Vatican Joins Crowdfunding Craze With Controversial New Art Philanthropy App

Chip in to the restoration of the Vatican using your smart phone.

Detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images.

Next time the the Sistine Chapel undergoes an upgrade, you can chip in using your smart phone, thanks to Patrum, a new app recently unveiled by the Vatican.

The Vatican’s well-known artistic treasures include such masterpieces as the Belvedere Torso, Laocoön and His Sons, and Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno. With Patrum, the Patrons for the Arts of the Vatican Museums, are hoping the world-wide appreciation for such treasures will translate into lots and lots of crowdfunding.

Art critic Jonathan Jones, in an editorial for the Guardian, however, is less than thrilled with the prospect of the new app, citing the 1980s restoration of the Sistine Chapel, which he believes was too extreme in its efforts to clean up and brighten the famed Michelangelo frescos.

“I’m sorry, but restoration is a dangerous obsession that needs restraining,” Jones wrote. “Most restoration projects are pompous acts of self-promotion that cover museums in scaffolding and close galleries for no good purpose.”

There may be something to that, but what Jones fails to consider is that there is more to maintaining the Vatican’s world class collection of ancient and Renaissance art than just cleaning artworks.

This past year, the Vatican took measures to protect the Sistine Chapel from the ever-increasing number of tourists, installing new high-tech air conditioning and lighting systems. Now, the humidity levels and temperatures are automatically adjusted to account for the crowds, and dust and carbon dioxide are filtered out of the air.

Much of the rest of the museum, which was founding in 1506, still lacks central air. Installing it would surely help conserve the Vatican’s cultural and artistic heritage for years to come (Faulty air conditioning at Rome’s Galleria Borghese has severely damaged Raphael‘s Deposition), but would also be a costly and complex project.

With a €16 ($18) entry fee, the institution brought in $87 million in ticket sales this past year. Nevertheless, with half of that going to the Vatican City State, and the rest covering operations, building maintenance, and salaries for the 800-person staff, the Vatican Museums was still in need of a source of funding for restoration projects.

Patrum’s first round of projects include a French-style 18th-century tapestry that needs to be restored and partial restitched to the tune of $129,900, and five 13th- and 14th-century scrolls from Chinese calligrapher Zhao Yong which will cost $140,975 to conserve. The Patron website lists several other projects currently in need of funding.

Making a donation earns you the title of “silver patron,” and those who fund an entire project on their own become “gold patrons.”

The app, described in the press release as “the first ever cultural institution app bringing together instant chat technology, crowdsource fundraising, and online community building,” is being marketed as offering an “insiders’ look” at the Vatican Museums, offering daily updates on museum news and the chance to “discover the Vatican Museums collection behind the scenes.”

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