‘Culture and politics make for natural bedfellows’ | Albert Marshall

Albert Marshall finds no problem with culture and politics mixing, so long as it all occurs at arm’s length. Teodor Reljic speaks to the chairman of the Arts Council Malta about what we can expect from the currently ongoing revamp of Malta’s cultural scenario

Albert Marshall
Albert Marshall

“You ask whether an extra effort is needed to be put in to keep culture as apolitical as possible. Well, I’m not fazed at all by processes where culture and politics intertwine. I believe that the arts have the power to change lives and communities. How, if one grounds one’s cultural policy administration in this belief, can culture disengage from politics?”

Chairman of the Arts Council Malta (and deputy chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service’s board of directors) Albert Marshall is certainly prepared to counter any accusations of unsavoury political interference in his day to day work. As he informed me – with something of a weary sigh – some days after our interview was conducted, it’s an association-cum-accusation the veteran theatre director had to parry many a time previously, as his biography is marked by an allegiance to the Labour Party.

Marshall’s career in the theatre started during the 1960s and in 1979 he was appointed the first Maltese principal of the National Academy of Dramatic Art (MTADA). Between December 1996 and June 1999, he occupied the post of CEO at PBS in the Alfred Sant administration, and then proceeded to One TV as chief executive. (He left One TV in 2005.)

Having been appointed executive chairman of Arts Council Malta in late 2013 after his predecessor, Davinia Galea, did not have her contract renewed (and when the entity was a bit more of a mouthful, as it went under the banner of The Malta Council for Culture and the Arts), Marshall effectively became a figurehead for the Labour government’s approach to culture.

After all, the Arts Council – which is responsible for large-scale national festivals, as well as providing public funding to artists through the Arts Fund – is the state’s primary contributor to culture, and an important reference point for both local cultural practitioners and their audience.

But Marshall is also quick to place his political allegiance in context, while also clarifying that any association that politics is to have with culture should occur “at arm’s length”.

“My association with Labour goes way back before my stint at Super One as the station’s CEO. When I emigrated to Australia, where I spent 15 years of my life, I felt the need – an ideological need, if you like – to become a member of the Australian Labour Party,” Marshall says, adding that he always believed that artists “make fuller sense when underpinning their artistic persona in political contexts and declaring uninhibitedly their position through their work and social interaction.

“Throughout my career, I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from doing exactly that: my political position, my thinking, my writing, my worldview have always been clearly Left and I’ve never had problems declaring my affiliations.”

However, declaring that ideologies have now become “phobias of the past” which have tended to serve, more often than not, as “merciless terminators of ideas”, Marshall says that it’s an unwavering dedication to “social democracy”, more than any specifically political affiliation, that has coloured his views in the longer term.

So it’s hardly surprising that this attitude translates neatly to how he views culture fitting into the overall social scenario.

“We need to hold on to the realisation that creativity is generated by people, not by organisations,” he says, maintaining that “it is through cultural pursuits that we develop talents and skills, create stories and meaning, helping us to find ways to relate to the broader society.”

But the bulk of our conversation is necessarily taken up by the structural reform currently underway at the Arts Council Malta. Apart from undergoing a cosmetic change – a trimmer name and new offices at Casa Scaglia in Valletta – Marshall promises a wide-ranging point of attack for the Arts Council’s new direction.

One of the first structural developments to be announced following the ‘re-branding’ of the Arts Council last May was the separation of its festivals wing, which will hopefully facilitate a more streamlined approach to the way state-sponsored cultural festivals are organised and financed.

But apart from this, Marshall appears to be committed to both mobilising Malta’s cultural scene, as well as opening it up. Among the list of meticulously bullet-pointed priorities that he lists for the near future of the Council, Marshall mentions “the weaving of networking systems to create healthy traffic for artists who are engaged in international exchange programmes,” along with “a revamped marketing strategy for the Council to enter into Public-Private-Partnerships in search of enhancing employment opportunities within the sector”, while also hammering home the message that previously operational aspects of the Council – such as the Arts Fund – will be further streamlined and improved.

“I think that our fundamental responsibility as policy administrators at a moment when the world seems to be all over the place, should be to create enough space for the arts to be the haven in the storm, helping people find new ways to explore and understand the pressure and complexities of life – to build community and shared confidence in a better world.”