Philanthropy Saves Monuments, How About Infrastructure?

There’s one thing everyone can agree on: the United States’ infrastructure needs an overhaul.

While a contentious debate over funding rages on, there is a demonstrable consensus that cracking roads, neglected bridges, and outdated technology not only pose a threat to the country’s economic viability, but also to the physical wellbeing of its people.

Another country is facing similar issues involving rote maintenance and the elusive funding necessary to pursue it. To account for the difference between the two cases, just trade a power grids for aqueducts.

Italy has had difficulty paying for the conservation and refurbishment of its extensive catalog of amphitheaters, churches, and various artifacts from its long and storied history. Along with many of its southern European peers, Italy has been slow to emerge from the recession. The country has sizable public debts, and Rome officials oscillate back and forth between filing the city for bankruptcy. In this cash-strapped climate, channeling public resources to highly expensive historical conservation is exceedingly difficult.

Tourism is an essential component of Italy’s economy, and state officials needed a solution. They turned to one area of the Italian economy that has weathered the last decade’s downturn – the fashion and luxury industry.

A variety of high-grossing corporations have stepped in to ensure the maintenance of Italy’s national patrimony. Tod’s, an Italian fashion company, is paying to refurbish the iconic colosseum. The company Fendi has shelled out $4 million to restore the Trevi Fountain. Bulgari has donated $2 million for revitalization efforts for the Spanish Steps.

Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, discussed the public-private partnerships that are currently shaking up the country’s funding system:

Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.

Many Italians find Franceschini’s words troubling. While finding the necessary funding for such a trove of priceless artifacts and buildings is important, there are nonetheless a host of ethical questions for the Mediterranean nation. Will these partnerships usher in the commercialization of publicly held assets? Will good intention give way to future privatizations? Are these practices here to stay?

Italy is new to the corporate philanthropy scene. Public-private relationships of this nature are more common in the United States, which has an entrenched tradition of business philanthropy. Indeed, the United States has seen its share of philanthropists propping up national landmarks.

In 2012, David Rubenstein – the billionaire head of the Carlyle Group – donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument in the country’s capital. After the famous obelisk sustained damages from an earthquake, the National Parks Service struggled to secure the funding necessary to repair the structure and to reenforce it against similar calamities in the future. Rubinstein – who has also contributed to the Smithsonian and the U.S. panda reproduction program – stepped in to front the cost.

As unfortunate as it may be that national symbols such as the Washington Monument in the United States and the Colosseum in Italy require private support, they may nonetheless carry a lesson for how the philanthropy sector can fill some of the gaps in infrastructure funding created by government inaction. By marrying art and infrastructure, private-public relationships can formulate and execute fundable projects. A provincial bridge does not carry the same import as the Lincoln memorial, but in recognizing the value of public art and its fundamental relationship with public infrastructure, creative philanthropic thinking can find solutions to these pressing issues.

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