Off the cultural roundabout - Karsten Xuereb
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Off the cultural roundabout - Karsten Xuereb

Following the Budget for 2018, as was to be expected, most of the preceding and ensuing discussion focused on the situation of our economy, prospects for the coming year, the state of our financial services industry, unions requests, pensions, healthcare and education. A great deal has also been said and written regarding what has been described by our Prime Minister, and repeated since, as our Achilles’ heel, namely our weak infrastructure.

Any familiarity with Greek mythology should remind us that the Athenian champion’s chink in the armour was fatal – let us hope not to be exposed to as much and have our helmet, shield and other prize possessions fought over by others.

In this year of commemorating Ovid’s numerous narrations of metamorphoses, the engorged yet static waters the Maltese cultural scenario seems to be experiencing may provide an interesting setting to get things flowing. As shown again by the latest budget, the finances dedicated to culture, or what is being addressed as culture, have reached a climax in conjunction with the European Capital of Culture year now round the bend, with almost €8 million being dedicated to the Valletta 2018 Foundation alone.

It is a matter of giving credit where it is due when the Ministry of Finance, in tandem with Arts Council Malta, is praised for its constant support of the arts on the principles of making culture and the arts more accessible to people, supporting professionalism in the sector and attempting to make inroads in the international markets through various schemes dedicated to networking and showcasing cultural expression from Malta.

It is also worth noting that the various funding streams managed by the council have not only been conserved but strengthened.

It is maybe not a coincidence that the best work being produced is that which is furthest removed from the centralised control of funding

However, it is not clear where all this is leading to. Like most rainwater that falls on Malta and runs off to the sea, efforts so well defined in the National Cultural Policy (2011) and the Create 2020 Strategy (2015) and the resources mobilised by the government and the private sector over the past years seem to make a quantitative mark, but not enough of a qualitative one.

A regular observation by officials within public cultural organisations, particularly those with their feet on the ground and active in brokerage and hands-on support, is that very little new work of excellent quality is being produced, with the result that while our theatre spaces, TV airtime and showcasing exercises for export are full, innovative and meaningful work that speaks to a contemporary, diverse, Maltese and hence Euro-Mediterranean audience is lacking.

It is maybe not a coincidence that the best work being produced is that which is furthest removed from the centralised control of funding, more free to express and explore tensions in society without the self-censorship structures that, in spite of recent legislation against censorship by the same ministry that is responsible for cultural as well as judicial matters, still subtly exists and channels expression into safe waters.

A Chinese proverb has it that one cannot step into the same river twice, given the inexorable passage of time. The cultural sector in Malta seems to manage this feat, also judging by what Budget 2018 does not address.

While a recurrent vote has been dedicated to support local theatre spaces, still no contemporary performing art space is scheduled, the budgetary increase for MiCAS is minimal, details on the management plan for MUŻA are sparse and more so for the Valletta Design Cluster and a decades-old discussion on the future of the site of the former Royal Opera House and whether to have a roof installed or not defies the passage of time by being one of the main concerns of local authorities.

Rather than laying out the necessary stepping stones to plan for the further contribution of the cultural sector to society at large and the economic sustainability of the island in particular, we seem to be stuck on a circular route. Let us hope this does not lead to our own navels, though indications give one the impression that we’ll be celebrating ourselves, and the best time of our lives, yet again.

Karsten Xuereb is a researcher in cultural policy and relations.

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