Living up to expectations? | Jason Micallef

As chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, Jason Micallef has courted trouble with outspoken views that were ill-suited for his role. But has the V18 boss learnt any lessons from the recent months of public spats?

What do you think was the major achievement of Valletta 2018 so far?

As with any other large project, Valletta 2018 is not about one or two specific achievements. There will be many of them. But if I had to choose our biggest achievement, I would say it is the engagement of the public over the past five years. I am referring to the engagement of the government authorities, general public and the private sector which has transformed Valletta, by stimulating the economic, cultural and social regeneration, from a nearly dying city to a vibrant one. Today Valletta is full of life, cultural events, investment and people having fun. We can finally say that we have a truly European capital.

How would you compare Valletta’s cultural events with those of Leeuwarden?

It would be most unfair of me, being Chairman of Valletta 2018 Foundation, to make this comparison. I think the major difference is that, in our case, it is a huge event of national scale rather than one only for the Valletta community, whereas the events in Leeuwarden are localised. While you may call Valletta 2018 a nation-wide festa happening throughout the year, in Leeuwarden’s case there is a profound disengagement between the region of Friesland and the rest of the Netherlands.

Recently you have been a target of harsh criticism both in Malta and internationally. What do you think is the reason for that?

Well, any public official receives supportive feedback from people who would admire them and their work, but also there will always be criticism. And I think we should accept both. God forbid I did not accept criticism, even though some of the criticism you are referring to has been very unjust. I believe the results of Valletta 2018 Foundation’s work were positive and are for all to see. I am satisfied with my leadership and glad that we’ve been going so strong over the past five years.

With regard to your rather careless political remarks on the Caruana Galizia case…

I refute that there have been any careless remarks from my end. I believe there is a personal agenda against me propelled by a small group of people. This same group of people has been subjecting me to harsh criticism ever since the early 2000s, when I first stepped into the public eye, and there has been no change in their attitude.

The cultural sector where I work believes and celebrates the freedom of expression. And I’ve been saying it all along: God forbid if we try to make rules and regulations on where it starts and ends, and who has the divine right to say whatever they wish and yet you cannot respond to that, because you hold a public office. I hold full responsibility. I’ve never offended anyone – it’s not in my character. So, I would defend anyone’s right to express themselves even if they target me with harsh criticism, but then they would have to accept my response to that. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

I know it was quite a hullabaloo, but the most important is the results of the Valletta 2018, which are positive for Valletta and the rest of the island.

After the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the situation in the country has been tense. The international media turned its eyes to Malta, thus your remark which mocked Caruana Galizia’s last words simply could not go unnoticed…

I wasn’t mocking the words of the late Daphne Caruana Galizia. I am a very passionate person. I am passionate about the work I do and I am very passionate to call myself Maltese. Now I refute this small part of our society coming on the streets with placards calling Malta a mafia state. I will refute that because Malta is no mafia state. So, in my comment I responded to that group of people to point out that there are many people in Malta who are happy. The situation in Malta is happy. Yes, the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was truly horrendous, but that does not mean that Malta is a mafia state.

When I was attending the celebrations on St Patrick’s Day amongst thousands of people, the situation was happy everywhere I looked. So, I simply referred to that same small group of people who a couple of days earlier, during a protest in Valletta, were calling Malta a mafia state. And I believe – I really do – that there is a strong majority who stand against this labelling. We have our misgivings, like any other country, but democracy works here.

Your colleagues in Leeuwarden as well as a few well-known international figures also criticised you. Do you think this cross-border hostility has damaged your role as V18 Chairman?

I believe I would never interfere into any local political issues of any country. It is absolutely inappropriate! Every country has its own political issues. God forbid if we were to intrude and criticise the unfortunate matters that happen in the Netherlands or, say, Britain. So many bad things happen all the time all over the world. Should I, as Valletta 2018 Chairman, comment on something that is happening, for example, in Italy or Spain?

I don’t think that culture should delve into political issues of other countries. It is an intrusion and it does not benefit the collegiality. Bringing different cultures together is, in my opinion, a benefit of holding a European Capital of Culture. Such criticism harms that.

Do you mean that these figures should have refrained from commenting on your remarks?

Personally, I refuse to comment on internal matters of other countries. What they did is up to them. It was their opinion. On the other hand, we have so many strong collaborations with other countries worldwide. For instance, last week we had one of the largest Japanese delegations to ever visit Valletta, thanks to the strong collaboration that we have with Tokyo. These collaboration is benefitting our cultural scene and many artists.

You also received criticism from the Maltese cultural figures. The comments that you left on Mario Vella’s Facebook wall seemed as though you were looking for another trouble. You were meant to say that Valletta 2018 sponsors the Earth Garden, whereas it has been going strong for 10 years. Do you think it is necessary for Chairman of V18 Foundation to pick petty fights?

I have a responsibility to defend the integrity of the Foundation and its team. Mario Vella continuously lambasts Valletta 2018 and calls it whatever name that comes to his mind. He refers to the Valletta 2018 Foundation as dirt and scum. I refute that.

Now, when someone like Mario Vella encourages other artists not to participate in events supported by the Foundation and then does otherwise, that is very hypocritical. So yes, I stand with what I said on his Facebook post, since he took part in the Earth Garden - which was heavily supported by the Foundation for the past three years - while calling for others to boycott V18-sponsored events.

Besides, I’m baffled by Mario’s treatment! Is it OK for him to call me a low-life scum and other dirty words? Nobody reports on that! It’s sad. I’m truly worried about all the hate speech on the social media and some of this hate speech is celebrated in Mario Vella’s Facebook posts. Why don’t you report on that? It’s like he can but I cannot. If I’m subjected to bullying, why can’t I respond to that?

I am all for celebrating the freedom of speech and exchange of opinions – I think it’s healthy – but I think the stuff that Mario Vella writes and says is absolutely bollocks. I believe we need to calm down and open a national dialogue against the hate speech on social media and try to understand each other. It’s getting out of hand, we can’t turn a blind eye to that.

How does this stream of hostility affect Valletta 2018 day-to-day operations?

It absolutely does not affect our day-to-day operations. We have a strong cultural programme and I can’t believe it’s already six months down the line. People come in thousands to our mass events and that’s what matters most.

The Maltese public was looking forward to Valletta 2018. It cultivated high expectations. However, many pointed out that some of the V18 activities like Malta Green Festival, Malta Fashion week and Valletta Film Festival had been established prior to 2018, which gives an impressing that V18 is a mere stamp on existing events. Do you think Valletta 2018 is living up to the expectations it cultivated?

Valletta 2018 did not commence in 2018. We’ve got the title in late 2012 and the official confirmation came around March-April 2013. We immediately began building a solid structure, set the foundation, the board of governance, started engaging our human resource and started planning. We wanted to give Valletta the events which never existed and to further support the existing ones. We involved the fellow organisations like the Arts Council Malta. And although we decided to support such events as Notte Bianca, Malta Jazz Festival, the Malta International Arts festival, we also gradually introduced other activities so that the programme would culminate in 2018. Take Valletta Pageant of the Seas – it’s a huge spectacle of an international dimension.

Therefore, Valletta 2018 has been gaining momentum for the past few years. The success of the events was brought by the experience that we gained in the previous three-four years.

Do you think that the European Capital of Culture is more about bolstering tourism in and improving visibility of European cities rather than a space for high culture? To which extent is ECOC about economic stimulation and investment and to which – about culture?

I think the Maltese creative industry has benefitted enormously from hosting the European Capital of Culture. It’s getting bigger by the month. Whereas a couple of years ago there were around 8,000 people working in the creative sector, by the first quarter of this year their number reached 12,000. It has happened because we invested – I refuse to say “spent” – in the creative industry, which is the fastest-growing industry in Malta. Valletta 2018 is not Jason Micallef. We’ve achieved this together with Arts Council Malta, Spazju Kreattiv, Teatru Manoel and the newly formed organisations like Cinemalta and Teatru Malta. The change that this heavily publicly funded initiative has brought to the cultural sector is unprecedented.

It’s no coincidence that incoming tourism is also on the increase. So many people are asking about Valletta; their desire to come to Valletta and stay here has never been as prominent as it is today. So yes, I agree with you that tourism has been given a huge boost. We have been promoting Valletta 2018 with the Tourism Authority for the past two and a half years.

Also, Valletta attracted private investment. Old dwellings and palazzos are being turned into boutique hotels. We have increased accommodation in Valletta - we now have thirty one fully operational exquisite boutique hotel in Valletta.

Frankly, proliferation of boutique hotels rather concerns me. Their presence makes living in Valletta more expensive, the city is becoming a place for the rich. And it also might turn into one lifeless tourist accommodation. Doesn’t it concern you?

Of course it does. We need to find a proper balance. A few years ago we had a dying capital city. We wanted to restore faith in Valletta which was absent 10-15 years ago. There was a stigma against Valletta. That was the first step – to get Valletta on the level of a European capital with huge investment, local and foreign.

The next step is to ensure that the Valletta community keeps living in Valletta and increase the population of Valletta as much as possible. Now, it’s not easy. What we have in mind is the second regeneration happening from the end of the year and throughout the next two and a half years. The government has reserved 30 million of public funds which will be invested in the lower parts of Valletta where the heart of the community lives. We will have new waterfront, restoration works on the social housing estates, restoration of Auberge de Bavière, which hosts the Lands Authority, restoration of the primary school. We have plans to create the first day care centre in Valletta for the aging population. That is a promise and the works will start as soon as Valletta 2018 is over.

RG. What is the future of Valletta 2018? Do you think it has succeeded to become a catalyst for the Maltese arts?

I think it still is premature to talk about this. We will look into it closer when we wrap up in March next year. However, we are planning to ensure that the legacy of V18 carries on. The government, the Ministry of Culture and the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Valletta 2018 have reached an agreement on a new structure responsible for keeping the legacy alive. So this summer we will introduce the first Valletta Culture Agency which will be a curator of the cultural events in the city.

What was your most rewarding moment as Chairman of Valletta 2018 Foundation? What was the least rewarding one?

It’s a tough question. There have been so many events, so there is no one most rewarding thing or the least rewarding one. I think that the most rewarding is the public engagement, the interest of the audience. The number of people attending cultural events has increased – I am so pleased with that. The least rewarding – I don’t know. I don’t think I ever sat down and though “this must be the least rewarding occasion during my years as Chairman”. Maybe I’ll reply to this question by the end of the year.