Art historians attack funding bias

April 3, 1998

MORE than 50 art historians have protested to Italian university minister Luigi Berlinguer that their research spending has been cut in favour of computer technology projects.

They claim that in 1997, under a new system of assigning funds to research deemed to be "of national interest" by a committee of anonymous "wise men", scientific fields were favoured and artistic projects lost out. They specifically allege that, in approving funds to only two of more than 20 art history projects presented, the committee chose only those that involved the use of computers.

"While this may be understandable in other fields this cannot be, and must not be, a qualification for historical-artistic studies, which hinge on a direct and diligent examination of the objects being studied, be they monuments, sculptures, paintings or whatever," the historians wrote in an open letter. "The exceptional importance, nationally and internationally, of Italy's artistic heritage makes such a policy catastrophic."

The letter was signed by some of Italy's most renowned art historians: Renato Barilli of Bologna University, Mina Gregori from Florence, Bruno Toscano from Rome and Angiola Maria Romanini, also from Rome, to name just a few. The letter called on the university minister to review the criteria for the distribution of funds for 1998.

For 1997, the state contributed 40 per cent of research funding, while the remaining 60 per cent had to come from the university or universities involved.

In 1998, state funding has been increased by about 35 per cent and will cover 50 per cent of single university projects and 70 per cent of projects involving more than one institution.

The Corriere Della Sera reported that in 1997 the state spent less than 150 billion lire (Pounds 50 million) on research by universities, while spending 1,100 billion lire on the Italian Space Agency. It noted that the country's artistic and cultural heritage is its most important asset, the source of tourism and of enormous earnings.

The new method for allocating research cash is a key element of Professor Berlinguer's reform programme. The idea is to end the long-standing system of giving small amounts to almost everyone, and to concentrate resources in fewer, more important, areas.

According to the university ministry, the art historians' complaint is unjustified. "We have simply channelled the money into fewer but more useful projects, rather than distributing small sums to everyone," said a ministry official. "A lot of people are annoyed. We have also had letters from disgruntled physicists, chemists, etc."

He admitted that only 5.4 per cent of research funding went to the arts, and only a fraction of this to art history. But, he pointed out, art history projects are much less costly than scientific ones and there are several other sources of funding for art historians.

But some academics believe that the authorities have been seduced by anything involving "new technologies", either because of a fixation that computers are inevitably "a good thing", or because of the pressures exerted by the economic interests involved in the purchase and upkeep of computer systems.

Other rumblings suggest that research funds are being assigned to academics who have political or academic affinities with the political parties that make up the government coalition, in particular with the ex-communist PDS.

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