Can our cultural sector survive the pandemic?

Government’s revised covid-19 economic recovery package did offer some relief to self-employed artists by even acknowledging them as members of Malta’s workforce, but in speaking to stakeholders in the industry TEODOR RELJIC finds that the onset of the virus may have brought to the fore some already existing challenges for creative professionals on the island

An impossible tune to play
An impossible tune to play

Beyond its more immediate health concerns, the covid-19 epidemic is also wreaking economic havoc across various sectors all over the world, and the creative industries are certainly not immune to its effects. More so, perhaps, in Malta, where a fully professionalised artistic workforce has yet to emerge as a properly assertive – and asserted – presence, despite the efforts made by successive governments in coming up with funding schemes to boost local creative production.

In fact, it was Toni Attard – creative director of independent arts funding body Culture Venture and former director of strategy at Arts Council Malta – who this week helped quantify and formalise a discussion that was brewing online among local creatives concerned for their livelihood. Through the Culture Venture platform, Attard launched a survey asking Malta-based artists to specify just how they expect their income would be affected by post covid-19 quarantine and social distancing measures, which inevitably resulted in both outright cancellations and a negative economic knock-on effect that left freelance artists out of work as commercial clients were forced to nervously train their eyes on an alarmingly narrowing bottom line.

Culture Venture director Toni Attard
Culture Venture director Toni Attard

Freebies are not an option

While the findings pretty much speak for themselves (see box) it’s pertinent to note how a vast majority of the 305 total respondents claimed to be at risk of losing either the entirety of their income or a large part of it, with 41% also claiming that their families depend on this very income for their survival. A stark prospect that a large majority of both the local and global population is facing, to be sure – hence the emergency need of government intervention – but perhaps an undeniably empirical instrument of the survey has shown, once and for all, that the creative industries in Malta are indeed also an industry in their own right… something we may tend to forget as we continue to look at the arts as a hobbyist field which provides products we all seem to take largely for granted.

“Employment figures do show an increase of people working in the arts and I think that more people acknowledge those earning an income from the arts as professionals in the field,” Attard says, however adding that, “This does not mean artists working in the sector have significantly improved their employment conditions – as revealed in [an earlier] Culture Venture online survey on artist payments and free culture, artists still work under precarious employment conditions and the current situation has aggravated further these working conditions.”

X-Factor Malta judge Alexandra Alden (Photo by Marija Grech)
X-Factor Malta judge Alexandra Alden (Photo by Marija Grech)

Stretching creativity to a pressure point

The ‘gig economy’ model tends to be unsustainable by its very nature in most countries, let alone one as small as Malta where opportunities are shrunk in tandem to our miniscule size. Which leads to most artists holding on to a more established career of choice to sustain their creative work. Chief of these tends to be teaching… a profession that has also been rocked to their core by social distancing measures as educators were asked to adapt to online teaching platforms across the board, and pretty much overnight.

Pianist Gisèle Grima and visual artist Kristina Borg, who both also teach their respective disciplines in both private and institutional frameworks, said that while online teaching platforms may serve as a workable temporary solution – and as a supplement to traditional teaching methods in ‘normal’ circumstances – the classroom environment cannot be so easily replicated, and neither is it ideal that creatives are now suddenly burdened with an additional fact of life that they need to get ‘creative’ about.

“Communicating online is not enough to create projects and share ideas especially when collaborating. Rehearsing with other musicians is completely side-lined at the moment and until all returns to normal, that prospect will not come about,” Grima said.

Borg, on the other hand, points out how artists are once again being asked to ‘be creative’ as a matter of course, when their creativity is already being severely tested, and within the parameters of an economic model that does not favour them even at the best of times.

“At times I feel that we are really stretching our creative thinking to a limit, where thinking outside the box almost becomes an understatement. Let’s not forget that shifting to online teaching and learning is not always possible, especially for practical sessions in the arts. Such virtual lessons are definitely not a replacement but a mere support system to maintain contact and some creative thinking going,” Borg said.

Artist Kristina Borg
Artist Kristina Borg

The art of work, the work of art

Borg’s observation is a poignant one: we tend to forget that creative labour is also simply that – labour, which draws on reserves of time and mental energy just like any other professional practice. There are plenty of ‘hidden costs’ to creative work which goes uncompensated, and the knife is plunged deeper during post covid times, and not just because artists are taking a direct financial hit.

“It’s ironic how as we enter long days of crisis everyone reverts to art and creative practices, to ease out the boredom or to lift up one’s spirits. Although I see nothing wrong in that, we need to be very cautious on how the arts are perceived. Creating art is a very long process that requires time and energy and unfortunately, more often than not, these are not compensated. I really wish that society learns to better understand the lengthy process that a final work entails,” Borg said.

In other words, as you’re binging on Netflix shows and other media while self-isolating (including the suddenly free online museum tours and streaming international theatre productions), think about the people who brought these products to your devices – work which is often generated by freelancers most vulnerable to destructive force majeure events like pandemics, which have a tendency on destabilising the economic infrastructure in which they operate.

Singer-songwriter and X-Factor Malta judge Alexandra Alden similarly called for an increased empathy and appreciation for what the arts have to offer, while being broadly appreciative of the government measures currently being put into place.

“I also hope this crisis is also an opportunity for us to reassess our priorities as a society. As we are being confined to our homes with just the basics, it also makes me question how much of the extra fluff do we actually really need. Living with unnecessary extravagance as a society is damaging our environment and is pushing us in an unsustainable direction. The arts in general tend to be an underpaid and generally highly under appreciated sector in many parts of the globe, so it is important that we, as a community, also strive to improve our working environments too,” Alden added.

Pianist Gisèle Grima
Pianist Gisèle Grima

Fragmentation, and those left behind

Speaking of Netflix, film and TV… though Netflix itself has promised to safeguard its creatives with a $100 million stimulus package, the effects of the pandemic remain alarming for the audiovisual industry worldwide, with even the most established actors and filmmakers left out in the lurch given their freelance status. And though Malta’s own aforementioned revised economic package does provide respite for most sectors of the arts, film and publishing have strangely been deemed less ‘at risk’ than other creative sectors, with film and media production being relegated to the less generous ‘Annex B’ classification.

Stakeholders within the film industry have already raised the alarm on this, with local stakeholders describing the impact as nothing short of “critical”. On this concern, Toni Attard suggests that the fragmented nature of cultural practice on a ministerial level could lie at the root of the problem.

“The  fragmentation of the cultural and creative sectors across four ministerial portfolios makes the possibility of a coherent policy approach for the sectors all the more challenging, with film, arts, crafts and publishing all falling under different portfolios,” Attard said.

In fact, the local publishing industry has also been hit, and the cut runs all the deeper because, as National Book Council Executive Chairman Mark Camilleri points out, the local book industry remains precarious even during ‘normal’ times.

“Only the National Book Council is supporting the book industry. Admittedly, under the previous administration we used to have by far much more attention and support. For example, the current government is postponing a legal- notice which was already approved last year under the previous administration, but got stalled during the December crisis. This legal notice would incentivise publishers to pay authors royalties with tax incentives, however the current government is not offering us any support and it is still refusing to publish the legal notice, contrary to the agreement we had with the previous administration. I hope this government changes tack and starts taking the book industry seriously,” Camilleri said.

He added that “The National Book Council  is now in overdrive to save the industry. We are conducting rigorous marketing campaigns to encourage people buy books online. We are also conducting emergency book purchases from the publishers to provide them with a lifeline. We will keep doing this for some time but I'm afraid the money we have will run out very quickly.”

Author Clare Azzopardi (Photo by Giola Cassar)
Author Clare Azzopardi (Photo by Giola Cassar)

In light of all this, one of Malta’s foremost authors Clare Azzopardi – who also hastens to add that her full-time job, also as a teacher, insulates her from some of the more immediate economic realities faced by her peers – allows herself to contemplate some potential silver linings that could emerge from all this once the dust settles.

“Perhaps now that we’re all cooped up at home with access to a number of free materials made by artists and writers – such as films, books, streaming concerts – once all of this is over people will re-emerge into the world with a new appreciation of what the arts had brought into their lives while they were forced to remain indoors and apart from each other, with no access to performances and other public art events? Or is this too far-fetched a pipe dream?” Azzopardi asked.

Similarly, Camilleri recalls how a visit to Norway with author Trevor Zahra in tow rang a hopeful note on this front, even if the economic and cultural realities that surround the book industry may not be rosy even at the best of times.

“Once, I was on a flight with Trevor Zahra from Munich to Malta. We were traveling back from a literary festival in Norway. Before taking off, the pilot made an announcement on the plane saying he welcomes Trevor Zahra on board and wishes him a good flight. I think people may not necessarily read books all that much, but they are aware of Maltese writers and sometimes they hold them in high esteem.”