Our economy depends on creativity, too | Toni Attard

The newly-launched Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association has launched an impassioned plea for government to extend wage subsidies to the creative sector. But as Vice-President TONI ATTARD points out… there is more to the issue than art for its own sake

Toni Attard. By James Bianchi
Toni Attard. By James Bianchi

At the MEIA press conference this week, you identified the arts industry as “one of the sectors that was most hit by the current economic crisis.” But isn’t this true even at the best of times? Given the size and limitations of the local market… how possible is it to have a self-sufficient, profitable arts sector in the first place?

The overall perception – not just locally, but also internationally – is that you can’t earn a living from the arts.  So let’s start from the premise that: yes, it is difficult; and public perception doesn’t help, either.

Traditionally, if a child goes up to its mother or father and says, “I want to be a dancer”, or “an actor”… probably, the first thing they would be told is: ‘maybe you should consider something else: why not a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect?’

But this perception is also changing. Many young people these days are, in fact, encouraged by their parents to pursue a career in the arts.

Having said that, there is also an issue of precarious employment. Artists tend to move from one project to another; you may have income one month, but no guarantee for the next month. Freelance work is by definition precarious, the world over: not just in the arts, but in all sectors. With the arts, however, it tends to be more dominant.

So while we do have people who earn a living exclusively from the arts, most will also be doing other things on the side. And that is part of the talent and skill required of anyone working in the sector. You might be teaching part of the time; or involved in a project; or working on a movie; or doing corporate work… 

People tend to shift between different activities; and that is how it should be.

Your association has meanwhile submitted a number of proposals: starting with a call for government to include the arts and entertainment sector in Annex A of the COVID-19 wage supplement programme.  Apart from the financial assistance in itself: are you also arguing that government – if not the country as a whole – doesn’t place enough value on the arts in general?

Let me put it this way: the intrinsic value of art is something we all recognise, whether we realise it or not, even on an emotional level.

When people fall in love, for instance, they tend to express their feelings in terms of music and poetry; when they break up, they might find consolation in a ‘break-up song’. When people want to get inspired, they’ll read something. And when people go abroad, even if it’s not their primary intention, they will also be drawn to, or somehow experience, the culture of the place: the food, the architecture, and so on.

Sometimes we forget that culture is, in fact, part and parcel of what we live and breathe each and every single day. But how much do we value it? That’s a completely different question.

When we download music for free, for instance, or stream movies online… do we pause to consider the financial impact this will have on the person who created it?  

That’s a huge challenge the sector was already facing, even before the COVID-19 crisis. The business model has had to adapt to these changes brought about by technology: for instance, we now have a music industry that is more dependent on live events, than selling records.

And this is precisely why today’s crisis has hit the sector so badly: having already had to adapt to a changing market, we were suddenly hit by this alien ‘thing’ that came out of nowhere… and which has, in fact, put a stop to a lot of activity…

At the same time, however, all sectors have been adversely affected: including government itself, which faces higher expenditure and a significant reduction in tax revenue. So even if sympathetic to your plight, some might argue that – given the severity of the crisis – maybe the arts shouldn’t be considered such a high priority for government subsidy. How would you respond to that?

Looking at it just from the economic point of view: thanks to public investment, over the past 20 years, we have seen funding of the arts grow from 2% to 7%. It is only now – 20 years later – that we’re starting to see a return on that investment. So the question becomes: should we let it all go, just because – for the first time ever – the sector is calling for support?

But that’s only part of the economic argument. Ultimately, people move to this country because there are things to do. It’s not just because we have lovely beaches and good weather; they come here because they want to do stuff. And if we don’t give them things to do… events, activities, and so on… what is the unique selling point for why people live here? Not just foreigners choosing to live in Malta, or tourists coming here on holiday… but even Maltese people who are living here anyway?

And yes: one could argue that there would still be the voluntary sector, if all else fails. We’d still have our festas, our fireworks, and so on.

But is that enough to sustain the country’s cultural needs? Even from just the economical angle – looking at culture as part of the tourism product, for instance – we need that artistic diversity. We can’t just have one type of artistic work - because it’s commercially viable – as much as we can’t only have publicly-subsidied work, because the market won’t sustain the rest. 

But the most important thing is the message that is being given. As things stand, we’re already shutting down our theatres for a year. And this has already had a serious impact on employment in the sector: because the value cycle has been broken. So if our reaction to all this is to say: ‘I don’t care about the arts, or the artist’… what sort of message would that give out?

Ultimately, isn’t this what defines a nation? If we’re ready to let all that go, and allow market forces to take over, then… what does it say about us as a country?

Let’s turn to the actual impact of COVID-19. We all know that theatres are shut; mass events have been cancelled or curtailed; and from your press conference, we also know that 4,924 people are employed in the sector: of whom only 414 are self-employed. What is the situation these people are facing right now; and how will they be affected if your proposals are turned down?

In our case, we don’t play the numbers game. We may have around 400 people self-employed specifically in the creative arts; but when you think about it, those 400 people are what actually drives the cultural diversity, in terms of activity, in the entire country: in addition to people who do it as a hobby, which of course has a value of its own.

But if those 400 become only 200… and then, those 200 dwindle down to 100, and so on… it would also be very dangerous, in a way. We would become a barren land: culturally, a land of nothingness.

Now: you might say that the situation is equally disastrous elsewhere. True. But personally, I would rather encourage people to try and find solutions to stay here. Because to me, the most shocking part is that half the people we surveyed said that they would probably leave the sector, if the situation remains as is by June next year.

It’s something that’s already happening, but it’s not visible to most people. I often say that: ‘You may see a building that is crumbling; but you will rarely notice when an artist leaves the country.’ Or to put it another way: there would probably be an uproar, if a bastion or historical monument were left to crumble and collapse. And that’s the way it should be: because we do value culture, on that level.

But bastions and monuments are tangible assets that can be seen. The people involved in the arts sector, on the other hand, are largely invisible…

However, the reality of the COVID-19 crisis is such that – with or without government subsidy – the arts sector simply cannot continue operating as it did before. The same health threat that forced theatres to close, will still remain in place for the foreseeable future. How is the local arts scene gearing up to face these challenges?

Right now, there’s a lot of interesting experimentation going on: even in terms of venues. In Germany, for instance, there is talk of designing ‘COVID-safe’ venues: with social distancing built into the seating arrangement, for instance.

It is still early days, of course, in terms of what kind of protocols to adopt. But the most important thing that needs to happen right now is, first and foremost, to create these types of different scenarios.

The reality is that we haven’t yet come up with a coherent strategy to handle the different stages of the crisis. So far, it has mostly been an ad-hoc approach. We’re open; then we’re closed; one day the limit for outdoor venues is 300; the next it is calculated on a ‘per-metre’ basis’… there is no long-term vision directing these strategies.

And this is also part of what we’re asking for. Our proposals don’t only talk about cash handouts. Among other things, we’re also asking for a guarantee facility: so that, if we have to shut down again… at least, we know from beforehand that there are some costs we will be able to recoup. This way, people in the industry would be able to plan ahead.

At this point, however, no producer would be willing to invest €100,000, or E200,000, in a show or an event. Because this is what we’re talking about here. It’s not a question of a couple of hundred euros; the sort of investment we are looking at is a serious consideration, for an individual entrepreneur.

How many 200,000 risks can people afford to take? Believe me… not a lot. And this is where the public sector comes in: and why public support is needed…

Have you received any form of feedback to your demands so far? And how hopeful are you that they will be met?

We have had discussions with the Culture Ministry, the Arts Council, the Finance Ministry, the Tourism Ministry… and of course, in principle they’re all supportive. There is, at minimum, an acknowledgement that people’s livelihoods are being affected.

More significantly, however, there also seems to be acknowledgement of the importance of the arts in the wider scheme of things.

To me, the fact that we sat at the same table with the president of the Malta Chamber, to address a press conference calling for more investment in the arts… I think it’s the strongest message we’ve ever had, in this country, about the need for a creative economy.

When, around 10 years ago, I worked as a policy-maker on a National Creative Economy Strategy, I remember having conversations with non-arts sector representatives: and most, if not all, were pretty sceptical about this thing called the ‘creative economy’.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the president of the Chamber is now saying how important it is to invest in creativity, for the sake of talent and innovation.

And it was quite a powerful message, too. He said: ‘Not only do we need good artists for the sake of having good art; but we need more creative people across all sectors.’

Ultimately, this is not about art for art’s sake. Our economy depends on creativity, too.

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