A mayor for V18 | Alexei Dingli

Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli believes that Malta is at the threshold of the next economic revolution – the creative economy – and believes that a precondition for this is to empower people to make their own decisions.

Valletta has been chosen as one of Europe's two capitals for culture for culture for 2018. The Valletta mayor is proud of this accomplishment, which has rewarded three years of preparations.

"This means that all eyes will be on Valletta during that year," Dingli says.

The economic benefits of this choice are obvious.

He cites statistics showing that other cities had seen a 12% increase in tourism during their tenure as cultural capitals.

But wasn't the choice of Valletta as Malta's sole nominee sort of automatic, considering the fact that the European Union chooses two countries (in this case Malta and the Netherlands) from which it then proceeds to choose its two cultural capital cities?

Dingli acknowledges that Valletta faced a different challenge to competing cities in the Netherlands.

"Our challenge was whether we are given the title or not... we were never in a competition with anyone."

But this could have made the choice even more difficult.

For while in other countries you have cities competing against each other, Malta's challenge was to ensure that Valletta fulfils the standards expected by a European cultural city.

Therefore in this case, Valletta was competing against itself, rather than against other cities.

Bluntly put, had Valletta failed in reaching these standards, it would not have been chosen. Dingli insists that persuading the jury that this was the case was far from easy.

"In the Netherlands, there are five cities competing for this award. Therefore a city like Utrecht has to prove itself against a city like Eindhoven. On the other hand we had to reach a level acceptable to the European Union and this was our risk; they could have simply told us 'you have not reached the level which we expect from you'."

"It was definitely not a walkover...the judges were very tough with us."

What kind of standards did the jury expect?

Dingli explains that Valletta lagged behind when it comes professionalism in culture. V18 now aspires to a healthy balance between amateurism and professionalism in culture, two aspects which he thinks are interdependent and feed each other.

The choice of internationally renowned conductor Wayne Marshall as the artistic director of V18 was a step towards this greater professionalism. "The organisers have imposed on themselves two primary objectives; raise the level of cultural performances, and ensure that these performances are popularised in a way that these are accessible to all. One thing we would like to see in Valletta is holding an opera in a public square as happens in Seville... This will enable people who have never been exposed to opera, to appreciate it. Our aim is to expose people to high quality art."

The other aspect, which the V18 committee wants to prioritise, is the European dimension and to emphasise challenges which are shared by different countries. One such issue is migration. Dingli believes that through culture one can create a dialogue between the Maltese population, immigrants and other European countries experiencing the same challenge.

The jury responsible for the task, who were also accompanied by two European Commission officials, only confirmed the choice of Valletta after one visit. The jury was shown the Renzo Piano City Gate project, the two main Valletta band clubs, Strait Street, Fort St Elmo and the Manoel theatre. They were also later taken to the Marsa open centre and finished their day with a cup of tea in Zejtun to listen to għana.

"We did not only want to show them a static postcard but we wanted to show them the challenges... For example we wanted to show them Strait Street, which has so much potential and history but is badly in need of regeneration. They also met representatives of NGOs like YMCA and the Third World Group. We were honest with them."

Why show them the new parliament being constructed in Freedom Square? Dingli justifies this choice insisting on the cultural potential of the City Gate project. "Few people realise that the City Gate project is a fantastic project which creates new open spaces which can serve as cultural venues. The fact that the parliament itself will have a cultural hotspot beneath it and that this will be falling under the responsibility of the V18 foundation, means that as soon as one enters Valletta he or she will be immediately exposed to culture."

Other open spaces generated by the project include the open-roof theatre, the new La Vallette square, the new square outside City Gate and the grand staircase at the entrance to the capital, from Republic Street to Pope Pius V Street, which are similar to Rome's Spanish Steps.

According to Dingli these steps would be another ideal venue for cultural performances, and the project will therefore create five new cultural spaces at the entrance of Valletta.

But isn't he irked that the theatre will be a roofless one?

"Not at all... We are blessed by our climate... and the idea was not to create a new theatre but an open space which can be used for cultural performances. The idea is transform our open spaces in to cultural venues."

One example of how public spaces can be transformed into a cultural venue was the launching by Merlin of Alex Vella Gera's book Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi in Strait Street. "It was our idea to use Strait Street for this event... I would also like squares like that in front of Valletta's closed market for cultural events. The pedestrian areas in Valletta are in themselves under-utilised family spaces where children can run around without any worry."

The council is also presently considering Simshar director Rebecca Cremona's idea of making projections on the bastions.

One major advantage of the City Gate project is that it bestows upon Valletta the Renzo Piano brand name. In 2006 Piano was selected by TIME as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He was selected as the 10th most influential person in the "Arts and Entertainment" category of 2006's Time 100. More recently he was chosen as the fourth greatest artist in Italian history behind Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raffaello.

"The project highlights the contemporary appeal of our city in a country which lacks any examples of contemporary architecture... it is positive that our children can see an expression of contemporary architecture which blends so well with Valletta."

So what will V18 signify to ordinary Valletta residents? Dingli himself was surprised at the sense of pride felt by residents. "During a football match someone taunted Valletta supporters with a placard saying 'Mdina, Malta's capital city'. The reply from Valletta supporters the following week was: 'you can keep Mdina... we are Europe's capital city'."

One of the tasks of the V18 committee is to foster this sense of pride. Dingli believes that culture is deeply ingrained in Valletta. "Our children are more inclined towards the arts and this is visible in popular events like carnival... a large number of musicians hailed from Strait Street."

Dingli believes that the educational system should change in a way to foster this "cultural ecosystem" and that Malta is presently on the threshold on a new era associated with creativity. "The 1980s were the era of textile economy. In the 1990s we started moving towards a service economy... now we are moving towards the creative economy. This is the logic behind events aiming at bridging the gap between the academia and popular culture. We did this in the recent science in the city event where we created a synergy between carnival float makers and scientists."

Still, how can the country prosper on the creative front when the country is only now changing draconian censorship laws, which have been used to stop theatre productions? Dingli does not mince his words. "It is about time that censorship on theatre productions has been removed. I think people are mature enough to make their own decisions."

Dingli himself militates in the Nationalist Party, which for the past decades has been associated with socially conservative values. How does he rebut the perception that the PN is too conservative to preside over a cultural renaissance?

"A party is made of people and reflects the values of these people. But this does not mean everyone agrees on everything. Some things take time to change."

But he is adamant in his view that if Malta is really moving towards a creative economy some things have to change. "We already changed the censorship on theatre productions but what about censorships on films? I would say that, even on films, does it make sense to have someone decide what I can see or not especially in today's context, where I can go on the Internet and download whatever I like?

"What is needed today is to educate people on how to use the Internet and other media and how to protect young children. Let us empower people to make their own decisions."

Valletta's population has continued to decline over the past two decades. Can this decline be reversed? "We have first to establish the ideal population for Valletta. We cannot have a family living in one room as was the case in the beginning of the century when Valletta was the biggest city."

But Dingli is optimistic that the city is showing signs of growth by slowly becoming more cosmopolitan. "Last week I met Alain Despert, a French artist who was the brains behind the Absolut Vodka marketing campaign. He has just moved from Bora Bora and has chosen Valletta as his new home. Now he has bought a house and a studio in our capital city."

Dingli is annoyed by the idea that Valletta starts at City Gate and stops at Cordina, the start and halfway point of Republic Stree. One of the council's recent initiatives is the upgrading of common areas in housing estates further south to parliament square.

But shopping in the capital city seems to be on the decrease. Some shop owners blame the parking situation.

Dingli makes it clear that no car park will ever solve Valletta's problems and the long-term solution is a greater use of public transport. "We cannot separate the commercial, residential and cultural realities... If we think that the MCP car park extension and the new car park in the Xaghra tal-Furjana car park will solve our problems we would be taking ourselves for a ride. The number one solution is that the Arriva system continues to improve and gains more trust from the public."

He also sees great potential for further improvement of the ferry system, which already takes 20,000 people a month from Sliema to Valletta, but complains that the park and ride system remains heavily under-utilised.

"The shift from private car use to public transport required a change in mentality, which requires an increase in trust in the public transport system, which still needs to improve. This is a chicken and egg situation."

But faced with a choice between public open spaces and more car parks, the Valletta mayor opts for the former. "Who would prefer St George Square to become a car park again? It is true that we lost some parking spaces but this was worthwhile."

Ironically, the idea of turning Valletta into a cultural hotspot is bound to create more parking problems. Valletta already experiences problems whenever there is a show at the MCC. "We have to come with new ideas like organising park and ride schemes during these events..."

Low-cost airlines have also made Valletta more accessible to tourists but one still finds a lack of hotels in Valletta and planning considerations and conflicts with residents complicates this.

"The situation has improved and MEPA is presently dealing with six applications for new boutique hotels. There is a future for small hotels which can cater for certain categories of tourists. One of the peculiarities of Valletta is the upgrading of public toilets like the one in Strait Street where clients are attended by a butler. These public toilets have become an attraction in themselves but this improvement comes at a 30 cents charge. Our toilets were stinky and dirty. If we want to expect some quality we have to give a small donation. So far there are already two public lavatories where users are expected to pay a minimal fare, while two others are forthcoming."

Dingli will probably be contesting the general election concurrently with local elections, which are due next March. He acknowledges that it could be a bit confusing for voters that he would be contesting both elections. "Ultimately they have the say on which role they expect me to serve, whether to continue as mayor or as an MP."

He also refers to many other mayors like Tonio Fenech, Chris Said and Luciano Busuttil who were formerly mayors of their locality before becoming MPs. "People already know what I stand for and can judge me on the basis of my track record as an administrator."

Why the Nationalist Party? "I share the values of the party... I was brought up in the party and it was natural for me."

Why should people vote the PN in office again? "The PN in government has not only changed the country for the better but it has spared the country from the disasters in other European countries. Some credit has to go to the government for this."

On the other hand he lambastes Labour for not "saying anything" on the main issues. "An alternative government has to present its policies... the electorate is mature enough to evaluate which party has the best policies. But Muscat's strategy seems that of just focusing on the wrongs committed by the government and not on what he would do instead." 

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