The ongoing crisis in some European countries is endangering their cultural heritage. Countries like Greece and Italy contain enormous treasures of works of art and architecture worth preserving, spanning the time from the stone age through antiquity right up to the 21st century. A lot of this is cultural heritage is state owned. The financial situation of some cities and states forces them to close museums or even privatize some buildings or works of art in order to generate funds.
So, to preserve the heritage of buildings, works of art, books, documents, films etc., to keep them accessible for science and scholarship as well as for an interested public, money is needed.
For this purpose, the European Union could step in. The EU could create a European Cultural Foundation (or a bunch of such organizations) and endow it with a large amount of money. This “ECF” could start local or national chapters and these would then actually buy the state-owned (as well as some privately owned) items, the buildings, museums and works of art inside them, the libraries and archives. The problem of how to assign fair values to these things is difficult bit it can be solved.
All of these things would remain where they are but the ECF and its sub-organizations would be the new owners. Their mission of foundation would be to preserve and restore the items transferred to them, to perform research on them and publish the results and to make these things accessible for the public provided this does not interfere with their preservation.
The states or communes transferring their cultural heritage to such organizations could then use the money for the reduction of debts. They would reduce their financial problems by selling their cultural heritage, but not by privatizing it.
Financing of such a scheme could initially come from taxes on European level, e.g. as a part of value added tax. This way, money from richer countries would be transferred to the poorer ones, thus reducing the imbalance within the European financial and economic systems.
The advantages of such a scheme would be:
- The preservation of the cultural and heritage would be put on a sound financial basis independent of the varying economic strength of single states or communes.
- The ongoing scientific evaluation of this heritage would be ensured.
- We would make sure that the cultural heritage remains accessible for the public.
- Even privately owned works of art could be bought and be made accessible for the public and for research. The possibility and temptation to sell parts of cultural or heritage for money or to destroy heritage sites for profit would be taken away.
- Newly created works of art or other items that appear worth preserving for the future could also be bought by the foundation, creating a market for artists.
- If the foundation or foundations initially concentrate their efforts on those states that are economically weaker and if they are financed by taxes on European level, they could become vehicles of financial transfer from richer to poorer countries, reducing the economic imbalance between the states.
- Public debts, especially of economically weaker states, can be reduced.
Another possibility to finance such organizations, along the lines proposed in previous articles in this blog, would be to actually create new money for this purpose. The foundations could, for example, issue a special kind of zero interest “bonds” and the laws about the European central bank could be changed so that it would have to buy these bonds, essentially without a limit (the actual limit would be the amount of cultural heritage items available). This would not necessarily lead to inflation, especially if states and communes would use the money gained from selling their cultural heritage for the reduction of debts. If public debts are reduced, money created by central banks to produce those credits could be taken out of the financial markets, reducing the amount of money in circulation again. The net result would be a transfer of debts from states to the foundations. As I have pointed out in previous articles in this blog, as long as such debts are covered by some asset – and that would be the case here – there is actually no need to ever pay them back. We may also think of this as exporting the cultural heritage to the future, an idea explained in previous articles.
Such a scheme would require a rethinking of the concept of debt and this idea might take some time to catch on, but initially, such organizations could be financed by European taxes depending on the turnover of economies, i.e. something like value added tax. Similarly, a European Nature Foundation could be created to take over national parks, nature sanctuaries or even green spaces in cities.
Variations are possible. Instead of creating just one such organization, a multitude of smaller organizations could be created in order to reduce the risks of concentration of power and corruption. However, they must not be too small so that they are strong enough to defend themselves and their assets against politicians or other people who could try to take advantage of them. Eventually, such organizations could be active everywhere in the EU, maybe even beyond its borders. And of course, such a scheme could also be implemented elsewhere in the world.
So, should Italy sell the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence or the Coliseum in Rome? Should Greece sell the Acropolis of Athens or the Harvester’s Vase in the Heraklion Museum, along with the whole museum and all of its contents? I propose to answer these questions with “yes”, these things should be sold, along with many others, but they should be sold not to private investors. Instead they should be sold to national chapters of international organizations created to preserve them. They should be sold not to be moved to other places but to be moved to other times, staying where they are but being preserved for generations to come.