Visual artists need an immediate recovery plan | Maria Galea

Maria Galea • Professional artists are already considering leaving their professional practice: we don’t want people to leave our shores because of lack of opportunity and recognition

Artists, art professionals, exhibition spaces and galleries in Malta are some of the most severely impacted in the COVID-19 crisis. While our arts sector is known for its growing talent, its ecology is fragile at the best of time and the current situation uncovered further its fragmentation. The sector is highly dependent on the level of public funding whilst philanthropic and private support is minimal.

The newly established and growing association, Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association (MEIA), represents hundreds of artists, performers, art professionals and creative industries. The visual arts sub-committee formed by Maria Galea, Elyse Tonna, Lilly Agius, Austin Camilleri, Norbert Attard, Sandro Debono and Margerita Pulè dive into the challenges and risks the community is facing, what is needed for it to survive and above all, recover.

The Visual Arts committee calls for an immediate recovery plan that proactively and not reactively seeks to address the urgency of the situation. 2021 will probably be even more challenging than this year since some artists in the visual arts may have continued working on projects commissioned last year. However, this year there was no commissioning due to the uncertainty, and this will surely have severe repercussions on the survival and sustainability of the sector next year.

Many artists and arts professionals supplement their income through projects which take a considerable amount of time to plan and research. Many have been left stranded with projects without knowing when or if they should go ahead or not.

The artistic community has been working very hard for years to reach new audiences and increase the general relevance and perception of the visual arts sector amongst the public. We continue to stress on the importance that arts should be given within our community since it strengthens the social capital of society, fosters creativity, well-being, critical thinking, encourages integration and promotes diversity and equality.

In the past months we have seen numerous artists adapting to address the challenges of the pandemic through online experiences, forms of engagement which will continue as another route of access to exhibitions, art education, disseminating collections and associated programming. However, innovation and digitalisation of the sector is not for everyone and takes a considerable amount of time, expertise and financial aid to put in place. Margerita Pulè, arts manager and curator, stressed on the fact that “an active, healthy and relevant arts sector is vital to the social and intellectual well-being of any society.”

Internationally established artist Austin Camilleri, member of the visual arts subcommittee states that his international projects have been either cancelled or postponed and he is currently working on a series of long-overdue paintings, putting site-specific installations and projects on hold. “It is not unusual for a visual artist to have months of drought but it’s the climate of uncertainty that frustrates most”.

Norbert Attard founder and director of Valletta Contemporary and Meta Foundation describes how his gallery makes significant financial investments each year to bring international artists to our shores. The calendar is set well in advance and the 2020 programme was almost entirely cancelled with the gallery shutting down until next year. The nature of some exhibitions is focused on the artistic concept as an experience rather than an actual sellable object.

Elyse Tonna, cultural manager and curator, believes the pandemic highlighted and further exposed the precarious situation and general attitude towards the cultural and creative sectors. Although these have experienced significant growth over the past ten years, there seems to be significant hurdles to overcome. “The slow-paced reaction to a recovery plan and low recognition that creatives are also contributors to our economy and more importantly our wellbeing, are just a couple of factors which reinforce the notion that the outlook towards the arts and culture should be improved.”

COVID-19 is taking away far more than financial stability or cancelled plans. It is affecting the artists’ identity and productivity. A recovery plan will further motivate creative professionals to be part of a community that wants the arts to be back on their feet.

An economic report by EY on creative industries in the EU shows how the visual arts mark the highest turnover out of all the other creative industries with a staggering €127.6 billion across the EU.  Whilst placing second in employment rate just after performing arts in Malta being a visual artist is rarely considered a career, spaces are limited and the few privately run galleries are constantly facing an uphill battle.

Our so-called art industry requires a stimulus to enable the ecology to survive and grow in the coming year. This will require both the public and private sectors to work together to secure new collaborations and investment. Government must ensure that current spaces will survive and more spaces for the visual arts are developed. MEIA’s proposals also include specific measures for the visual arts such as funds for the purchase of works of art created this year and support to galleries for safe re-opening. The importance and relevance of our sector has been undermined for too long and this pandemic has continued to highlight the dire situation.

Professional artists are already considering leaving their professional practice and we don’t want people to leave our shores because of lack of opportunity and recognition. We don’t want artists to feel demotivated. We don’t want to see more arts spaces close down. We don’t want to feel like we are not relevant enough in our own country. We encourage and urge Government to acknowledge the importance of the arts and to follow all other European countries whose recovery and survival plans have been announced months ago and offer a plan which will not just help the sector continue where it left off, but recognise it as essential to the recovery of the nation.

Maria Galea is founder of ARTZ ID and chair for MEIA visual arts sub committee