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The Teatro Valle Occupation Ends -- and a New Theater Commons Begins

The proposed privatization of the grand public theater in Rome, Teatro Valle, has been defeated – but perhaps more importantly, the historic three-year occupation of the building has succeeded in achieving many of its primary goals, including the recognition of its demands to establish a new theater commons, after weeks of contentious negotiations.

The struggle was noteworthy because it pitted municipal authorities in Rome, whose austerity policies had resulted in severe cutbacks at the theater, against self-identified commoners who want to run the historic theater in far more open, participatory and innovative ways.  At stake was not just the continuance of performances at Teatro Valle, but the governance, management practices, purpose and character of the theater.  Shall it be a “public good” managed by the city government, often to the detriment of the public interest, or a commons in which ordinary people can instigate their own ideas and propose their own rules? 

Beset by budgetary problems, the mayor of Rome had proposed privatizing the management of Teatro Valle.  But protesters who had occupied the building in 2011 adamantly resisted such plans.  Their protests inspired an outcry not just among many Romans and Italians, but among an international network of commoners, human rights advocates, political figures, scholars and cultural leaders. 

In July, the city government threatened to evict occupiers and issued an ultimatum with a July 31 deadline.  Thus began a series of negotiations.  Commoners were represented by Fondazione Teatro valle Bene Comune, which entered into talks with the city government and Teatro di Roma, the public entity that runs the systems of the theaters in Rome.

The municipality and Teatro di Roma balked at the idea of letting the Fondazione manage Teatro Valle, but they did seem to accept the idea of it running a “special project” of participatory, experimental theater, with details of governance to be worked out.  But the municipal government wanted to close the theater for at least ten months to allow the refurbishing of the facility.  Apparently many commoners, including the Fondazione, were wary of this idea list it be used as a subterfuge to get the occupiers out of the building without offering any enforceable political promises.  The Fondazione proposed instead a shared program of refurbishment while keeping the theater open. 

The resulting impasse led to many large public assemblies hosted by the Fondazione.  A measure of the significance of the entire controversy can be seen in the support given to the Fondazione by Italy’s former Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, the former Minister of Cultural Affairs, and prominent art historians.  As the July 31 deadline approaches, law scholar/commons activist Ugo Mattei pressed for an extension in order to find an acceptable solution. 

Last night (August 10), I learned that Teatro Valle would be abandoned by the occupants.  My source reported:  “Only a permanent presidium will be kept open in front of it until things clear up a little more. There will be a night sleepover with all the citizenship in the street and tomorrow at 11 am during a press conference the theater will be transferred from the occupants to the City of Rome and from the City to the Teatro di Roma .”

The Fondazione issued the following press release:

“The Valle Theater ends the state of occupation to begin a new phase in the mobilization  and in the Foundation. The members of the Foundation, together with all the population will build a roadmap to face the new phase reached by the negotiation, a phase in which to develop a genuine dialogue with institutions on the new models of participated governance of the commons to decide together the future of the Theater.” 

Ugo Mattei noted, “This is an important sign of the political maturity of the commons movement in Italy,” adding that the agreement provides “some much-needed democracy in a phase in which Italy is going down a dangerous authoritarian road.”   

All sides agreed to the following three points: 

1) That the city government will recognize the “political, artisticand organizational experience” of the occupation and the role of Fondazione Teatro Valle Bene Comune;

2) That the Fondazione will be entrusted with the autonomy to initiate an experimental project of participatory theater, and to manage the theater space in cooperation with the artistic director of the Theater of Rome; and

3) That the theater will be kept open throughout the year and all day, even outside of show times, and that the space will be acessible to commoning and other citizens’ initiatives.

An attempt to get a special contractual regime for the theater’s workers was only partially successful because that issue is not within the jurisdiction of the City of Rome government.  The idea was to eliminate precarious temporary employment, reinvest profits from theater operations and provide special ticket prices to enhance wide public access to performances.

A final demand to let the Fondazione be housed at Teatro Valle was rejected.

The president of Teatro di Roma Marino Sinibaldi said that this deal would be honored only if occupiers left the theater by midnight, August 10 – which apparently happened.

A statement by the Fondazione reads:  “Teatro Valle ends the state of occupation to begin a new phase in the mobilization and in the Foundation. The members of the Foundation, together with all the population, will build a roadmap to face the new phase reached by the negotiation, a phase in which to develop a genuine dialogue with institutions on the new models of participated governance of the commons to decide together the future of the Theater.”

We will be watching closely to see how this bold new experiment in commoning unfolds.  It has the promise of pioneering new models of collaboration between city governments and commoners, in the management of public facilities, and in the political mobilization of commoners to achieve such ends. 

Photo credit: Teatro Valle website

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