After Micallef: Cultural Capital in crisis?

We manoeuvre through the thorny cultural-political terrain that has opened up with the appointment of Jason Micallef as chairman of the Valletta 2018 committee.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
7 May 2013, 12:00am
From left: David Felice, Jose Herrera and Jason Micallef.
From left: David Felice, Jose Herrera and Jason Micallef.
Last Thursday's press event organised by the Valletta 2018 Foundation made for something of an awkward scene. Initially, all signs pointed towards it being a relatively harmless affair: on the agenda was an announcement of another edition of Imagine 18, a sort of ideas workshop in which the public is invited to hear and give feedback to creative individuals who are proposing projects within the remit of Valletta's title as European Capital for Culture in 2018.

Stumbling into the Chamber of Commerce venue, I certainly didn't expect to be wiring a scoop to the newsroom midway through a speech by Parliamentary Secretary for Culture José Herrera, as he officially announced - contrary to supposedly quashed rumours a few weeks ago - that former Labour secretary-general and TV presenter Jason Micallef will be replacing architect David Felice as the chairman of the Valletta 2018 committee.

READ MORE: Former Labour secretary-general appointed Valletta 2018 chairman

But neither can I say that the announcement came as a complete shock. Before the relevant suits lined up to make their speeches, whispers about Micallef being "locked in a room upstairs" with Felice were already circulating among some of the V.18 Artistic Programme Directors.

"You're joking, it can't be, it can't be him," one of them was heard saying.

"I'm telling you," his colleague replied, "he's gonna come out, and I'll be looking at you then - I'll see your face go pale..."

And come out he did - filing dutifully into a row alongside Felice and Herrera. He didn't say anything though, and neither did he stay on for questions from the press.

He was even reticent to speak about his appointment the following day - brushing off my request for a reaction with a polite "no comment" and a promise that he will address the press "in due course".

But neither the public, nor the Opposition PN party, were as coy about the appointment as he was. Not even close.

'Labour's dustbin'

Truth be told, the backlash against Micallef taking up the vaunted post of Valletta 2018 chairman was a public sore point long before it was made official. When the Times pre-empted the story a few weeks ago, the general consensus could be seen as baffled disbelief. Social media unleashed a steady stream of sarcasm upon sniffing out the rumour, which, coupled with José Herrera's own appointment as Parliamentary Secretary for Culture - he previously shadowed the justice ministry and has exhibited no active interest in culture and the arts - appeared to continue to cement the ominous idea that Labour may not be taking culture all too seriously.

Perhaps one particular Facebook comment above all cemented this perception. Linking to MaltaToday's report on Micallef's official appointment, one user commented: 'Culture: Labour's dustbin'.

It seems that a knee-jerk reaction against Micallef taking on this particular post has taken root so deeply that it doesn't even bear thinking about. After Thursday's press call had wrapped up, the normally slick-and-brisk V.18 team were left visibly deflated by the news (clearly, they were in the dark about it as I was).

On my way out, one of them reminded me about an upcoming V.18 event and felt no qualms in quipping, "hopefully it'll be a happier occasion than this..."

As the gathering of press, suits and cultural players began to disperse, one among their number, catching my eye, smiled at me... and then proceeded to break into a rendition of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' (the sarcasm did not even need to be emphasised).

The atmosphere was that of one giant, resigned shrug, with the phrase "may you live in interesting times" hanging in the air...

The right man for the job?

So what is it that makes Micallef's appointment such an outright taboo? Well, as remains the case with Herrera, his suitability for the job has yet to be proven.

Because save having presented a nature programme ('Naturambjent') on PBS and being kicked upstairs to head Labour media organ One TV as chairman - in a move of appeasement on Labour leader Joseph Muscat's part - Micallef's CV doesn't quite bring to mind the kind of culturally savvy organising force that the post of V.18 chairman would suggest.

As Labour secretary-general, he presided Labour's electoral loss in 2008 under Alfred Sant and then played a part in the election of Joseph Muscat as party leader. While Sant and his two deputy leaders stepped down from their posts, Micallef was re-elected secretary-general. Keen on undercutting the influence he enjoyed within the party machinery, Muscat hand-picked James Piscopo - today Transport Malta executive chairman - as Labour chief executive officer.

READ MORE: EDITORIAL - Taking meritocracy for a ride

Sparks flew between the two men, as their roles often clashed and each vied for more influence on the party's workings. Eventually, Muscat abolished the role of party secretary-general and gave Micallef the position of One TV chairman. Scorned of his political position, Micallef then chanced a candidature in the 2013 elections after having already publicly ruled it out. The PN set much store in the fact that while not enjoying Muscat's favour, Micallef was openly challenging his leader by contesting the elections.

Now at the helm of Valletta 2018, and in the context of Herrera having been apparently unhappy about being passed over for the justice ministry, Micallef's appointment is seen as yet another unhappy chapter for this government's political tribulations. 

Whether David Felice, his predecessor, ticked all the right boxes in this regard is of course debatable. But Architecture Project - the firm co-founded by Felice and responsible for a number of key infrastructural developments in recent years, especially in Valletta - certainly projects the kind of slick cultural know-how that has become synonymous with the Valletta 2018 initiative ever since its inception.

Former culture minister Mario de Marco chipped in with his own take on the issue very soon after Micallef's appointment was announced, and was also keen to point out how, when he oversaw the decision to appoint Felice, he did so on purely meritocratic terms.

"When I wrote a letter of appointment for David Felice, I took into consideration his experience within the cultural sector, his love for our capital city and his professional competence - a decision which was vindicated by Valletta's success in acquiring the title of European Capital for Culture in 2018," de Marco said in comments to MaltaToday, barely an hour after Micallef's appointment was made official.

To hammer home that the PN government never viewed Valletta's bid as European Capital for Culture through a partisan lens, de Marco also found it pertinent to add that he would keep in regular contact with Opposition MPs Owen Bonnici and Evarist Bartolo, even setting up a parliamentary committee to oversee this important event - which will not only impact Valletta but Malta as a whole.

"In light of this, I have to express disappointment that a role which was originally not in the least bit partisan has clearly taken on a partisan hue. This is a culture change we did not need," de Marco lamented.

READ MORE: Muscat stands by Micallef appointment, de Marco voices concern

During a press event on Friday, de Marco was assured by Tourism Minister Karmenu Vella that Felice will remain on board to "supervise" Micallef's appointment. Whether this means that Felice will basically stay on to provide an extended handover to Micallef, or whether he will remain on board as some kind of honorary member for the long haul, remains to be seen.

But this begs the question (as has been provoked by many online commentators, once again): if Felice is effectively still on the team, what was the point of appointing Micallef in the first place?

Not only was the decision sudden - and, apparently, not even sanctioned by the Office of the Prime Minister - but this kind of murkiness leaves it vulnerable to all the predictable accusations related to partisan attitudes.



Sleek: early promotional video for the Valletta 2018 initiative.

Relax, it's only art

In a bit of a comic twist, the hullabaloo that erupted around Micallef's appointment is somewhat reminiscent of another arguably misplaced accolade that hit the headlines earlier this year: British pop-singer-cum-reality-star Peter Andre's nomination as a 'cultural ambassador' to Valletta, bestowed upon him by the capital city's local council (not the V.18 board) after he visited the island to perform at Malta Music Awards last February.

Like Andre's accolade, Micallef's appointment also brought into question how culture is meant to be perceived and transmitted. Amid the indignant hysteria some good, solid questions were asked: what qualifies as a good cultural product on the local scene? Should the cultural authorities be indiscriminately sponsoring popular culture and if so, what are the lines that should be drawn, if any?

Another similarity between the Andre and Micallef debacles was that they both inspired online petitions to strip the young achievers of their newly-bestowed titles. But the political dimension of Micallef's appointment not only complicates matters, it also runs the risk of overshadowing any real discussion about what the post should entail, in cultural terms.

V.18 has had a good run so far... at least in its presentation and aspirations, it has shown itself to be an efficient cultural entity with high standards and an interest in improving Malta's cultural lot through a focused, inclusive programme.

For this development to be choked by petty political squabbles would be nothing short of a real tragedy.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...