly artistic and creative work contributes less than 50% of artists’ total annual income, so most are forced to do more than one job, even if it is unrelated to the cultural sector[10].

Another question worth asking is whether artists today are more isolated than they were in the past or whether, on the contrary, they form a system and develop common perspectives for their projects. Artists’ direct access to the world of collectors and the market, through digital and social media, also raises questions: will the latest artistic production be able to take root and preserve its own memory, and become part of the collective narrative of the social history of art? Can we be sure that the disintermediation of institutions and cultural operators – which apparently seems to strengthen artists’ position, but could also mean any trace of them is lost in a digital world of bytes and bits – will endure?

Italian artists are certainly not lacking in quality and creativity, yet very few become visible to critics and the international market. Where the contemporary art system really does work, it is where it has solid structures and a managed orientation underpinned by a strategic project aimed at creating new art. The system is also able to export its creativity and its artists where there are university-level schools closely linked to other international institutions and networks of public non-profit spaces for the production, exhibition and collection of new works, such as France’s FRAC, the Kunsthalle and Kunstverein in the German-speaking countries, university and local museums in the USA and networks of public non-profit spaces in Scandinavian countries. The system works where the visual artist has a right to be present in the public space, has a recognised profession and can count on a robust interconnected network of public and private.

Finally, there is the question of monitoring. In our view, this work needs to be started urgently. First of all, there is no organic map of the system such as it could understand and recognise itself, and there is a gaping lack of public databases, which does not allow the sector to be traced and monitored, starting with regard to the number of professional artists. Even when it comes to a more well-organised element such as artist residencies, data on the number of artists who have taken part over the years is not known, nor is the number of works produced and their impact.


[1] The list comprises 98 galleries and museums, 67 foundations, 23 associations, 34 independent spaces, 41 exhibition spaces, 15 collections, 12 parks and gardens, 6 corporate and business galleries and museums, 15 foreign institutes, and 36 instances of contemporary art in public spaces. See Luoghi del contemporaneo <https://luoghidelcontemporaneo.beniculturali.it/home#tasto_ric_mappa> (January 30, 2022).

[2] Statistics institutes’ databases include visual artists in other categories. Eurostat counts in one group “Persons working as creative and performing artists, authors, journalists and linguists” (as of 2018: 137.7 people per 1,000 inhabitants, in Italy, were employed in these sectors; it was beaten only by Germany, with 393.1 and France, with 244.3). Meanwhile Italian statistics agency ISTAT counts artists among the “Intellectual, scientific and highly specialized professions”, in which the category “Specialists in human, social, artistic and managerial sciences”, includes “Specialists in artistic-expressive disciplines”, featuring the more specific groupings: “Painters and sculptors”, “Variety artists” and “Acrobats and circus artists”.

[3] The so-called “2% law”, created to beautify public buildings, increase the state patrimony and incentivise artists’ work, requires that up to 2% of the amount necessary for the construction of new government buildings be allotted to the creation of artworks. But despite the presence of a dedicated portal, there is no overall guage of the application of this norm throughout Italian territory and its effectiveness.

[4] According to ISTAT’s Fair and Sustainable Welfare (BES) report, in Italy in 2018 € 5.1 billion was dedicated to culture, including activities to protect and valorise heritage. This compared to € 14.8 billion in France and € 13.5 billion in Germany, and was less even than Spain, which allocated € 5.3 billion. This spending amounted to 0.29% of Italian GDP, compared to the EU average of 0.4%. Taking a closer look at the local level, municipal spending on the management of cultural goods and activities is equal to € 19.40 per capita in 2018 – € 0.60 more than in 2017, but € 2.60 less than in 2010 (so, -10% compared to eight years earlier, compared to an 8.5% rise in total current expenditure). Municipal administrations’ culture budget fell from 3.4% to 2.8% of total current spending between 2010 and 2013 and has remained stable since then <https://www.istat.it/it/files//2021/03/BES_2020.pdf>.

[5] Fondazione Symbola. Io sono Cultura 2021. L’Italia della qualità e della bellezza sfida la crisi . in «I Quaderni di Symbola», 4 August 2021.

[6] F. Guerisoli, I diritti degli artisti visivi rimasti indietro, in «Il Sole 24 Ore – Arteconomy24», 8 May 2020 <https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/i-diritti-artisti-visivi-rimasti-indietro-ADWqWGP>.

[7] M. Pirrelli, Foto di gruppo del collezionismo italiano, in «Il Sole 24 Ore – Arteconomy24», 11 gennaio 2021 <https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/foto-gruppo-collezionismo-italiano-ADyB0qCB>.

[8] Comitato fondazioni arte contemporanea, Associazione Civita, Intesa Sannpaolo, Le organizzazioni private dell’arte contemporanea in Italia. Ruoli, funzioni, attività, gennaio 2020 <https://www.civita.it/Associazione-Civita/Attivita/Pubblicazioni/Altre-Pubblicazioni/Le-organizzazioni-private-dell-arte-contemporanea-in-Italia.-Ruoli-funzioni-attivita>.

[9] Lavoro culturale e occupazione, by A. Taormina, FrancoAngeli, 2021.

[10] E.E. Bertacchini, P. Borrione, Arte al futuro. Indagine sulle carriere artistiche emergenti e la produzione culturale indipendente in Italia, Edizioni Fondazione Santagata, 2020.