Published on Wednesday 14 December 2022

Malta’s first national symposium on the arts, held in late October, marked a unique opportunity for Malta’s artistic sector to reflect upon its development over the past years and look towards the future.

Titled State of the Arts – Malta National Symposium, the two-day meeting brought some of the most prominent voices in Malta’s cultural sphere together in vigorous debate about some of the key challenges that the sector faces. Coming on the heels of the launch of Strategy 2025, the symposium highlighted three of the key themes that lie at the heart of the strategy – the status of the artist; sustainable development and the arts; and cultural rights.

Following a stirring opening talk by motivational speaker Simon Alexander Ong, a bustling Valletta Campus Theatre was introduced to Sara Whyatt, a human rights activist whose keynote speech focused on the first of the symposium’s key themes, namely the status of the artist. Whyatt spoke about the precarious state of artistic freedom around the world highlighting how, despite the legislative changes that have taken place over the years, there still exist cases where artists face the threat of exclusion, marginalization and (in some cases) imprisonment or physical danger as a result of their work. Whyatt urged artists and private cultural organisations to collectively advocate for artistic freedom and to ensure that public bodies adopt an arm’s length policy in public arts funding.

The status of the artist in today’s cultural sector was also the topic of the panel discussion that followed Whyatt’s intervention. A key point that emerged throughout this discussion was the need for a more nuanced distinction between professional and amateur artists, so as for both to receive the necessary economic, social and logistical support that will enable them to flourish. Furthermore, there needs to be a more collaborative – and less competitive – relationship between independent artists and public bodies, whereby the two sides hold constructive discussions on strengthening the sector’s core infrastructure and regulatory framework. The panel was composed of representatives from the Malta Producers’ Association (Charlie Cauchi), MEIA (Howard Keith Debono), and Art Workers Italia (Amos Cappuccio), as well as Maryana Golovchenko, an independent Ukrainian musician.

The relationship between sustainability and the arts was under the spotlight in a keynote address delivered by Shain Shapiro, founder of Sound Diplomacy and Executive Director of the Centre for Music Ecoystems. Shapiro highlighted how sustainability and resilience are ensured through evidence-based decision making, whereby the rights of people working within the sector are protected and where transparency in communicating challenges and mistakes is at the forefront. Emphasising the need for long-term strategic planning, Shapiro argued that we must not use ephemeral solutions to try solve permanent problems. By being honest and open about our difficulties, we can collectively address our challenges and build a more sustainable cultural sector.

A subsequent panel discussion reiterated these points, with one panel member (Anita McKeown, an artist and educator at University College Dubin) arguing that if we aspire for a truly sustainable cultural sector, we need to place greater focus on restorative and regenerative development whereby excessive consumption is reduced. Other panel members included Petya Koleva (founder of Intercultura Consult), Jonas Büchel (co-founder of the Urban Institute in Riga) and Karsten Xuereb (researcher in cultural relations).

The third and final keynote delivered by Dr Milena Dragicevic Sesic, Head of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy and Management, addressed how cultural rights are of relevance in contemporary contexts. Dr Dragicevic Sesic referred to Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” whereby theatre is for everyone, and that every human being becomes an artist, due to the transformative and democratic potential of theatre, as participatory and cooperative forms of interactions take place. Ur was agrued that, this illustrates how culture and art are then essential qualities and fundamental to human rights. Creating cultural sustainability, therefore, requires developing the need to protect these rights. Dr Dragicevic Sesic referred to forms of censorship that are still present and hinder freedom of artistic expression such as financial censorship and criticsed profit-driven policies that overlook the ethical aspects of cultural policies. It was concluded that in the end culture becomes sustainable as a right once it is available to everyone equally and when policies are developed and implemented with the multiple realties of all communities in mind.

A panel discussion followed, during which the overarching theme that stood out was that cultural rights are not a ‘one size fits all’. A central argument was that cultural rights are inherent to being human and this entails a nuanced understanding of what culture means in relation to forms of expressions, how accessibility determines rights to culture and the roles of education and language as both tools for exclusion and inclusion. The panel consisted of of Dr Desiree Attard (legal advisor specialising in human rights and equality), Dr Jo Butterworth (professior in dance studies), Dr Georgina Portelli (specialist in concept formation, language representation and multilingualism) and Dr Antonio Cuyler (Professor in Music, Entrepreneurship and Leadership at the University of Michigan).

The Symposium also consisted of parallel workshops addressing wellbeing, education, entrepreneurship, employment, access to resources and internationalisation in relation to the arts. During these workshops participants actively interacted with workshop leaders to critically discuss practices, trends and challenges that pertain to these facets of artistic activity. On the final day a World Cafe took place with 12 thematic parallel tables linked to Sustainable Development Goals that have been linked to the arts and culture during which participants assessed and proposed ideas that can be recommened for strategy and policy development and implementation so as to improve the state of the arts and cultural sectors in Malta.