2013 in review | Culture: change, backtracking and bounty

Looking back at some of the most significant cultural events in 2013, we note that ‘if you want something done right, you better do it yourself’ may be the best adage local creatives could take on.

Shape of things to come? The Malta Summer Carnival debuted this year.
Shape of things to come? The Malta Summer Carnival debuted this year.

Though it could be said that Malta enjoyed a culturally varied 2013, our status on that front was somewhat soured when a Eurobarometer survey revealed that the Maltese ranked second-worst on cultural participation across the continent - coming second only to Bulgaria.

It was a 'straight' piece of bad news that came after some fraught goings-on in the local field of culture. It was perhaps to be expected that a change in government would bring about some infrastructural shake-ups, and perhaps these were even more starkly offset when compared to the previous year. 2012 was the year Malta shook of the shackles of theatrical and literary censorship (on paper, at least) and was officially inaugurated as European Capital for Culture in 2018.

Peter Andre in Malta

Peter Andre (centre) visiting Mater Dei Hospital, accompanied by then health minister Joe Cassar. Photo: Martin Attard/DOI.

It was always going to be a tough act to follow, but an amusing - if deeply upsetting to some - gaffe on government's part unfortunately became a brief cause celebre in early 2013, when Peter Andre was bestowed with the title of Cultural Ambassador for Valletta in February. The unanimous decision by Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli led to short but sharp burst of outrage - culminating in an online petition which gained televised coverage, with even the UK press sneaking a peek at the situation (this journalist was interviewed by BBC Scotland's radio programme Call Kaye when the anti-Andre furore was in full swing).

Of course a lot of it was down to misplaced nationalistic pride with a pinch of snobbishness: "We don't need foreigners representing us, and Peter Andre is a sleazy has-been whose chief trait, of late, was to be seen with silicone-enhanced women as frequently as possible."

But the outrage was significant in some ways. First of all, it was yet another example of how the internet can rapidly consolidate public opinion (a fact arguably even more important in a small country like Malta). It was also perhaps a sign that we're a bit tired of seeing apparently august titles like 'Cultural Ambassador' being dished out on a tokenistic basis to any celebrity willing to step onto our shores... and bestowing it upon the hardly classy Peter Andre - who was in Malta at the time to participate in the annual Malta Music Awards - was seen as a step too far.

Jose Herrera V18

Jose Herrera.

The lack of judgement regarding culture on the part of government appeared to continue after the election, when another minor gaffe became a talking point, this time concerning the newly-installed Parliamentary Secretary for Culture and Local Government, Jose Herrera. The scene, in fact, played out like a melodrama: Herrera, who had served as a shadow minister for justice while Labour were in Opposition, failed to shake Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's hand when he was sworn-in for his new post (he would later refer to the mishap as nothing more than an "inadvertent mistake").

More controversial still was the appointment of Jason Micallef as the new Chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation. Stepping in to replace architect David Felice, Micallef's appointment was greeted with controversy and suspicion: as the press conference announcing the former One TV chairman's new post appeared to have gone ahead without the approval of the Office of the Prime Minister. While the accusation that Micallef may have been appointed "unilaterally" by Herrera was shot down by the new parliamentary secretary, doubts lingered about Micallef's lack of qualifications in the field of culture.

The fruits of Micallef's labour within V18 have yet to be sussed out, but the Foundation appeared to be progressing at a steady clip this year, having organised a number of talking-shop seminars related to Valletta's upcoming role as European Capital for Culture in 2018, as well as successful and well-received initiatives like Story Works - a workshop on film scriptwriting which aims to rehabilitate a lacuna in local filmmaking (a very evident need, if recent film productions like Silhouette and Adormidera are anything to go by).

The Malta Council for Culture and the Arts and St James Cavalier also went through an overhaul, as playwright Albert Marshall - who also became PBS editorial board deputy chairperson earlier this year - took over from Davinia Galea as CEO of the MCCA - a move which many saw a cutthroat political appointment. St James Cavalier, Valetta's centre of creativity, appears to have gone for a more systematic shake-up. Now headed by chairman Rupert Cefai, the institution is searching for an artistic director to run its programme of events. This could be a positive step forward for the institution, as it would mean that its activity would be more clearly delegated.

But any real political change on the cultural front appears to be benign at most, at least if the rhetoric is to be believed. Jose Herrera was keen to emphasise that government's role in culture should be apolitical and 'hands off', facilitating a managerial structure but then allowing artists to do their necessary work.

Interestingly, whereas the Nationalist government tended to 'justify' culture as a bona fide aspect of Maltese life largely on economic terms - invoking entities like the still-active Creative Economy Working Group - Herrera spoke of our need for culture as arising from more universal concerns: namely, "the pursuit of happiness".

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper: one of the headlining acts at the Malta Jazz Festival 2013.

In fact many staple annual events continued unabated despite the change in government. A new one joined their ranks too: the dynamic and successful Valletta International Baroque Festival, which will be repeated in mid-January next year. But the Malta Arts Festival, The Malta Jazz Festival, Ghanafest, Isle of MTV and Notte Bianca went on ahead. Notte Bianca, however, took over Valletta's streets 'under new management'. First-time artistic director Sean Buhagiar - also a co-founder Cirku Malta, an animal-free circus which debuted in the summer - gave the Notte Bianca programme a more contemporary, 'youthful' twist. But Notte Bianca - taking place during the last week of September - was not the only noteworthy event mass-entertainment event of the season. The first-ever 'Malta Summer Carnival' took place in the streets of Qawra and Bugibba. Criticised by some as being an excessive display of 'bread and circuses' culture, the generously-attended event sought to give summer tourists a taste of Malta's traditional February carnival.

Gianluca Bezzina

Gianluca Bezzina.

Fans of local pop music had plenty of reason to celebrate this year, what with sympathetic and ever-smiling pop singer Gianluca Bezzina taking Malta to 8th place at the Eurovision song contest, and Gaia Cauchi actually winning Malta the Junior Eurovision Song Contest - an accomplishment sadly overshadowed by the fact that the young singer was also bestowed a Gieh ir-Repubblika medal, to some pretty vocal controversy.

But one controversy from the world of local music made headlines across the board: namely, folk-pop act Brikkuni's decision to postpone their summer concert at Pjazza Teatru Rjal - the ever-controversial 'open air theatre' at the former Opera House Ruins in Valletta.

It is perhaps heartening that the story had a happy ending: the original concern - made loud and clear by Brikkuni's front man Mario Vella - was that the rental fee of €2,000 was too high, and the band were able to negotiate to lower the price and perform their concert at a rescheduled date.

Fine Arts

The Museum of Fine Arts in Admirality House, Valletta.

Perhaps similarly, a decision not to move the Museum of Fine Arts from Admiralty House in South Street, Valletta to the more central location of the nearby Auberge d'Italie in Merchants Street (which currently houses the Tourism Ministry and Authority) was quickly reversed after it led to a public outcry, and the threat of protest by local artists.

Both these decisions perhaps sound a positive note, but time will tell whether government will be consistent in its patronage of culture.

Regardless, what this year has proven once and for all that, as far as creativity on the island is concerned, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Thanks to the internet (and possibly the fact that it's far easier to travel nowadays), the younger generation is fully in tune with international trends and movements in the field of culture and entertainment, and is in a position to be inspired by and exploit it at will.

The emergence of regular stand-up comedy nights is evidence of this, as well as other 'independent' but successful events such as the annual Malta Comic Con, which boasted high-caliber international events and record attendance this year, and Patches Market - the seasonal artisan fair.

Coupled with Dazzle Troupe's Burlesque shows and regular Electro-Swing parties (both of which provide alternative entertainment for those who have outgrown the Paceville scene), along with a number of other 'off radar' events at venues like Msida's Coach and Horses, Madliena Cottage and the recently-opened Django Jazz Bar in Valletta, it's proof that despite what goes on at government level, Malta's cultural activity appears to be increasing.