Beware vanity projects | Nadia von Maltzahn

How should Malta prepare itself before taking on the European Capital for Culture mantle in 2018? We speak to Nadia von Maltzahn, Research Associate at the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) – a German academic research institute supporting historical and contemporary research on the Middle East – about the dynamics that come into play once a country takes on this challenging title.

Nadia von Maltzahn
Nadia von Maltzahn

Going by your experience and/or research, what would you say are the most immediate and concrete benefits of a city being granted the European Capital for Culture title? Could you give specific examples of this from your experience?

I believe the most concrete benefits are for a city or region to create institutions and lasting infrastructures that go beyond the year of the capital.

The ECoC title is a chance for a city to bring culture to the foreground and address some of the key challenges the city or region faces. The ECoC title puts a city in the spotlight and allows it to attract considerable funds for cultural projects. Here one has to be very careful on how these funds are spent, however, so that they don’t get wasted on vanity projects or short-lived initiatives that will be forgotten soon after taking place.

From my experience, I believe Capital of Culture titles can give great impetus to a city’s cultural life. We could see this in Damascus/Syria, for instance, which was Arab Capital of Culture in 2008. The Syrian cultural sector had been marked by initiatives that were largely short-term, project-driven and dependent on individuals.

The yearlong capital of culture project raised awareness of cultural management tools and strategic planning within the cultural sector itself, and highlighted the need for stronger cultural institutions outside the official cultural sector.

Many of the cultural players who started setting up cultural institutions in Syria after 2008 had been in some way or other involved in the Capital of Culture project. Marseille Provence, ECoC in 2013, used the opportunity to create its cultural infrastructures and tried to work on revamping its image, a process still ongoing. I think much money still gets wasted, too, being used for superficial projects that tick some boxes but have no reach beyond the immediate.

What would you say are some of the most significant cultural concerns of the Middle East at the moment, particularly with regards to the way it either relates or deviates from the European context?

Each country in the Middle East has its own context and concerns. Something that most countries in the region face – and which I believe deviates from the European context – is the complex and often difficult relationship between the independent and official cultural sectors. Many cultural players refuse to cooperate with the state, based on a history of disappointments, and often state officials working in culture are bureaucrats very far removed from the cultural sector.

Another challenge cultural players face is the fact that they find themselves in a space between state and society.

While this is true of artists in most places, considering that they usually challenge conventional beliefs, in the Middle East artists often have to deal with censorship by the state and society, the latter being mainly expressed in self-censorship in view of how far boundaries of convention can be pushed. Working towards building and embedding cultural values in often polarised societies is a great challenge cultural players face.

At a time when many of the countries in the Middle East are in political crisis, cultural actors have an important role to play in promoting values related to cultural diversity and human rights in the widest sense. A third concern is funding.

In most countries, little state funding for culture is available. On the other hand, especially in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, new international funding lines opened up for countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, but often catering to a particular “revolutionary hype”.

Another concern is the question of tangible and intangible cultural heritage in wartime, and what can be done to protect it. This is particularly pertinent to countries such as Iraq, Syria and Libya today.

How would you characterise Malta in light of these concerns? Given both its geographical and cultural position, what priorities should it bear in mind as it prepares to take on the Capital of Culture mantle?

I think the above concerns don’t necessarily apply to Malta. I am not too familiar with the Maltese context, but I believe given its geographical and cultural position, it should put the Mediterranean and dialogue across the Mediterranean in the centre of attention. It should address issues such as migration, linguistic diversity, integration, citizenship.

It should create channels for cooperation with young cultural players from around the Mediterranean, maybe working on projects revolving around the protection of cultural diversity.

Perhaps applying some of the same ‘tools’ you’ve applied to analyse the Middle East, do you think that Malta’s historical hodge-podge is particularly problematic in creating an identifiable cultural identity? And do you think this might have an adverse effect on its ECoC nomination?

On the contrary, I think the fact that Malta has historically been a melting pot of different cultural influences can make it strong by celebrating this diversity. It all depends on how one approaches what you call Malta’s “historical hodge-podge”. As far as I can see – from the outside – this diversity is what makes up Malta’s cultural identity.

It is important to acknowledge that one cultural identity can be made up of many “sub-identities”, as long as one does not emphasize one identity over the other, or try to superimpose one identity over others.

This is easier said than done of course, and often in politics those in power try to do the latter. However, I believe that an identifiable cultural identity can be made up of the sum of cultural identities, and Malta should celebrate its cultural diversity.

Dr von Maltzahn will be addressing Dialogue in the Med: exploring identity through networks – The first annual Valletta 2018 international conference on cultural relations in Europe and the Mediterranean, taking place at the Valletta Campus, University of Malta, on September 4 and 5.