Starving artists or architects of the future?

As Valletta was declared European Capital for Culture for 2018, Culture Minister Mario de Marco took it upon himself to remind us that “being an artist is never viable”. Taking his cue from de Marco’s observation, we spoke to a random selection of local artists who do, in fact, make a living off their passion.

Graffiti artist Chris de Souza Jensen (aka ‘SeaPuppy’): “Art is pointless if people aren’t pushing the envelope.”
Graffiti artist Chris de Souza Jensen (aka ‘SeaPuppy’): “Art is pointless if people aren’t pushing the envelope.”

It wasn't even minutes after Valletta was bestowed with the honour of serving as European Capital of Culture in 2018 that Culture Minister Mario de Marco sounded a note that could easily be interpreted as being defeatist.

Speaking over freshly-quietened applause (and positioned in front of one of Malta's most beautiful artefacts: Caravaggio's painting of St Jerome, in St John's Co-Cathedral), de Marco claimed that it's "never 'viable' to be an artist, but we have to help them, that's why we're launched so many incentives - while at the same time other EU countries are slashing their cultural budget..."

Of course, de Marco's little speech was never meant to carry any real political weight.

It was there to serve as just a bit of bit fist-pumping pep talk to accompany the celebratory mood after it was announced - by a Capital of Culture official - that Malta had "unanimously" won the bid, proving that it was more than adequate to serve as Capital of Culture in 2018.

But stating that being an artist is not 'viable' as if it were an unassailable truism appears to jar with recent developments vis-à-vis local artists' relationship with government.

After all, a Creative Economy Group - working within the Office of the Prime Minister - has been going to some lengths to propose policies that would ideally make fully-fleshed professionals out of local creatives, as opposed to hobbyists who make their daily bread labouring under more 'viable' jobs.

De Marco could also have been paying a backhanded compliment to artists, casting them in the stereotypical role of tireless, talented romantics, working against the odds to produce work they wholeheartedly believe in (it's a stereotype that is very much alive to this day - read our review of the Beat Generation elegy On the Road if you're not convinced).

The second part of de Marco's statement remains true, however: the last couple of years HAVE yielded up more governmental incentives for artists to dip into, and with 2018 looming on the horizon, the stage is set for an economically healthier artistic community to establish itself, with hobbyists edging their way into full professional status.

With this shifting landscape in mind - as well as Malta's perpetually precarious treatment of culture thus far - we spoke to a few creative individuals who do in fact live off their passion.

It's harder than it looks

We may not like to admit it, but clichés often contain a kernel of truth, and in the world of Maltese artists one particular cliché appears to be pervasive: making the bold decision to step outside of the rote churn of safe jobs won't win you much support from your parents and/or peers.

Martin Bonnici

Martin Bonnici (left): "Creative people need to have a business plan too."

"I was discouraged by most people I knew, from relatives saying that I should find a steady job to other professionals saying that my approach could never work and, at the beginning, even lecturers and the Sixth Form's administration.

"Most people see creative projects as a childhood hobby, something that is okay to explore in your teenage years but then should be discarded in favour of a traditional career."

These are the words of Martin Bonnici, film director and producer with his own production company, Shadeena. But they could easily have come from the mouth of any creative individual out there in the post-recession world, let alone tiny Malta, whose economies of scale by necessity render artistic work far less lucrative than it needs to be.

Bonnici got to where he is now largely thanks to a combination of perseverance and an iron-cast assurance of where he wanted to be in life, and perhaps this is another characteristic which remains essential to the aspiring full-time artist.

Globe-trotting percussionist Renzo Spiteri appears to be on the same wavelength.

"The simplest and most direct answer is hard, uncompromising work and determination. When I look back, I can't say that playing on stage and travelling so much was the plan. I just wanted to make music, do it my way, challenging myself to bigger things. I have been doing this for more than 25 years now but I still feel like I have a long way to go..." Spiteri says.

Renzo Spiteri

Renzo Spiteri: "Hard work and determination is the only way."

Danish-born graffiti artist - who has also made stopovers in the UK throughout his career - Chris de Souza Jensen would also concur, though he describes the experience of his formative years as a full-time artist in far more dramatic terms.

"From living on the dole in UK, feeling very lost (at times to a point to where I questioned why I should even get out my bed, at the darkest of times)... yes, it was not always easy... however, even during those hard times, it was never in me to ever quit or let people discourage me. If anything, that only made my will stronger and the need to prove, mostly to myself, that I was capable of making something out of my skill-set. Being a stubborn mule has always helped.

"Was it worth it? As the French would say: f*** yeah!"

Meeting reality half way

Now that we're talking of clichés, however, we may as well introduce another one to the equation: the handy old adage of 'it's the economy, stupid' - which is relevant to this discussion in more ways than one.

It was, of course, the aim of the Creative Economy Strategy to get us to think about culture as something that could be enriching, and not just intellectually. The introduction of several public funds - such as the Malta Arts Fund and the Film Fund - opened up the possibilities for artists that were previously unavailable, and you could even catch Finance Minister Tonio Fenech trot out - as he did during a conference which introduced the Malta Film Fund - the mantra that we need to begin looking at art as being something more than "just a hobby".

Of course, a reliance on government is hardly something that should be indulged in too readily, and Martin Bonnici is quick to point out that perhaps artists themselves should make an effort to re-think the way they process and present their own work.

"If creative individuals put their mind to it, they can make their creative endeavours their main source of income. Having said that, creativity is always a bit subjective, no exams or degrees will confirm your success and one might have to do without the fancy car or house that people in other industries can afford. It's also a matter of accepting that these are the creative industries, and we have to get used to that phrase in all it means. No one goes into business without a business plan, and neither should creative people if they want to survive..."

Fellow film director Pierre Ellul - of Dear Dom fame (or infamy) - agrees that a more considered and forward-thinking approach is the key ingredient, especially considering that we're a small island, with all that that implies.

Pierre Ellul

Pierre Ellul: "The secret is to create a product that's 'exportable'."

"There's a lot of talent in Malta. We definitely need structures to nurture this talent in every field of creativity. Is it a viable option? This is a difficult one. Our market is so small that the economies of scale make it unviable..."

But it may not be all doom and gloom: "The secret is to create that product which becomes exportable to the wider European and worldwide market. In the case of film, we still need to learn a lot when it comes to the craft of filmmaking and storytelling. Story is king... or queen. It's all a learning process, building block by block, and understanding how to make these stories relevant to an audience out there. Then it might become viable," Ellul added.

Perhaps it's expected for a graffiti artist to have established a 'looser' business model, and Chris de Souza Jensen (whose artistic moniker is SeaPuppy) describes how his network of clients came about largely through casual encounters - though Malta's size reveals itself to be a double-edged sword here, once again.

"Since this island is a small bubble with a very close circle of influence, coming across new clients is much easier compared to most places. Come to think of it, the majority of my work in Malta has come from meeting people of certain fields in bars. People ask what I do, I show them photos on my phone and ta-da! People remember me (for whatever strange reason), and call or email back..."

The lure of a helping hand

Jensen's spontaneous way of doing business is perhaps a reminder that in art, nothing can really be fully quantifiable, no matter how many creative strategies or well-meaning, impeccably structured government initiatives you throw into the mix.

But though the rules of success may be chaotic, the basics of life will always put things into perspective. Even artists have to eat, and a financial push is always welcome.

Enter the funds.

Even a 'guerilla' artist like Jensen has kind words to say about the Malta Arts Fund, having benefited from it - along with a troupe of fellow mural embellishers - for the successful Putting Colour to the Streets project (you may have seen their work on the Bellavista wall in San Gwann).

"Art is pointless if people are not pushing the envelope. The funding has huge potential to push the scene here as it will be the case of what's inside the artist's head that counts - as opposed to how much is in his or her wallet - to make something potentially great happen."

Pierre Ellul, however, is more ambivalent about the way funding seems to be structured and distributed. While welcoming the initiatives in principle, he yearns for something more concrete.

"They need to be developed further, improved and more importantly, there needs to be a vision. What do we want to achieve? How are we going to achieve it? In what time frames?"

Ellul zones in on the film scenario, "since this is my area".

"There's a film fund of €250,000. It's tiny. Should we focus on short films and documentaries only? Does it make sense to fund the production of fiction feature films? What is the vision of the Malta Film Fund? In Britain, the British Film Institute just issued £800,000 to 16 directors to produce 16 short films. There's a reason for this and there's a clear vision of what they want to achieve. Where does the National Broadcaster (PBS) fit in this vision?"

Martin Bonnici, on the other hand, is a true believer in the opportunities afforded to artists by government funding, after some initial reservations had proven to be premature.

Trailer for Martin Bonnici's Tele-Monkey.

"A few years ago when the schemes were first announced I was sceptical, I doubted that an unknown like myself would ever stand the chance of getting support, but someone challenged me to apply. I had nothing to lose and I started submitting applications, some have been successful, others not so much. Along the way I learnt how a proposal is meant to be structured, I understood what it means to grow professionally and have a plan to follow, and I learnt how to make best use of the resources available. I think that as creatives we have to take this same kind of approach for the European Capital of Culture, really understand what the project is about, what we can give to the project and the island and then we'll reap the benefits and long-term opportunities."

But perhaps a cruel - though necessary - truth about art is that, despite our best intentions, it's never a democratic phenomenon. Nobody is guaranteed financial success and critical acclaim (and asking for both is surely tempting fate).

The case of Zoo, the popular (and, crucially, financially self-sufficient) quartet of stage and TV comedians is interesting to consider here.


As good as it gets? Comedy troupe Zoo run their own theatre in Valletta

Arguably one of the bona-fide success stories of the Maltese entertainment scene, Zoo (being made up of Chrysander Agius, Claire Agius Ordway, Daniel Chircop and Owen Bonnici) who run their own theatre in Valletta and are fixtures on local television channels, appear to however have been excluded from the fanfare surrounding both the many culture-related monetary incentives launched by government of late, as well as the preparations leading up to Valletta 2018.

"As regards Valletta's Candidature, although we have a theatre in Old Bakery Street and our offices and TV studio are based there as well, we were never consulted or included in any projects for this candidature, which is very disappointing in a way. On a different note, although we made several attempts to get in touch with the local council on different projects, unfortunately - and for reasons which we cannot understand - we never got anywhere."

Are they, effectively, victims of their own success? Or is it the case that Maltese culture, as envisioned by de Marco et al, is a bit apprehensive about the kind of populist fare that makes up Zoo's shtick?

Considering Zoo may be among the most 'viable' of local creatives around, these are interesting questions.