Uffizi gallery left in the dark as state funds fail to materialise

Click to follow

Some of Italy's celebrated museums might be forced to close if the state electricity company fulfils a threat to cut off their power.

Some of Italy's celebrated museums might be forced to close if the state electricity company fulfils a threat to cut off their power.

The Uffizi museum in Florence, and many other institutions in Tuscany, are desperately short of cash. They have failed to pay power bills of €250,000 (£159,000).

Now Enel, the state power monopoly, has sent the museums a letter demanding that they pay or risk being plunged into darkness.

In March, many museums, including the Uffizi, were granted "autonomy" from central government. What this has meant in practice is that state funds have failed to materialise.

"If this was a private company," said Antonio Paolucci, special superintendent at the Uffizi, "we would be in the red."

Not only the electricity bills have gone unpaid. All other aspects of routine management, down to maintenance of fire extinguishers and provision of toilet paper, are on hold. Annamaria Petrioli Tofani, director of the Uffizi, said: "The museums are in a dramatic situation."

Arguably these are the teething troubles of inevitable change. One art world insider said yesterday: "I don't expect the Uffizi's director has a clue how much the museum's electricity bill is. When the museums and the power network were owned and run by the state, nobody bothered. Now they are being called to account."

Italy's museums and galleries, which attract millions of tourists each year, have been cowering under the threat of drastic change since Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right coalition came to power last year and proposed privatising them.

Giovanni Urbani, the Culture Minister, said of the proposals: "This is a revolution which ... allows for changes that will give greater efficiency to the running of the whole artistic patrimony of Italy. These measures ... will allow the privatisation of the entire management of museums."

But to the directors of art museums abroad, the proposals indicated a naive overestimation of the museums' money-making potential.

"The astonishing assumption here is that museums can generate a profit and on such a scale," wrote Anna Somers Cocks in The Art Newspaper.

Another foreign expert said: "These new laws give statutory expression to the notion that the public patrimony, including museums, is something to be commercially valued and exploited, like iron or petrol reserves." Last November, the directors of 50 of the world's top museums, including Britain's National Gallery, wrote to the Italian government voicing their concern.

A maverick under secretary in the Ministry of Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, resigned when the privatisation plans were published. "I cannot accept this. You might be able to sell buildings but the government cannot sell the contents of the Uffizi," he said.

Italy is still a long way from selling off the Uffizi or the Colosseum, as political opponents have claimed.

Some argue that a loosening of state control of museums could inject much-needed flair into a stodgy style of management. But the changes are proving painful.

One director at the Uffizi said: "There has never been such a hold-up before. They say it's the fault of the new system and that we must hope the funds will turn up in a little while. Of course, Christmas is round the corner."