Ringing in the changes | Toni Sant

Beloved broadcaster and multi-media archiving specialist Toni Sant has just been given the post of Artistic Director at the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity. The affable DJ-cum-academic tells us that he’s keen to herald a new era for the embattled but promising cultural space.

Toni Sant: “There are a number of creative people who have never set foot in  St James Cavalier – neither as artists nor as visitors. We want to make sure that they feel this could be a home for them”. Photo by Ray Attard
Toni Sant: “There are a number of creative people who have never set foot in St James Cavalier – neither as artists nor as visitors. We want to make sure that they feel this could be a home for them”. Photo by Ray Attard

The very first artistic director for the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity is probably just a gold tooth away from passing as a swashbuckling pirate. With a swarthy complexion and a beard to match, Toni Sant saunters to our interview wearing a roguish smile that is neither sleazy nor a defence mechanism. Instead, it belies a sly wit and an eagerness to meet his interviewer half way, while never exactly letting me off the hook.

I won’t say that he’s the easiest person I’ve interviewed, but that’s only because he takes each and every one of my questions seriously, picking their implications apart to get to the root of the thing.

“So, how do you feel about being appointed artistic director of this place?”

“Wait a minute, we need to decide what we mean when we say ‘place’… do you mean this beautiful 17th century building,” he says, gesturing towards the Renaissance-era walls as we sit outside Inspirations Café, “Or do you mean the place as a centre for creativity?”

I resist the urge to roll my eyes. But then, I am dealing with an academic, and what is semantics to us is a matter of life and death to him. Dr Toni Sant was most recently Director of Research at the University of Hull in Scarborough, UK, and his research interests include digital curation and new media – though he’s also had experience in theatre and the performing arts. Throughout our interview, he remains somewhat apologetic about his linguistic sensitivity – an occupational hazard for many an academic – but it’s also clear that he never indulges in it for its own sake.

“Speaking of St James as a centre for creativity,” he says, getting back to my first question, “we need to build on all the work that has been done in the past decade by the centre’s previous general manager, who also served as artistic director at the time. But we also need to consider, and think about, our programme of events as it pertains to the building itself, and how it can be applied across other venues. So I didn’t ask you to specify this just for the sake of semantics,” he says, that smile still very much in place.

It’s both logical and fair of him to point out the difference between general manager and artistic director, in the case of St James Cavalier itself. Former general manager Chris Gatt effectively also served as ‘artistic director’ of the place, and it is of course hoped that isolating this role will contribute to a smoother running of the place. Though again, that ‘place’ doesn’t have to be geographically limited to the fortified enclosure of the Cavalier itself – since the Fondazzjoni Ċentru għall-Kreattività, the legal entity at the core of St James, can extend its remit beyond the venue itself.

“There will also be a change in the way things are run on a day to day basis, especially in terms of the way events are organised. As it stands, anyone can just go on our website, fill out a form and apply to have their event at the venue, and the application is then dealt with on a seemingly first-come, first-served basis...”

Sant believes that this system “needs addressing” because he’d like to cultivate a more long-term approach towards the centre’s activity – rather than just “renting out” spaces to individual artists.

“As of January, we will be issuing a call for proposals pertaining to very specific programmes. Not only does this ease the administrative burden of having to process a large number of applications over a short period of time, it also enables us to plan for programmes of events that are far more cohesive.”

But apart from challenging artists to put forward projects that may lie outside their immediate comfort zone, and fit within an overarching plan for St James Cavalier, Sant also claims that there is a “strategic” motivation behind this development too.

“We want to serve as a catalyst for creativity. That is at the foremost of our aims. We want to diversify. Now, by ‘diversify’ I don’t just mean lending space to people who have been marginalised from society – although this new approach applies to them too. Because the fact is that there are a number of creative people who have never set foot in St James Cavalier – neither as artists nor as visitors. We want to make sure that they feel this could be a home for them to go to. That makes for a rethink of what the criteria should be for these proposals. If we’re rethinking the criteria then we have to find ways to incentivise people who are creating work that has been under-represented, or audiences who still haven’t found the kind of work that appeals to them.”

Sant brings up the phenomenon of Maltese-language hip-hop as an example.

“To my knowledge, there have never been any concerts and workshops focusing on Maltese hip-hop organised at St James Cavalier. And yet, this is one of the most vibrant and exciting creative forms to have emerged from Malta over the past few years, and it’s most certainly an integral part of our culture.”

On this note – the note of ‘reinvention’ – Sant also brings up St James Cavalier’s upcoming re-branding exercise – one that he assures will not simply be about “coming up with a new logo” but that will strive to communicate what the centre for creativity is all about. This also coincides with ‘Sensiela IDE@’, a series of discussions during which the public will be allowed to put forward their suggestions on how St James Cavalier can further improve.

As someone who’s attuned to contemporary digital realities, Sant also has a clear commitment to creating a ‘legacy’ for St James Cavalier. The idea of archiving is firmly rooted in his modus operandi – evidence of this being the M3P project, through which he collaborates with local musicians to archive their music for posterity in the form of a Wikipedia-style page.

But cultivating a legacy requires constant tender loving care, and it’s susceptible to assault from all quarters – including the political sphere. Ever the academic, Sant once again endeavours to clarify what ‘legacy’ means in this context – there’s a subtle but telling difference between the Maltese ‘wirt’, which in popular parlance tends to cleave closer to the English ‘inheritance’ than it is to ‘legacy’ – while also flagging up a more endemic concern.

“Politics can have a disruptive effect. I mean, I can perfectly understand that a minister will appoint somebody he or she trusts in certain key positions after a change in government. But ideally, there shouldn’t be a breach in continuity when it comes to long term plans and ideas – and the cultural sphere in particular can suffer a lot as a result of this.”