The Malta Arts Festival is a key element of our cultural expression, says artistic director Mario Frendo.
What is your responsibility at the Malta Arts Festival?
As the artistic director of the Malta Arts Festival, my most obvious task is putting together a programme of events. However, this is only a small percentage of my role. The most important aspect is the vision and direction that the festival is given, as this determines the choice of events and artists. It is also about networking and establishing contacts on a national and international level.
What is the main aim of the Malta Arts Festival?
The Malta Arts Festival aims to serve as a platform for the arts in Malta, bringing together artists from different cultures to collaborate and perform together. This coming together of cultures mirrors the dimension of convergence that our country possesses because of its geographical position at the heart of the Mediterranean.
The Malta Arts Festival is the only one of its kind in Malta and draws on an authentic European activity with roots reaching as far back as Ancient Greece, where festivals developed out of more primitive ritualistic activity. All European countries organise successful festivals, which are considered as a key element of cultural expression in Europe. Therefore, one other important aim is that the Malta Arts Festival promotes Malta as a centre of cultural excellence.
I am proud to say that our festival is already considered by international media as a major one in Europe. Furthermore, this month the Malta Arts Festival has been accepted as a member of the prestigious European Festival Association, a European network of festivals that includes important festivals like Lucerne, Bergen, Edinburgh and Aix en Provence. This acceptance is of huge importance for us and further acknowledges that the Malta Arts Festival has been seriously gaining currency over the past years, and more importantly, it continues to locate our country as an artistic hub.
18 days of events must involve huge logistical efforts. When do preparations for the Malta Arts Festival start and what do they involve?
Since 2006, when together with Davinia Galea, who is today the Executive Director of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, we started the first edition, the Festival has been a continuous flux of activity that has no break throughout the year. Every edition leads to the next, and most contacts for a particular edition are made more than one year ahead.
The logistical efforts are huge, also due to the fact that the festival has no venue assigned to it. Most events are organised outdoors and the whole setup has to be constructed for particular events. This is usually done in cutthroat time frames which might include gaps shorter than 24-hours in between one performance and the other. This cannot be done without a good team of people working together and coordinating the various departments including marketing, hospitality, branding and designs, website, tickets sales, translations, bookings of flights and lodgings and much more.
This is the seventh edition of the Malta Arts Festival – how has the festival developed along the years?
The festival has grown considerably – this is most evident in the programming which has been, since the first edition, shifting from regional to international standards. This was always on my agenda as artistic director. What determines regional from international programming is, amongst other things, the stature of the performers, the acts they perform, and the way the programme aims at developing its audiences.
Artists of repute are crucial in establishing an international image while artists who return give a boost and an edge to the festival’s image. It has always been our main prerogative to establish relationships with artists. I believe that part of the success of the Malta Arts Festival is that important performers, Maltese and foreign, keep returning to the festival. This strategy helped us to give a stamp of quality to the Malta Arts Festival.
Priorities, of course, have shifted since we started in 2006. Objectively, a main cultural target for Malta is the 2018 European Capital of Culture. All stakeholders in arts and culture ought to prioritise this extremely important event. Since last year, the Malta Arts Festival is being framed around this important reality. We are deliberately transforming our programming in order to help devising an ECoC infrastructure for our country.
How has the audience reacted along the years?
Generally audiences have always reacted positively to the festival. Every year we offer fresh and quality performances – we avoid formulas and aim not to play safe. We want to challenge our audiences and ourselves with the way we reach our audiences. After all, in art, it is anathema to play safe. Audiences want new and good material. That is what we aim at proposing to them.
This is an attitude which is in itself creative and aims at approaching industries in a creative manner. In my view, in order to make the industries creative, the arts should lead through innovation and motivation, rather than follow given patterns.
Audience numbers are positive and grow constantly every year. However, as a country, we still tend to push more the big in size rather than the big in quality. We need to establish a better balance between these two aspects. It is only then that we can have a justified map of audiences and their numbers.
What are the highlights of this year’s edition?
I obviously consider all events in the festival as equally important. For me there are no highlights, although I can outline some important developments including the special focus we are giving to workshops and seminars this year. Theatre Week during the first week of the festival is a series of workshops, demonstrations, and a symposium intended to engage more directly the general public in discussing culture and the arts.
In my opinion a good way to get more involved in the arts is by welcoming the fact that like any other activity the arts involve discipline and rigour. There are processes that one needs to go through in order to penetrate more fully the amazing dimension of the arts. Acknowledging this would help to avoid the misconception of elitism in the arts. The arts are accessible because it is in their nature to be so, not because they are easy to create. The workshop initiative in this year’s festival is an initial step towards a territory we plan to develop further in the coming editions.
What are the main happening places during the festival?
Every year we explore different venues. Being a summer season festival, most events are held outdoors. However, for aesthetic and practical purposes we also need to use indoor venues. Valletta remains the area with the biggest concentration of events, but this year we are also programming performances in Birgu, Mdina, Floriana and St Julians.