In 2005 the municipality of Verona was doing consultation on its strategic plan, and the young Veronese were not buying. They thought the administration (four years into its term) was simply not credible: “we are forever stuck in the first meeting”, as a young man told a senior officer to his face and in public (I was there). In this context, I was asked to help the city’s culture-related nonprofits to get together and deliver an event that was to symbolize the municipality’s new commitment to treating youngsters as partners. They were willing to invest a small sum, 30K euro.
Cultural operators in Italian small and medium sized towns almost invariably hate each other. Makes sense: their environment is one of zero-sum competition for funding, allocated with criteria that are not always transparent. Every cent I get is a cent you won’t get. This creates a climate of mistrust. Involving an outsider like me was to be a sign that in this case things would be done differently: this small additional fund was conditional to the creatives being able to design and deliver a common project.
This was my first true community fostering and management. I created a mailing list (hey, we had no cool web 2.0 stuff back then) and demanded everybody used it to communicate, no private emails; bullied the municipality’s stuff into sitting in meetings that started at 7 p.m., so that the creatives could attend without conflicts with their day jobs); and even talked the two main city officials into going to the local winery after each meeting with the creatives. I discovered the power of transparency and informality: the most important progress was almost always made in the winery, not at meetings. In the end the event did happen: it reclaimed derelict spaces like the former zoo; embodied a more free, creative idea of Verona, with the Africal fashion catwalk shows, the writers contests and the mythical dance bus you see in the video. They called it VRBAN, and it was a roaring success. Many people who participated in the process discovered in each other competent colleagues worthy of respect, with whom collaboration could be a pleasure.
Recently I went back to Verona for a concert and –surprise – VRBAN is still there, and it has become the main event of the Verona summer, with thousands of participants. It is now in its sixth year; is entirely funded by private investors and own revenue (the new center-right administration does, however, supply some services); is run by some of the kids of 2005, that meanwhile have become professionals of cultural event organization (Alessandro and Fabio) and communication (Ale); has even generated a spinoff, the Italian network of ecologically sustainable music festivals. It is a piece of the city’s economy and culture. I am so proud of it! Of course, they were the ones who did it. But the city’s authority did its part, and I think I helped.
So, if you go to Verona in July, go to VRBAN, ask for Alessandro Formenti, Fabio Fila or Ale Biti and ask them to give you their stories. And drink one to my health. 🙂