The quest for patronage

Earlier this week, Arts Council Malta announced the launch of a scheme which will aim to incentivise the private sector to funnel more funds in the cultural sphere. Will this move help stem the flow of local artists relying far too much on public funding?

Famous patron: Lorenzo de Medici by Girolamo Macchietti. Lorenzo’s court included artists such as Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo Buonarroti
Famous patron: Lorenzo de Medici by Girolamo Macchietti. Lorenzo’s court included artists such as Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo Buonarroti

Launched last Wednesday, a new scheme by Arts Council Malta will allow businesses to donate up to €50,000 to cultural entities – be they government bodies or arts-based NGOs and Voluntary Organisations – and get a 150% tax deduction. During the launch, addressed by Culture Minister Owen Bonnici, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and Arts Council chairman Albert Marshall, the initiative was hailed as being yet another way the cultural sector is being strengthened – a further injection of funds that will create a welcoming space for the private sector.

Speaking at the press conference launching the scheme on Wednesday, Culture Minister Owen Bonnici said that while the direct link between arts and commerce “may not be readily apparent to some people”, long-term cultural operators are well aware of how important it is to have a sustainable business plan. Tellingly, while celebrating the fact that “the local culture scene has changed radically over the past few years,” Bonnici said that increased professionalisation is the order of the day – something that should make the involvement of the private sector all the more urgent. 

The discussion gets interesting when one considers how, since its introduction in 2009, the Malta Arts Fund was arguably at the forefront of this “radical” change. Funding an eclectic selection of artists and cultural bodies over the years, the Fund has since been revamped several times to reflect changing realities and respond to feedback, and now has nine separate strands, each catering for particular creative practices on the island. 

The Arts Fund was certainly a positive shock to the cultural system on the island, with local artists finally realising that they didn’t have to funnel their savings – while also rationing their time – for creative work they would have to inevitably do on the side. But is there a risk of local artists starting to lean far too heavily on the Arts Fund to help complete their projects? And will an incentive such as the tax deduction scheme help to address that problem? 

Head of Strategy at Arts Council Malta Toni Attard certainly agrees that relying solely on government funds is unhealthy, but he’s also quick to caution against artists “looking at businesses as simply another cash cow”. 

“What is important is that artists learn to search for different revenue schemes. The fact is that there are several companies who have strong Corporate-and-Social Responsibility policies, and who may want to diversify their portfolio by working with artists,” Attard said, stressing that a donation of the kind covered by the scheme is crucially different from a sponsorship, but that the two can go hand in hand. 

“A donation of this kind can create links between the artist and the business community which can in turn lead to future sponsorship deals for the artist. This is why it’s important for artists to make an effort to ‘match’ their work to the most viable business partner out there. They shouldn’t have to change their work to ‘suit’ the business, but they need to find the one that suits their work best. Because contrary to what they might think, there are various companies out there who are interested in reaching out to artists.” 

In fact, Attard adds, one of the reasons the scheme was set up is to simply get artists and business professionals talking. 

“Unfortunately you’ll often hear about artists being employed by businesses and then taken for a ride… at the same time, you’ll also come across companies who are very open to new ideas and to getting artists on board, but who may not be in touch with the artistic sector.” 

And neither does the relationship between public and private funding for the arts need to be mutually exclusive. Elaine Falzon, Head of Funding at Arts Council Malta, brought up an example of a television producer who, after receiving the Kultura TV fund for one of his early projects, then went on to develop future projects through the private sector. 

“So for him, getting public funding served to be a good stepping stone to get his project off the ground, but he then managed to attract other investors from the public sector. Of course this isn’t always the case, and we can’t expect all artists to conform to a single template – some projects may not be compatible with the private sector and will need public funding. But it’s interesting to see how public and private can work together,” Falzon said.

But just how open is the local business sector to engaging with artists, and taking them under their wing? Business Development Associate for Arts Council Malta Francesca Cassar suggests that the scheme may serve to get things going, because although “businesses are starting to see the value of culture”, many companies are still reluctant to have full-time creatives on board, and limit their ‘cultural’ aspect to cosmetic add-ons, usually as a sub-section of their marketing department. 

“But we’re starting to see a shift, with more and more people thinking outside the box. What usually happens is that the more significant the cosmetic aspect becomes, the more closely it edges towards the infrastructure of the business,” Cassar said.