'Artists are not lunatics' | Jason Micallef

A year into his – initially controversial – appointment as Valletta 2018 Foundation chairman, the head of One TV, Jason Micallef, tells Teodor Reljic that collaboration and tolerance are a key priority, as Malta gears itself up for 2018

Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef. Photo: Ray Attard
Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef. Photo: Ray Attard

Though it may sound a bit callous – or, at least, somewhat mischievous – I have to admit that the most fun I’ve had writing an article last year happened when what was supposed to be a relatively straightforward Valletta 2018 news conference turned into newsworthy material at a moment’s notice.

In May of 2013, as the Foundation – which is charged with ensuring that Malta’s cultural engine is in tip-top shape come 2018, when Valletta will officially take on the mantle of ‘European Capital for Culture’ – called in journalists at their HQ within the Malta Chamber of Commerce premises in Republic Street, the brief was that they would simply be announcing the next event in the V18 agenda.

Instead, the conference was dominated by one bombshell of an announcement: that David Felice’s contract as V18 chairman would not be renewed in the coming year, with One TV head and Labour candidate Jason Micallef taking on the mantle.

Public reaction was swift and brutal, with online commentators lamenting the appointment as yet another betrayal of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s meritocracy pledge, while others expressed suspicion at Micallef’s apparent lack of credentials within the culture sector.

But a year on, Micallef appears neither defensive nor uncertain about what his role is, and he is quick to expand about the role of the Foundation, shrewdly singling out the fact that key structural changes and a holistic vision are what’s needed to steer Valletta – and, by extension, Malta – into the right direction for 2018.

When I ask him to pinpoint the most important development to V18 that he has overseen since first stepping into the chairman’s – erm – chair, he mentions an administrative development: removing the seven Artistic Programme Directors in favour of a more inclusive Board of Governors.

“The previous structure failed,” he tells me in no uncertain terms. “We used to spend thousands and thousands of euros on the Artistic Programme Directors which ultimately went to waste. I wanted the new Board of Governors to be a realistic cross-section of Maltese society. For example, if we have the University Rector [Prof. Juanito Camilleri] on board, then why not also have the Principal of MCAST [Stephen Cachia] on the board – an institution which is such an important incubator for local talent?”

Perhaps the final piece in the V18 administrative puzzle will click into place come October, when the Foundation finally appoints its new Artistic Director.

What kind of candidate would be ideal, in Micallef’s view?

“I think they should have an international perspective, but I would also wish for them to be Maltese. But most of all I want a passionate artistic director… I don’t want someone who’s just here to collect a paycheque, but who would deem the Foundation as family… and take pride in their work accordingly.”

When it comes to sourcing local talent, Micallef is concerned that culturally speaking, Malta has been suffering from something of a brain drain for quite some time, and that enticing Maltese artists to remain in their home country is a key priority for the Foundation.

“MCAST is one way we’re doing this; the Valletta Forum is another,” Micallef says – in reference to a Valletta-based think-tank headed by graphic designer Pawlu Mizzi.

Micallef agrees that there remain key problems in the local cultural sector, and reassures me that steps are being taken to remedy them when I confront him with two perennial concerns by local cultural practitioners: a lack of viable performance spaces for musicians, and the fact that art is, by and large, not professionalised in Malta.

“These are some key concerns for us as a Foundation, and we’ve been racking our brains about them for a while. I don’t want to say that the government has not spent money on tackling these issues over the years; perhaps it didn’t always spend it judiciously, but money was spent.

“For example, I think it’s a shame that we don’t have a multi-purpose theatre; which would be able to absorb various initiatives and events. Some people will point to the Malta Mediterranean Conference Centre and say that it could fulfil that purpose but, although I think it remains a worthy venue, the clue is in the name: it’s built for conferences, not performances.”

On the issue of professionalisation, Micallef says that the Foundation is looking beyond University and MCAST.

“The regeneration of Strait Street and the Valletta market is part of this drive: to create new jobs. I’m keen to cultivate Malta’s creative economy and I believe in our artists, and I don’t buy into any clichés. Artists are not lunatics – they’re people who dream things up, yes, but then carry them through, and ultimately end up making something out of nothing.”

Unlike other European capitals of culture, Valletta 2018, owing to Malta’s size, will stretch beyond the confines of the capital city and incorporate the rest of the island in a bid to cultivate a vibrant cultural scenario come 2018.

Regeneration – both of Valletta itself and surrounding towns – is in fact another key priority for the Foundation: Micallef is keen to point out that its work goes beyond simply organising a series of cultural events.

Micallef says that he’s been meeting up with various local councils and discussing possibilities for collaboration between villages – he mentions a regatta in the Northern region of the island as one potential initiative – and that his general idea has been met with enthusiasm.

“A lot of these places have the sea and agriculture as common elements that tie them together, so I see plenty of potential there” – it’s hardly a surprise to see the former presenter of ‘Naturambjent’ light up when the subject of local agriculture is brought into the conversation – “and I think bringing people together has been one of the Foundation’s greater successes. Diversity and tolerance are important aspects of what Valletta 2018 is about.”

(Accessibility is, of course, an important part of this equation, and Micallef is happy to announce that ferry connections will also be strengthened thanks to Valletta 2018: a new service covering Valletta, Sliema and Cottonera will be put in place come July.)

Pointing out how the Foundation has supported musical projects involving inmates (with the help of local musician Jon Mallia), Micallef is also keen to actively combat racial prejudice – which he deems to be a very real and persistent problem in Malta – through the Foundation.

“Though some people were suspicious about the fact that we wanted to incorporate football into V18, the fact is that the UEFA European Under-17 Championship that we helped organise [in various locations in Malta and Gozo from 9 to 21 May] had players from the Southern side of Valletta – some of whom were of African origin, playing alongside other young Maltese people… we want to continue fostering these links and breaking boundaries.”

This ‘holistic’ view of culture extends to – once again – the agricultural sphere, which, as Micallef emphasises, can help us put the way we live – and particularly the way we consume our food – into perspective.

“The government is spending a lot of money on weight loss programmes and on raising awareness about health but then, you go to large-scale events and they’d be littered with stands selling junk food… I think that if we give a push to agricultural events like Zejt iz-Zejtun, Festa Frawli and so on, we could give people a real insight into what goes behind the production of our food, and foster a real appreciation of it…”

While the association has its work cut out for it – ahead of 2018, Malta’s hosting of the EU Presidency in 2017 will be an important litmus test for the Foundation – Micallef remains optimistic about our position as prospective Capital for Culture.

“I think that for every problem we come across, we can find a solution. We just have to cut down on our complaining and get on with it.”