Looking back at 2018 | ‘After Valletta 2018, we will never be the same again’

Now that the dust begins to settle in the wake of Valletta serving as European Capital of Culture in 2018, MaltaToday asks some of our main artists and cultural stakeholders to give their verdict on the Valletta 2018 Foundation and its work across these crucial years for the Maltese cultural scene

The most recent and damning occurrence to blight the V18 experience, even attracting negative attention beyond our shores, was a social media gaffe by Chairman Jason Micallef on St Patrick's Day
The most recent and damning occurrence to blight the V18 experience, even attracting negative attention beyond our shores, was a social media gaffe by Chairman Jason Micallef on St Patrick's Day

The Valletta 2018 Foundation and its ensuing initiatives were far from perfect, but the ability of the Capital of Culture title to bolster existing cultural infrastructure and networking opportunities cannot be ignored. This is the ‘big picture’ viewpoint that emerges from a conversation with a number of creative practitioners and cultural stakeholders on the island, when asked to give their take on Malta’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2018 -- which officially concluded with a grand finale party in Valletta on December 15.

“The whole ECoC phenomenon generated unprecedented public awareness of the cultural sector and greater drive, funds and energy,” Albert Marshall, Executive Chairman of Arts Council Malta, said, adding that the series of events which made up the entire initiative also included some significant crowd-pullers, “but it was also this that might have engendered criticism about commercialisation”.

Despite this, Marshall believes that the events forming part of the Valletta 2018 calendar also made room for diversity and experimentation, citing projects such as Rima and Utopian Nights as “engaging people with diverse backgrounds or intergenerational participants”, while initiatives like AltoFest and the Gozo residency programme helped foster an international dimension.

Recalling the build-up towards the event, Kenneth Zammit Tabona, Artistic Director of Teatru Manoel, stressed that while the theatre itself was not directly involved with the Valletta 2018 Foundation, it nonetheless “benefited from the cultural atmosphere created, whose ‘value added’ is incalculable”, and among whose legacies one can list the Valletta International Baroque Festival, which held it inaugural edition in 2011, just as preparations for Valletta’s bid as Capital of Culture first began in earnest.

“We will never be the same again. Let’s hope the momentum will be maintained in future,” Zammit Tabona added, with reference to the recently announced Valletta Cultural Agency, which appears to be set up to build on the Foundation’s work beyond 2018.

Alexandra Pace, founder and director of Valletta-based contemporary art space Blitz, also emphasised the importance of maintaining a focused approach towards any legacy that the Valletta 2018 Foundation hopes to enjoy.

“To build a long lasting impact in the art field local players need continuity, strategy and a shared plan for the future. Uncertainty is terribly limiting considering we don’t have a developed art market to bank on, and much of what happened this year could be impossible in 2019 and upcoming years,” Pace said.

“The European Capital of Culture is an event-based initiative, so if Valletta Foundation is meant to stay, and I hope so, I would expect it to become a third party agency for the development of Valletta art scene in partnership with its art professionals,” she added.

However, the Foundation was also rife with controversy throughout its run up to holding the title over the past year -- most of which related to the often injudicious and sometimes even uncouth political dimension that encroached on the project.

Perhaps the most recent and damning occurrence to blight the V18 experience -- even attracting negative attention beyond our shores -- was a social media gaffe by Chairman Jason Micallef, who in March snapped a picture of St Patrick’s Day revellers and posted it on Facebook, with an accompanying caption that appeared to ridicule the final written words of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Though any ill intention was vociferously denied by Micallef himself, the gaffe -- flagged by PEN International as a reason to strip Micallef of his post -- highlighted the troubled nature of the Capital of Culture unfolding under the shadow of Caruana Galizia’s assassination -- particularly when Micallef and his team insisted on powering on with an upbeat ‘festa’ theme to colour the entire initiative; ostensibly as a way to make Valletta 2018 accessible to all, but in reality creating something of a parallel universe, where culture positioned as a tool of escapism while the realities of the assassination commanded most of our attention.

In fact, as former Valletta 2018 Executive Director Karsten Xuereb writes in a paper published as part of the congress proceedings of the 9th annual The European network on cultural management and policy (ENTAC) Education and Research Session (Budapest, September 2018), even the deeply contested space of the Daphne Caruana Galizia memorial in front of the Valletta Law Courts ended up literally ‘upstaging’ a Valletta 2018 exhibition.

“The opening of [Dal-Baħar Madwarha (‘The Island Is What The Sea Surrounds’)] took place in front of the cistern entry, in front of the Law Courts in Valletta, and hence just steps away from the Great Siege memorial that has, over the past months, brought together people marking the memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia through makeshift means, attracting international attention and arguably adding nuances to tourists’ perspectives of Malta and its culture,” Xuereb writes.

However, Xuereb’s dismissal from his Valletta 2018 post, along with that of former programme coordinator Margerita Pule, in fact also stands as a black mark on the Foundation’s reputation. A seemingly out-of-the-blue move decided upon just months before the official beginning of the Capital of Culture year, the move raised questions both on the ethical implications of the dismissals, as well as the suspect strategic choice behind replacing such a key post at the eleventh hour.

An open letter signed by a generous number of local artists to this effect led to a dismissive response by Micallef himself, with Parliamentary Secretary Deo Debattista stepping in to offer some consultation sessions with the artists in question, little of which appears to have built substantial bridges.

Reacting to the aura of fear -- even hostility -- that appears to characterise the artist/government body relationship in Malta, Maren Richter, curator of the ‘Dal-Baħar Madwarha’ exhibition, commented that, “Art and culture should not be orchestrated nor overshadowed by politics. Art itself is never free of the political. But it should be given the freedom to speak for itself.”

Richter also observed how, “There were quite a few international TV teams in Malta this year, who would tell me that they got the impression that artists feared to talk about certain issues in public – with the result that those TV teams rather focused on this observation than on the actual art projects. This is a real pity. Ideally, politics should be narrated through the arts not arts through politics. And the bigger a festival, the more this has to be taken care of actively.”

After all was said and done, a number of local artists and cultural stakeholders appear to be ready to treat any misgivings as water under the bridge, provided that real, structural shortcomings are seen to and acknowledged.

Among these is the undeniably baffling reality of the Foundation never having a ‘proper’ artistic director. While Mario Philip Azzopardi -- a contentious figure in his own right, with a social media trigger-finger to rival that of Jason Micallef -- was officially given that post, he would quickly clarify that his role was simply that of orchestrating the large-scale spectacles under the 2018 remit, such as its opening ceremony on January 20 and the Pageant of the Seas event.

For Toni Attard, head of strategy at arts funding body Culture Venture and former director of strategy at Arts Council Malta, the lack of such a central figure goes some way towards explaining the erratic shifts in approach that characterised the Foundation’s run-up to the Capital of Culture year.

“From the first bid-book to the final delivery of Valletta 2018, one notices quite a different programme,” Attard said, stressing how the initial idea for the Capital of Culture year was “more artist-led”, with various projects originating from the artistic communities themselves rather than being conceived and controlled by a central governmental body. “Granted, some of these survived the cull and made their way into the final programme… however, they ended up being fringe-like events. This is hardly surprising given that Valletta 2018 ended up without any official artistic director on board, save for its large-scale events.”

The lack of attention being given to ‘smaller’ events certainly finds itself echoed among representatives from the theatrical scene. Among them is Sean Buhagiar, Artistic Director of Teatru Malta. While stressing that Valletta 2018 provided an undeniable boost for the Maltese cultural scene -- not least because it put culture on the national agenda in an unprecedented way -- he agrees that the tendency to boost flashier large-projects at the expense of their smaller counterparts was something of a misstep.

“Besides the fact that I believe there was way too much happening -- causing audience exhaustion and an unsustainable calendar of free events -- it was quite a shame to see brilliant projects like Magna Zmien, Gewwa Barra, Latitude 36, Solar Cinema and other projects led by passionate artists being almost disregarded when compared to the high-priced, sugar-coated, large-scale projects. From what I’ve experienced personally, it is these smaller-scale projects which will form part of a real intangible heritage. The focus could have been narrowed down, so as to improve such projects. I would put this down mostly to a lack of a clear, cohesive artistic vision,” Buhagiar said.

Similarly, actor and playwright Malcolm Galea said he would have preferred to see “fewer extravagant and expensive one-off projects and more of a focus on smaller projects that have a higher chance of being self-sufficient and ongoing for the next few years, thereby generating a legacy.”

Actor and director Philip Leone-Ganado, whose ‘Shakespeare at the Pub’ productions offered an interesting ‘fringe’ experience of local theatre, unshackled from public funding institutions, was even more impassioned when discussing the shortcomings of Foundation -- both in terms of its attitude towards smaller and ‘dissenting’ voices, and the overall direction that it took as an entity.

“I wish they had realised that appointing divisive figures to lead your project will lead to a divisive project. I wish they had engaged with the whole of the community, not just the parts of it that said the words they want to hear. I wish their insight into what makes the Maltese cultural scene tick extended beyond the festa, that appealing to everyone is appealing to no-one, that ‘give the people what they want’ only takes you so far. I wish they’d focused less on spectacle and more on laying a real groundwork artists could build on in the years to come,” Leone-Ganado said.

Adrian Buckle, founder of Unifaun Theatre, was even more direct and abrasive in his assessment of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and its legacy, simply stating that, “V18 will only be remembered for the parties.”

A more sober analysis came from Daniel Azzopardi, Programme Manager at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier -- one of Valletta’s most prominent cultural institutions.

“There’s always room for improvement, and this is no exception,” Azzopardi said, emphasising the need for “more training programmes and investment in professional development initiatives in areas such as technical work, backstage and production management”.  He also regretted an apparent lack of synergy and collaboration with other public cultural organisations in the development of a holistic long-term sustainable strategy that “enhances opportunities for professionalisation, creates alternative ways of funding, develops systematic audience engagement practices and sets benchmarks for artistic excellence”.

However, others took an even more pragmatic approach to the matter, suggesting that we should moderate our expectations as to what to expect from a Capital of Culture, even confronted with its European reality. It is a viewpoint perfectly encapsulated by Mark Camilleri, Executive Chairman of the National Book Council.

“The biggest recipients to the success of Capital of Culture were businesses in Valletta, but people should not be surprised by this because this is what often happens in Capitals of Culture. Governments tend to view Capitals of Culture as an opportunity to increase tourism and business in the city more, rather than bolster cultural and intellectual development,” Camilleri said, adding that, however, that, “It would be empirically wrong to say that the Capital of Culture didn’t bring about any benefits at all to local culture industries”.

“The Capital of Culture gave a legitimate excuse for cultural and educational bodies like the National Book Council to lobby for more public funding and resources. We have used Capital of Culture as a pretext to lobby government to grant the National Book Council a 16th-century Baroque palace in Valletta. We were successful, and we aim to turn the newly-granted palace into a freely-accessible public space, Museum of Literature and a bookshop which serves as a cultural agent. In a similar way, it remains up to the culture and educational institutions to ensure to leave a long-lasting legacy and bring forth cultural and intellectual development,” Camilleri added.

Contacted for comment, Valletta Major Alexiei Dingli reiterated his desire to disassociate himself from the Foundation, and refrained from commenting further.