‘It’s bizarre how some people in funding bodies perceive critique as an affront’

Now freed from institutional shackles following his controversial dismissal from the Valletta 2018 Foundation, Karsten Xuereb sits down with Teodor Reljic for a frank chat about how our Capital of Culture prospects appear from the outside, looking in

Karsten Xuereb has a chat with Malta Today's Teodor Reljic
Karsten Xuereb has a chat with Malta Today's Teodor Reljic

Karsten Xuereb is not an imposing guy. Wiry and bespectacled, he speaks in a low voice through carefully measured, analytical sentences. His presence has the overall effect of putting one at ease, safe in the knowledge that they are most likely engaging with someone to whom diplomacy is second nature, and whose considered take on their professional and cultural milieu will make for pleasant, engaging conversation at the very least.

Which makes his recent brush with institutional controversy all the more surprising. Having served as the Valletta 2018 Foundation’s Executive Director since 2011, he was dismissed from the post last June, in a move that stirred controversy among the local cultural scene – even leading to an open letter to the Foundation calling out the seemingly arbitrary decision, especially sensitive given the timeframe in which it happened (i.e., right on the eve of 2018). But though the main bone of contention of the open letter’s many signatories – who ranged from various spheres of Maltese cultural life – remains unaddressed to this day (namely, that a clear reason for the dismissal of Xuereb and the Foundation’s programme coordinator, Margerita Pule, was never adequately put forward), the Xuereb I meet is as calm and collected as his general modus operandi seems to have been over the past few years. 

Now working at the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, Xuereb admits to being relieved to finally be able to claim all the time-off he didn’t take while he occupied his V18 post – one can imagine the off-days stacking up rather handsomely – and has taken to jetting around the world in pursuit of enriching his research into cultural relations and policy: subjects that were of academic interest to him long before he took up the position that has made his name in the public sphere in recent years. 

This latest stage in Xuereb’s professional life has also yielded to a slightly spikier figure than what we’re used to from the man himself, who has also been taking advantage of his newfound independence from the Foundation’s PR and marketing-sensitive restrictions to offer up some institutional critique in the form of opinion columns on local mainstream media.

The elusive quest for excellence

As a fresh team goes on to build on the work he had begun at the Foundation, Xuereb himself has recently pointed a finger at what he perceives to be certain areas of cultural deficit still in place... a worrying prospect, given that January 20, 2018 – the day Valletta official becomes Capital of Culture – is fast approaching. The perceived lack of ‘excellent’ expressions of cultural activity on the Maltese Islands is one among the subjects recently tackled by Xuereb, who suggested, in an article published on 21 October, that the Maltese situation is a ‘quantity over quality’ kind of affair.

“A regular observation by officials within public cultural organisations, particularly those with their feet on the ground and active in brokerage and hands-on support, is that very little new work of excellent quality is being produced, with the result that while our theatre spaces, TV airtime and showcasing exercises for export are full, innovative and meaningful work that speaks to a contemporary, diverse, Maltese and hence Euro-Mediterranean audience is lacking,” Xuereb writes.

Seated over our respective coffees at precisely one such cultural institution – St James Cavalier in Valletta – I ask Xuereb to expand upon what he understands by excellence in this context. 

I’ve always found it rather bizarre how some of the top people involved in funding bodies would perceive any form of critique as an affront

“What we need to remember is that excellence cannot exist in a vacuum. It’s not just a matter of stacking up as many ‘excellent’ pieces of work, one on top of the other, so that eventually you’ll create something that resembles a ‘canon’ of great Maltese work... instead, I think we really need to tie everything back to the reality on the ground; to see what’s happening ‘out there’ and determine what kind of work makes sense within the contemporary local context...” 

Enough about ‘elitism’

One would be tempted to assume that Xuereb is here once again towing a predominant line among recent cultural developments in Malta, particularly when it comes to the public face of something like the Valletta 2018 Foundation. To wit, the idea that culture should be boiled down to a popular-as-possible mold, so as to unshackle itself from all forms of restrictive elitism. 

Xuereb is, however, deeply skeptical of this approach. “I think it’s taking people for a ride. It just dumbs down the idea of excellence with the excuse of making cultural events more accessible. The line of thinking seems to be, ‘Yes, excellence is important, but we also need to reflect society’. To me, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive,” Xuereb says, adding that ‘addressing society’ should not equate into simply pandering to some preconceived ideal of what is popular. 

“That just insults people’s intelligence. Instead of pandering to superficial elements and cliches, we need to look at the realities on the ground in a way that challenges preconceptions. In a way that allows discordant voices into the mix. The question we really need to ask is: are we dealing with the things that matter? Are we putting our finger where it hurts?” 

Blasting through quietism

Xuereb claims that these concerns are often pointed out to him in private, even if they are not aired in public by the relevant cultural bodies and key stakeholders. Cue knowing chuckles from both of us, but then we both sober up when it’s time to unpack the implications of this statement. A country in which the bulk of local art is helped along with public funding, and public funding only, helps foment precisely that kind of quietism, while also discouraging or sidelining work that truly challenges the status quo. 

But Xuereb claims that it doesn’t have to be this way.

“I’ve always found it rather bizarre how some of the top people involved in funding bodies would perceive any form of critique as an affront. Taking the stance of, ‘We funded you, and this is how you thank us!’ is more reminiscent of regimes, not an upwardly mobile democratic, young society which is trying to be innovative. If anything, those who receive public funding should take it upon themselves to criticise the system as thoroughly as they can, for all of our benefit...” 

Innovation, where art thou?

In fact, for these reasons above all, true innovation appears to be hard to find on this island (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Xuereb locates it in cultural happenings that exist out of the publically-funded circuit). 

Which brings us to Xuereb’s perceptions of where the Valletta 2018 project is going, now that he’s left the stable and can comment more freely on the evolution of this long-gestating project. 

“What I’ve been noticing is the Foundation’s tendency to play things in the same key – that of the celebration, of the ‘festa’... almost as if to say that anything Maltese can be expressed and explained away through this atmosphere of festivity. I would have preferred to see a more nuanced and challenging approach to the programme.”

Xuereb finds this particularly baffling, given how Malta is “blessed by many cultural expressions which take us all the way from January to December”.

And in this respect, the Foundation appears to have hammered yet another nail in the coffin of reason by announcing, some months back, the idea that post-2018, local towns and villages will get a shot at playing ‘National Capital of Culture’ on a rotating basis. 

“But we have that already,” Xuereb says, a tone of disbelief hanging over him even as he remembers something we all know, “it’s called... the festa!” 

“So where is the innovative element? Where is the long-term sustainable vision?”