Caretaking creation in the time of COVID | Lily Agius

Gallery owner and editor of Artpaper Lily Agius speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about remaining optimistic about the Maltese visual arts scene and maintaining a safe cocoon of art while a pandemic rages in the background

Lily Agius at her gallery
Lily Agius at her gallery

What are some of the most obvious ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your operations as a gallery owner?

Well, the gallery is closed, and I have had to cancel all this year’s exhibitions without knowing when to lock in the next. I had just sent out the invitations for an exhibition with a group of French artists in collaboration with the French Embassy in Malta when this all happened, so it is a time of limbo. Also, clients do not generally have the appetite to buy art, or are on a lockdown elsewhere waiting to get back to Malta. This has been a time to reboot and assess the future – to be patient for good times ahead.

I have spent a lot of time re-thinking the role of a physical gallery means to me, and how to improve online presence. I’ve started to create the website for my magazine Artpaper, and have been updating my Artsy page – which I signed up to for more global exposure – as well as by Maria Galea. These are necessities and safety cushions, but I do miss welcoming guests from all walks of life into my gallery and having a spontaneous chat about the art within it and the art scene in general. Meeting inspiring people at the gallery has always helped me move forward with confidence and direction – it also leads to new ventures and adds a personal touch that my clients appreciate. I chose my line of work and to open a gallery for that specific reason – to be surrounded by art and people who inspire me. So, even with the lack of substantial sales during this time, I will not let it go that easily without a last fight to stay present and driven. After having to put the exhibitions that I planned for Malta and London aside, I will need to experience and assess the aftermath of this global pandemic in order to be able evaluate everything properly before making any big business decisions. I have, however, started to prepare for 2021 exhibitions without setting any dates in stone just yet.

How would you say that your personal time during Covid-19 has been affected and how have you kept yourself inspired?

One thing that has raised my spirits is watching the world unite. They say, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Also, the creativity and humour I’ve seen on social media has kept me smiling. It has not been easy for anyone, for various reasons, but a lot of good has come from all this. We have had the tiniest taste of war-time comradery, which should never be forgotten.

It has made me step back and reminisce about times past and family members lost and their immense energy and participation in my life, as well as my family as a whole, it has made me closer to certain friends – affirming that we are all here for each other in hard times.

At the time of writing this, the pandemic is not over, the shops have opened for the first time today and I’m just hoping for the best and planning for my family’s future, as well as dreaming of all the places in the world I would still like to visit.

 A sculpture by the Irish artist Sallyanne Morgan at her solo exhibition in 2019 at Lily Agius Gallery
A sculpture by the Irish artist Sallyanne Morgan at her solo exhibition in 2019 at Lily Agius Gallery

Could you tell us a little bit about your experience as a gallery owner? What are the key steps that have led up to it, and what were some of the most significant lessons you have learned along the way?

I did not have much of a plan at the start. I often do things on a whim following my heart rather than my head. My only wish was to bring international and local art to the Maltese public and to raise the bar for local talent. I also wanted my own exhibition space without any particular display restrictions or rules.  It just worked from the start. There was a need for more art exhibitions 15 years ago and the public were very responsive. I began with photography shows from New York by Pat Kurs and the UK by the late Charlie Roff. Strangely, I think photography was better received then with regard to pricing than it is today, so there is still a lot of work with that medium to be done.

When I opened my gallery in 2011, I gave up my secure job at The Malta Independent as an editor and sales executive. The satisfaction took over the financial gain, and it remains the same for me today. I did struggle a few years in and returned to my previous job as a freelancer, which was perfect for the time being especially when I had my baby, but I would have never been happy to remain that way and decided to give that up for good to start my own magazine from the gallery – Artpaper. The idea for publication had been brewing in my mind for 10 years, I had been slowly working up the energy and support I needed to produce and publish it – it’s been achieved with loyal advertisers and talented writers that I’ve met over the years.

Today my work is wholly satisfying. My job is to elevate and support my artists, and to keep the Maltese publication we need and deserve alive. Maltese creatives have something so special and unique to say and the foreign artists and designers who live here have absorbed that and get it too.

What do you miss the most about the day-to-day operations of being a gallery owner, and how do you hope to be able to replicate at least some of them in the current circumstances?

I have created the perfect office set-up, surrounded by beautiful art, where I can enjoy everyone who walks in to have a look. I learn about their own lives in relation to art, travel and ideas on art collecting. Their opinions and knowledge on artists whom they follow give me great pleasure, as does my ability to offer them an escape from the fast-paced, commercial world outside the gallery doors. For me life is art and I cannot help but feel it should be like that for everyone. During these harder times, work has been more about digital work-from-home and frequent visits to the gallery to re-hang art in the hope I can welcome people again soon.

Left: Lily Agius with Aida Daoud (left), Raewyn McGrigor and Dr Joanna Delia (right) at the opening exhibition for SJ Fuerste in 2019
Left: Lily Agius with Aida Daoud (left), Raewyn McGrigor and Dr Joanna Delia (right) at the opening exhibition for SJ Fuerste in 2019

On the other hand, what have been some silver linings which you may have identified in these days? Have you found opportunity for deeper and more genuine reflection in your work and ongoing efforts?

I decided to wait this out and not waste precious family and reflection-time setting up an online show when I do not feel that people are ready to spend their money on art. I know that the time for buying art will come again soon. So, I have been re-evaluating which artists to add to my gallery portfolio, securing contacts and planning shows for the gallery and the art cafe La Bottega Art Bistro in Valletta for next year. Artists and galleries need to survive through this period of uncertainty, so I have kept in contact with all my artists to offer my support and reassurance and have checked in with my clients without pressuring them into buying art just yet. I have just had to keep positive and proactive.

What has your communication with artists been like over the past couple of months or so? How are they taking it, and are you planning any viable collaborations for the near future?

I’ve decided to finally get going with an artist-in-residence in Floriana. The artists of the gallery need space to create and with my physical presence every day I will be able to keep them motivated. I have chosen two artists to start with for one particular space, and I look forward to seeing how they collaborate within it. I have another space nearby beneath my personal residence that will also be opened soon and available once the designs are confirmed with my architect – this space will be more specialised since it’s a smaller, and I would like to give it to international and local artists needing somewhere to live, work and be open during specific hours to the public.

Art can only really be understood from how it is created – the thoughts, materials, process, and time given to create something. The residency programme and open studio will offer that and a place where anyone can absorb the making process and get to know the artist. I also think that Floriana is the right place for this – its inhabitants are proud of their home-town and there is a lot to offer here by means of shops, cafes, and workshops, withstanding the pressures of its neighbouring city Valletta while retaining its artisanal approach to life. It has a bright future, especially if there is more to offer through the arts. As described by an artist I was recently talking to about my ideas, I see it as the ‘Soho of Malta’ and full of opportunity.

What has this pandemic revealed about the nature of the visual arts in Malta, and the community or industry that surrounds it?

It has proven how resilient it is, as well as how necessary it is for the wellbeing of society. I have enjoyed seeing the live performances by professional artists and have been overwhelmed by their contribution. I have also found the virtual museum and art gallery tours a wonderful contribution to keeping the arts alive at home during this otherwise dull time. Participants are also rethinking their attendance at art and design fairs, however I believe they will surely retain their importance and be back with force in 2021. This was meant to be an exciting year for performance, but it has turned out to be an important time for reflection and adjustments we will all never forget.

What do you hope gallery owners and artists can learn from 2020 that they would then bring into 2021 and beyond?

I have always wished that galleries in Malta would work together. Being so small it’s not easy – we only have a small pool of artists and buyers. I would like to propose an art gallery consortium to safe-guard our aims and the work of the artists, propelling the acceptance and need for art in Malta for all walks of life – including good quality public art and events. I think this period has been good for artists to find time for their art, even it is to contemplate now and produce later.

I am an optimist. I think that the arts scene in Malta and the world beyond will use their newfound tools and knowledge for the better, working on their need for quality collaborations.

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