'King of the Arches' is Italy's culture tsar

Shock at appointment of former McDonalds boss
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A revolution gets under way in Italy this week as the man who made McDonald's an Italian success story turns his attention to the nation's museums. Mario Resca, 63, has made a career out of bringing doomed enterprises back from the dead, but as head of a new department in Italy's Culture Ministry he faces the biggest challenge of his professional life.

His appointment was greeted with shock and dismay by the intellectual elite who run the nation's cultural life. At a seminar in Rome this week on Italy's "Cultural Heritage Emergency", a petition protesting the appointment was launched and has been signed by more than a thousand art professionals worldwide.

"They think I'm a Martian," Mr Resca told The Independent. He says his lack of knowledge of art is irrelevant, and points out that he "knows nothing" about telecommunications though he sits on the board of BT Italy. He knew little about high fashion when he was sent in to rescue Versace, but despite that he "brought Versace from zero to being a brand leader". He still sits on Versace's board. When he took over at McDonald's in 1992, it had only eight outposts in Italy; today it has nearly 400 and is the only American fast food brand to have sunk roots in the country.

Italy's museums and archeological sites are in dire trouble. Despite the fact that Italy is known all over the world for its art and archaeology, and depends heavily on foreign tourism, none of its museums are in the top 10 most popular in the world; the highest is Florence's Uffizi, at 21. Museum facilities which are taken for granted in the US and the rest of Western Europe – cafes and restaurants, attractive shops, decent lavatories, frequently changing installations – in Italy remain the exception rather than the rule.

The desperate financial condition of many of Italy's three to four thousand museums, many of which can barely afford to stay open, has been hit further in the government's new budget, with grant cuts of about one third. So it is inevitable that one of Mr Resca's priorities will be finding ways to attract private sponsorship. "We have a great need of private involvement," he said, "so it is necessary to bring the names of major companies close to great artistic works, allowing companies to obtain benefit and allowing the museums to be able to count on economic assistance, which will contribute to the enhancement of our cultural heritage."

But he admits that at present he hasn't a clue how it is all going to work out in practice. "Ask me again in three months," he says. "The first thing is to assemble a team. I'm on a three-year contract but in my experience it is the first year that is critical: either you succeed in the first year or you leave."

What is clear is that the starving but rarefied world of the Italian arts is in for a shock. Mr Resca's long career has been exclusively in the private sphere, and he expects to ask bureaucrats and curators some testing questions.

"My job is to coach the specialists. For me managing means putting people together and motivating them towards a common goal. Someone said to me our museums have been here for centuries and they will be here for many more centuries. That's true. But visiting them should be fun."