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Valletta... the small city with very big ambitions

Valletta from the air. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Valletta from the air. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Valletta is a candidate to be European Capital of Culture in 2018, but in truth, it is only competing against itself. Still, it is taking the contest very seriously. David Felice, chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, tells Fiona Galea Debono what the country stands to gain.

Valletta 2018 Foundation chairman David Felice says Malta could “get away with” the Capital of Culture project, but it has chosen to “go for it”. Photo: Matthew MirabelliValletta 2018 Foundation chairman David Felice says Malta could “get away with” the Capital of Culture project, but it has chosen to “go for it”. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

A museum of contemporary art, a national theatre and an architecture centre could be up and running in six years’ time, thanks to the European Capital of Culture 2018.

In times like these, we could be really scared of recession. Instead, we are saying it could be a really interesting opportunity for small business

Valletta is lacking and needs all three, which could be one of the offshoot benefits of the Capital of Culture project, which many may know of... but may not know much about.

If Valletta – and all Malta really, as the 68 local councils are involved – secure the title in October, one of the first jobs would be to get the island’s infrastructure sorted, said architect David Felice, chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation that was set up last year.

“If we want to have a great, international-standard exhibition in 2018, there is nowhere to put it,” he said, adding that there is “so much infrastructure out there – not in Valletta, which has limitations as to what it can contain”.

Mr Felice was referring to theatres in schools and old cinemas, most of which have clear ownership, sound structures and even amazing retro furniture.

Building a new small theatre could cost €10 million, but refurbishing an existing one could be done at a 10th of the price, he said.

“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel; the National Cultural Policy clearly identifies these three fundamental projects and we will use 2018 to reach these targets.

“We need to be sure they will be there by then,” Mr Felice said.

He first got involved in the Capital of Culture project in 2009, and it did cross his mind that this was “just one of those boxes you have to tick as a member of the EU”.

In the early meetings he had with Brussels, he was told Malta could actually “get away with” organising a few events on a reduced budget.

But instead, Malta decided to “go for it”, following the examples of those that used the Capital of Culture scheme to revolutionise and transform their cities, including Glasgow in 1990, which recognised the opportunity of turning it into a regeneration project.

“It could be a big fuss for nothing,” Mr Felice admitted. Ultimately, it would be what Malta decided to make out of it.

And the Maltese have decided to inject their trademark sense of pride.

Despite the almost innate polarisation, even political consensus was immediately secured and a charter signed by 68 local councils in a mere 10 days.

Although Valletta carries the title, the councils agreed to collaborate so the impact would be on the whole territory and events would be spread out.

Malta may be moving ahead in the bid to be European Capital of Culture in six years’ time, but in reality, the title is a “right”.

Contrary to common knowledge, it is not won.

A roster has been established and member states are allocated a year to host the Capital of Culture. In 2018, it is Malta and Holland.

That is not to say that certain criteria must not be met, and in January Malta was shortlisted, so to speak, surpassing the main hurdle.

The national government is meant to organise a competition between cities to win the title, but Malta’s local councils have joined forces instead.

Even then, it is still not a large Capital of Culture – Marseille felt it was too small and brought in all of Provence for 2013.

Due to its limited dimensions, Malta managed to design its particular bid to suit the EU’s one-size-fits-all model.

Valletta is effectively competing with itself.

Nevertheless, nothing is ob­­vious and it still has to go through the whole pro­cess and be a valid project, Mr Felice said.

People may be aware of the work towards 2018, but they may not know what they can make out of it.

Mr Felice sees it as an opportunity: “It will be successful if it is inclusive and if there is wide ownership.”

The foundation has been strategic in that, bringing on board anyone who could have generated negative criticism.

It even has its seat in the appropriately named Exchange Buildings – the project’s working title is An Environment for Exchange – in the heart of the future Culture Capital.

The idea is to break barriers with the business community and bridge the gap between commerce and culture.

Although Mr Felice has learnt it is not about the money, he cannot ignore that, based on other cities’ experiences, the estimated cost of Capital of Culture is €48 million.

It may be a lot of money, but on analysis, only €20 million would be additional government funding between 2013 and 2019, above the current funding for culture.

The average spend on Capital of Culture projects is €55 million, with a third from central government, another third from local councils and the rest through other sources, such as sponsorship and merchandising.

“In times like these, we could be really scared of recession,” he said.

“Instead, we are saying it could be a really interesting opportunity for small business. Funding for culture has been increasing, but we need to convince government that it is a priority; that culture is about the evolution of a creative economy, which is still weakly structured here; that it is also about jobs.

“You may be investing €20 million, but what you can create is enormous if we do it right,” Mr Felice maintained.

A negative reaction to the cost would not surprise him, but he believes an additional €20 million over a six-year period is “realistic”.

Among the benefits, 2018 is a “marker” and “everyone knows that things have to be in place by then”.

That is a good thing, as culture is a sector that does not have a strong track record in governance.

As regards the programme, it is “work in progress” – which is not surprising, considering the event first started to be looked into nine years in advance and is still six years away.

But for the foundation, 2018 is really close.

Malta was meant to go through the selection process next year, but there was so much enthusiasm this was brought forward.

The development of the culture programme has a very bottom-up approach and the foundation has issued a call for ideas (the proposal form can be accessed from www.valletta2018.org), while the second Imagine 18 conference is being held in the coming days to create a space for the exchange of ideas.

What is certain is that in 2018, cultural events – ranging from performances to debating societies – will be held every day, and that Capital of Culture is about the cutting edge – not re-enactments.

It is not about celebrating cultural heritage, but about embracing contemporary works.

For Mr Felice, it would be great if after 2018, there is a positive environment for those who want to seek opportunities in arts and culture, access for artists and a new audience.

“Things have grown considerably, but we have an opportunity to move to the next level.”

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