Culture in Malta: No time to waste

Director of strategy at Arts Council Malta Toni Attard tells TEODOR RELJIC that changes are afoot in the governmental bodies charged with culture, but that we need to step up to the plate while there’s still time

Like most characters in the local cultural scene, Toni Attard is ubiquitous: both a government employee in the cultural sphere and occasional dabbler in theatre (as director as well as performer), he is often seen milling about at cultural events of some kind or other. 

But his official role just got more ‘official’ of late. As the Malta Arts Council underwent a restructuring exercise – ostensibly for the sake of improved efficiency and a better distribution of funds – Attard aquired the role of the (newly christened) Arts Council Malta ‘director of strategy’. This means he’s charged with corralling the various segments of the public culture behemoth into place – helping to ensure that the various institutions making up the council are working in tandem, and midwifing new developments into place. 

But culture is a notoriously slippery field when it comes to cut-and-dried plans of action. In Attard’s own words, it’s not a case of “putting something inside the machine, and waiting for a predictable result to come out”. And given the shifting nature of the beast, it’s important to discuss the overall philosophy of the Council, and where Maltese culture seems to be heading at the moment, before we can get down to specifics. 

Apart from ensuring that “each euro is well-spent,” and being mindful of the calendar milestones coming up – like the EU Presidency and of course Valletta 2018 – Attard also looks forward to bringing in talent from other areas – economists, sociologists, researchers of every stripe – to “really challenge our work”, given that the Arts Council will continue to pitch culture as a key economic player. 

“But most importantly, however, we need to talk to artists,” Attard says, particularly in light of the fact that artists may need some extra guidance when it comes to navigating the bureaucratic funding labyrinth, not to mention the lingering cliché about art and money not mixing. One important step entails easing the basics of the art funding process – first of all by ensuring that all applications are “entirely online” by the end of this year – but Attard also stresses the importance of figuring out what the Maltese cultural sphere as a whole needs at this point in time.

“I always look at the funding portfolio as the journey of the creative practitioner,” Attard says, adding that it’s important to have a plan for your creative efforts, and to be able to put them in a wider context, if you are to thrive as an artist. However, given that the Malta Arts Fund tends to largely address one-off projects, I ask Attard whether a ‘culture change’ would also be happening on this count – perhaps to a funding model that favours long-term investment, rather than one-off grants? 

“Yes – it’s something of a given that artists need financial aid in order to survive, and there are still large gaps in this regard. It’s also problematic because the ‘sponsorship culture’ isn’t particularly strong in Malta. Luckily, where other countries are cutting back public funding of the arts, in Malta it’s only increased over the past couple of years…”

But couldn’t this be down to the fact that the ‘creative economy’ has only become a ‘thing’ in Malta recently, and so we’re simply excited to have it at all?, I interject. 

“Yes, that’s true: which is why we really need to be careful – just because we’re going through this excitement right now, doesn’t mean this excitement will go on forever. And the fact remains that you can’t just rely on public funds all the time. In fact, during the recession, globally speaking, it was the institutions that relied exclusively on public funding that suffered the most. And artists should be aware that there may come a time when the funds dry up.”

In light of this, Attard adds that where previously an art gallery, say, would scoff at the notion of employing a business manager, now “they don’t think twice about it”. This is also something that Attard would like to see bolstered in the local sphere, suggesting that the Council could help create training programmes that would help artists negotiate the financial side of things. But there’s another side effect to relying too much on public funds for a country’s cultural output. 

“It might lead to what the Eastern European model was like in the 60s and 70s, or even the model currently employed in certain North African countries, for example, where the government controls all the output of the ‘cultural mainstream’, and where the underground or fringe is perhaps more interesting…” 

Attard says that this is an important factor to consider, as a country’s cultural priorities become evident even as you stroll around its capital city, for example. 

“Say you’re walking around Valletta for example and – for the sake of argument – you notice that there aren’t all that many galleries, or that the art being produced appears to be uniform and entirely state-mandated… that gives you an impression of what we deem valuable.”

Attard adds that for the Maltese context, “public and private need to share the same space. There should be input from other entities, even NGOs, apart from government. But you need to incentivise this. No individual is going to want to open a gallery, say, unless they know they have a shot at turning it into a viable venture, and the same thing applies to all initiatives.

“So in that case we need to consider a model which will allow us to engage in a partnership with a number of organisations – a ‘subsidy model’ which I think is very much needed. Bearing in mind, of course, that funds will come and go…”

Another basic problem Maltese artists and performers face is that of audiences – an obvious concern, given Malta’s size and population. But, citing the recent restructuring of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the newly set up dance company Zfin Malta, Attard believes that exporting our talent abroad is an important component in keeping it alive. 

“Zfin Malta have a major challenge when it comes to audiences as dance is arguably the least popular art form of the island – if we’re going to play the numbers game – so the fact that they’re thinking internationally is already a step in the right direction for them. Even the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra are touring and developing international projects: they’ve just come back from a tour in China, and they’re working hard to cater to a larger audience.”

One important advantage of touring, Attard contends, is that artists have to plan several months ahead before they embark on one: which addresses the aforementioned problem of short-termism in the arts. But there’s another important factor in taking your art abroad. 

“Networking is crucial. You notice how skilled certain artists are abroad about it: they know how to work the room. Unfortunately Maltese artists don’t seem to have grasped its full potential. Often it’s a case of ‘I’ll see what there is here that pertains to me, and if it doesn’t I’ll just leave’. Very few artists really see it as an opportunity. Which is a shame, because at the end of the day this remains a cutthroat industry, and if you’re not part of the network, you’re not on the map at all.”