Published on Monday 31 January 2022

A Head of Strategy at Arts Council Malta, Adrian Debattista is responsible for the implementation and monitoring of Arts Council Malta’s strategy through the design, management and evaluation of strategic plans and frameworks supporting Malta’s cultural and creative sectors. As an integral part of the Funding and Strategy Directorate, his decisive role entails heading the strategy team who manage the strategic initiatives and schemes falling under research, community cultural exchange, internationalisation, education, training, cultural entrepreneurship, development and creative economy. He talks with Kevin Saliba about his academic background in economics, his fascination with Hip Hop subculture, transnational cultural policy, and the necessity of abstractions.

I’ve often heard it said that all roads lead to Rome. It may sound cliché, but at times it is also very true, especially with regard to the individual career paths of Malta Arts Council’s Funding and Strategy Directorate team members. Adrian Debattista’s academic and professional route is no exception. “Notwithstanding my interest in culture and the arts, my first main specialization was in economics. See, economics is arguably a social science. It’s not only about studying finance and fiscal policy and what have you as most people think,” he told me a bit defensively. “It is also ostensibly about human relations and allocation of resources. Nonetheless, career prospects in economics tend to be quite limited, unless you want to specialize further in statistics and data analysis. Things might get boring in the long run. Thankfully, back then I had other interests, mainly the local music scene,” he adds.

Debattista is certainly not your typical economist. For starters, he’s a Hip Hop aficionado. “In my early teens I engaged in the local Hip Hop scene and later in our music scene in general, specifically in what many call the alternative scene. It wasn’t only about the music perse, especially when it came to Hip Hop. Truth be told, I was always fascinated with its subcultural dynamics: graffiti, DJing, tribal elements, explicit social roles. While also performing live, eventually I got involved – both before and while earning a living in the banking sector, mind you – in a few NGOs related to culture and social causes. Little I knew perhaps that they would define my future,” he explains.

After reading commerce and economics, Debattista completed with distinction a master’s degree in Cultural Management at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh where he focused his dissertation on the practices of live music promoters in Malta. He then furthered his digital marketing skills by attaining a professional diploma while also acquiring a PRINCE2 project management certification. Once more at Queen Margaret University, he is currently reading a PhD in Cultural Policy with a focus on Malta’s independent music scene. Meanwhile, he is representing Arts Council Malta – as an Expert Author, Board Member and Vice-Chair – at the Bonn based transnational association for the Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends.

The last one in particular got me curious. “The Compendium seeks to generate and review policy standards in areas of concern to governments and society, by providing knowledge, statistics, comparisons, resources, thematic sections and more,” he explains. “The country profiles contain information on the historical development, present structure, financial aspects, specific sectors and ongoing debates in national cultural policies. The information presented is derived from research studies, governmental documents and reports by ministers and other key representatives, reports or manifestos of lobby and advocacy groups, important statements from artists and cultural producers, from political campaigns or the media,” he clarifies. Debattista’s ongoing work with his German counterparts has inarguably provided him with vital insights for his key positions at Art Council Malta. As a Research Associate, he managed the Council’s research programme through qualitative and quantitative methods to conduct and commission evaluations and research regarding the Council’s initiatives and funding programmes, thus providing information and analysis for cultural policy decision-makers. He also assisted creative and cultural practitioners in managing artistic practice-based research projects by managing the Council’s former Research Support Grant. Amongst his manifold notable accomplishments, he supervised Malta’s first ever cultural participation survey and co-authored the most recent National Cultural Policy document.

As a recently appointed Head of Strategy at the Funding and Strategy Directorate, Debattista is responsible for the implementation and monitoring of the Council’s Strategy through the design, management and evaluation of strategic plans and frameworks supporting Malta’s cultural and creative sectors. He currently heads the strategy team managing the speċifiċi strategic initiatives and programmes outlined in the recently launched Strategy 2025 public consultation draft document, namely research, internationalisation, community cultural exchange, education, training and cultural entrepreneurship. He also contributes towards leading the development of partnerships and collaborations with stakeholders from the public, private and third sectors to further strengthen Malta’s creative ecology.

Compendiums. National Cultural Policies. A cultural rights manifesto. Two strategies on the trot. Dear me! I dare tell him that creatives often complain they feel lost in all these hypothetical blueprints. Others then often fret about the lack of tangible results. “Being a creative myself, I understand where they are coming from. But there’s a lot of discernible transitioning going on right now. As a nation we never really had an enlightenment period so to speak, so some things are still being tested. I’m aware that we tend to look at things from a utilitarian perspective, but this might prove counterproductive at times. Ultimately you will always need a philosophy – something substantial on paper to measure yourself against. Concrete results also depend, if you will, on the abstract. Short-term fixes won’t do the trick,” warns Debattista.

The abstract and the concrete... For a moment I’m reminded of Marx’s Das Kapital and its aftermath. But having worn and juggled with both hats myself, I can’t help giving him the benefit of the doubt.