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Watch: Arts Council chairman 'overreacted' about Venice Biennale - minister

Malta to stay in Biennale

Video: Jonathan Borg

Updated at 1.50pm

Culture Minister Owen Bonnici has said Arts Council chairman Albert Marshall’s “overreacted” when he threatened to withdraw Malta from the Venice Biennale.

Dr Bonnici went on to assure artists that Malta would continue to participate in the prestigious contemporary arts exhibition, amid controversy over the selection process for next year’s event.

“Albert Marshall is one of the leading artists in Malta. I know he was a bit offended with how things were being thrown at him in the papers and he might have overreacted,” Dr Bonnici told the Times of Malta.

Albert MarshallAlbert Marshall

“I have spoken with Albert and he has assured me he will do his best to keep Malta's participation in the Venice Biennale going. I pride myself that, under this administration, Malta returned to the Biennale after an absence of 17 years, and I can assure everyone that we will keep participating.” Instead of one public and open selection process, there were two, and still we get criticised

Times of Malta reported last week that Mr Marshall had vetoed the decision of an international evaluation panel tasked with picking the curatorial team for the Malta Pavilion at the Biennale, and then replaced the panel with a new one, which instead selected the candidate he had favoured.

The Arts Council announced on Thursday that curator Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej, artists Vince Briffa, Klitsa Antoniou and Trevor Borg, and architect Matthew Joseph Casha had been chosen as the winning team with their project “Maleth / Haven / Port - Heterotopias of Evocation”.

Times of Malta is reliably informed that this was not the project chosen by the first jury.

Asked whether there would be an investigation into the process, Dr Bonnici stood by the explanation given by the Arts Council that the first panel was disbanded following a “stalemate” between the three top-ranked projects.

“Sometimes the government gets criticised when it makes direct appointments,” Dr Bonnici said.

“In this case, instead of one public and open selection process, there were two, and still we get criticised. “I think the fact that there were not one but two selection processes shows that everything was done in the best way in terms of good governance.”

Pressed further on the fact that the made no mention of a second selection panel, he insisted repeatedly that he was not informed of any irregularities.
“What I was told, and I have no reason to doubt Mr Marshall, is that the three top bids were so close that they needed a fresh team to decide between them. I can understand that some people were disappointed because they were not chosen, but unfortunately the Arts Council can only choose one.”

A jury tasked with choosing the selected Maltese representative of the Venice Biennale was disbanded following a "stalemate" between the panel of judges, the Arts Council insisted, while announcing Maleth / Haven / Port - Heterotopias of Evocation as the winner.

The Arts Council confirmed revelations by Times of Malta that the first jury was disbanded and another was set up. However, it denied any irregularities and insisted that the “stalemate” within the first jury was enough to warrant a new jury.

It said the first jury was disbanded after “opinions differed as to which proposal should represent Malta at Biennale di Venezia in 2019”.

“A new board was set up to give a fresh outlook on the matter and to further evaluate the top three ranking proposals,” the council said.

The top three offers were then asked to discuss their proposals in light of “their knowledge and experience of government procurement procedures” as well as their artistic track records.

The evaluation board “unanimously” agreed that Maleth was the best project to represent Malta at the Venice Biennale in 2019, the Arts Council said. The decision was based on various factors, including coherence, clarity and relevance to the contemporary art scene in Malta.

Setting Malta - Maleth - at the centre of its theme, the project focuses on the role of the island as cultural centre of the Mediterranean Sea, both in history and in current times, according to the council.

The project seeks to present an exhibit which invites the audience to reflect on their own lifetime journey of self-discovery, their own search for a personal haven or port.

“The budget is realistic and reasonable and it is the best value-for-money project, while the other two top-ranking projects exceeded the set budget considerably,” the Arts Council said.

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