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Cultural welfare: what point are we at?

By 31 May 2023No Comments

Fragility, inclusion, accessibility, care and wellbeing in cultural places: let’s discuss the right to beauty.

An atrium lit by the timid spring sunshine; one of those bookshops with children’s picture books that make you want to buy them all; lots of workshops for little ones and a park where you can stretch your legs between speeches. We’re at the stunning Centro Internazionale Loris Malaguzzi, headquarters of the famous Reggio Children, whose website opens with the words “a space open to everyone”. It’s a place for meeting and discussion in Reggio Emilia, a space open to all ages, ideas and different cultures. What better place could there be for talking about inclusion, fragility, care and wellbeing? These themes were discussed during the “Diritto alla bellezza. Modelli di welfare culturale tra evidenze scientifiche e necessità di nuove politiche” (“Right to beauty. A cultural welfare model: scientific evidence and the need for new policies”) conference, held on Friday 10 March.

Is cultural heritage really accessible to everyone? 

Valentina Galloni, Director of the Culture Department, Comune di Reggio Emilia and Director of the Musei Civici, opened the conference with this question, introducing the new Museo ICOM definition, which focuses on the theme of accessibility and inclusion:

“… open to the public, accessible and inclusive, the museums promote diversity and sustainability.
They operate and communicate in an ethnical and professional manner, with community engagement, offering diversified experiences for education, pleasure, reflection and sharing knowledge.”

This definition has revealed the new direction museums should take, aimed at removing barriers that prevent certain audiences from enjoying heritage, and promoting diversity, not only in their programming, but also in the way they are structured internally.

How can these objectives be achieved? How can we guarantee community engagement in places of culture?

Some food for thought on the topic of cultural accessibility comes from Silvia Ferrari, the contact person for the Regione Emilia-Romagna’s regional museum network, who goes over the European and national principles and references, citing, among others, the Faro Convention, the UN Convention on Civil Rights and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which emphasise that accessibility is at the basis of the design and development of a cultural welfare system that caters to the most fragile people. For this reason, Promo PA Fondazione’s cultural heritage and technical/scientific support service launched an online survey on the state of accessibility of museums in Emilia Romagna, which involved 209 museums. Starting from the results of the survey, a series of actions were carried out to promote accessibility, not only in the museum field, but in all sectors, including the development of training courses and collaborations with local associations dealing with disabilities, mapping and focus groups at regional level and intercultural projects such as “DRIS – Co-creating Intercultural Societies”.

Remaining on the museum theme, the next speaker, Davide Zanichelli, Director of Palazzo Magnani, introduced some positive initiatives carried out by the foundation, conceived and implemented with regard to cultural welfare and a focus on inclusion. An example of this are the co-creation pathways activated with social-health workers to put fragility at the centre of the foundation’s planning and programming. The recently concluded L’Arte inquieta exhibition represents the development of this approach, which reflects a broader paradigm shift in the way wellbeing is defined and treated. In this new paradigm, termed “salutogenesis” and developed by sociologist Aaron Antonovsky, wellbeing is no longer understood as the absence of disease, but rather as the prevention and promotion of health:

“We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence (i.e. sense that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful) and ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment” (Aaron Antonovsky)

It is therefore the sense of coherence that permits the development of salutogenesis. But how is the sense of coherence developed? Once again according to Antonovsky, it is through the symbolic apparatus, also fuelled by culture and its effects on people’s lives. And it is not only the task of individual organisations to nurture this symbolic apparatus, but it is an institutional responsibility, pertaining to the public administration. The principles on which the practice of cultural welfare is based must come out of the museums and permeate all urban, outlying and rural spaces.

As highlighted by Flaviano Zandonai, sociologist and member of the Cultural Welfare Center’s promoter group, as well as the last speaker at the conference, cities too must be rethought according to a logic of cultural welfare so that marginality, fragility and care are positioned at the very centre of urban development. This is what the city of Reggio Emilia is seeking to do, through projects, initiatives, study days and conferences, like the one we have just taken part in.

The challenge faced by cultural welfare is generating change. Are we ready to pick up the gauntlet?

Here at BAM!, we have mainly approached these issues thanks to “Sciroppo di Teatro”, a theatre project run by ATER Fondazione. This is an example of a cultural welfare initiative that takes on culture in a preventive logic, as it promotes awareness among families regarding the potential health benefits of involving themselves and their children in art and culture. Children aged 3 to 11, together with their carers, can attend the programmed performances at a concessionary rate thanks to vouchers provided by doctors and pharmacists. The project creates an alliance between regional and local government institutions, paediatricians’ and pharmacies’ organisations, ATER member municipalities and the theatres located in their areas.

We therefore need to develop new ways of making cultural places accessible, through the creation of a system, a network rooted in the local areas, capable of enhancing the effects that the arts have on the health and wellbeing of us all, especially the most fragile.