Published on Monday 6 February 2023

October 2022 saw Malta’s first national symposium dedicated to the artistic and creative industries, State of the Arts.

Organised by Arts Council Malta, the symposium gathered together artists, practitioners, policy makers and creatives, offering a platform for discussion and debate on the trends, challenges and opportunities of the artistic sectors in Malta and the international contexts that shape their dynamics.

The programme included a number of keynotes, panel discussions, workshops and networking opportunities, engaging international and locally-based speakers and practitioners with experience and expertise in the topics discussed. The two-day event saw enthusiastic attendees exchanging knowledge on the ever-changing characteristics that make up the artistic sectors.

One of the objectives of the symposium was to collectively explore future directions for the sectors in the face of global challenges, while considering the connections between art and social wellbeing.

To help fulfil this objective, Arts Council Malta implemented a documentation exercise reporting all outcomes emerging from all panel sessions and workshop discussions. These outcomes will help inform the shaping of future strategies and guiding principles revolving around the overarching themes of cultural rights, the place of the arts within sustainable development and the status of the artist.

Protection of artistic freedoms

The first part of the Symposium discussed the status of artist rights and freedoms from both an international and a local perspective. It was noted that global statistics from the 2021 Freemuse report revealed a worrying picture of artists at risk.

Participants in the first panel highlighted how a number of countries in Europe still have active legislation that places consequences on artists for speaking out against authorities. As a result, censorship of the arts in these countries remains a problem, especially when artistic content is perceived to be at odds with ideologies of the state. Artists within minority groups face the biggest challenge in this respect.

On a local level, reference was made to the importance of artists and cultural organisations working together to monitor attacks on artistic freedom, while collaborating with other local and regional networks to share experiences and ideas for action. Such collaborations should extend to regional and international groups focusing on freedom of expression and human rights groups, with the objective of further informing, monitoring and advocating for artistic freedom.

Media and education were identified as two pillars that have a strong role to play in combating the violation of artistic rights. Working with the media can encourage better coverage of any violation of freedoms, while raising awareness about the importance of such freedoms among the public.

As a result of these observations, a number of recommendations were made to all stakeholders having a role in protecting artistic freedoms, such as entities and individuals responsible for structuring grants and funding. These include setting up funding not only for the arts, but also for cultural and advocacy organisations. Emphasises were laid on the fact that funds and grants need to be awarded following the principles of ‘arm’s length’, without any undue influence exerted on policy-making, artistic recruitment and financial support measures.

Participants quoted the need to remove any legislation that impacts freedom of expression, referring to the now-defunct blasphemy laws, as well as criminal defamation (especially of state leaders and authority figures), as an example. In parallel, specific laws to protect artistic freedoms, including the rights to fair pay and working conditions and collective action by artists, should be enacted.

Within the operational context of the state, Symposium participants called for transparency in government funding and awards, and the establishment of independent bodies that receive complaints and can independently monitor and investigate violations of artistic freedom.

As part of the concluding remarks, the first panel agreed that fostering a spirit of collaboration with government and authorities would have a more positive impact and standpoint.

Ensuring sustainability in the arts

The second panel discussed the significance of sustainability within the context of the arts, noting that this encompasses an entire ecosystem that needs to operate efficiently without leaving a negative impact. Sustaining the artist is also an integral part of sustainable development of the cultural industries, as without the artists themselves there will be no industries to sustain.

The importance of implementing evidence-based policies was highlighted, with festivals being hailed as a proven way for how we can move forward in a sustainable manner. However, it was emphasised that the organisation of events in itself does not represent a permanent solution, as their very nature is ephemeral rather than permanent. More, focus needs to be placed on mapping economic and social values to make informed decisions leading to sustainable, resilient policies.

Creating a future economy for generations to come was identified as another vital aspect of sustainability, facilitating the creation of new opportunities. This will be successful within the context of creating culture that benefits everyone and embellishes future generations.

Moreover, a better understanding need to be developed whereby investing in culture means investing in an ecosystem that promotes the wellbeing of an entire society. Music therapy, and the ways it can be used to improve the quality of life of the elderly, those living with dementia and certain patients, was used as an example of the way that cultural investment benefits the community as a whole.

The right to culture and accessibility

The third panel discussed cultural rights and the wider context in which they may be implemented. A global trend was identified, whereby value is given to financial success rather than the right to participate in artistic expression. This value system has resulted in a skewed preference for culture that is expressed in the English language alone, leading to a less-than-healthy eco-system that lacks representation of different cultures and genres.

For culture to be truly accessible to all communities, it is essential to move away from this trend. Authorities need to acknowledge and embrace that language is at the basis of cultural rights and can be used as a gatekeeper to political knowledge and a tool for exclusion, thus impacting the right to culture.

With this in mind, the right to culture should be interpreted in its widest sense, as it relates to all forms of self-expression and includes accessibility and participation as its two corollaries. The panel observed that human rights and the right to culture are intertwined, and that one cannot talk of cultural rights without also protecting human rights in their widest form.

Finally, the right to culture pertains to all communities and ethnic groups, so it is imperative that when discussing accessibility this means making culture equally available to everyone. Cultural policies need to be actively informed by this guiding principle. When this uniform accessibility is achieved than one can truly talk about culture becoming sustainable.

Access to resources, professionalisation, internationalisation and entrepreneurship

In addition to the panels, the State of the Arts symposium also hosted a number of workshops dealing with different themes that ranged from access to resources to well-being, education and development, professionalisation, internationalisation and entrepreneurship.

Access to resources -  A range of tools are available to those considering artistic practice. These include financial, social, educational and infrastructural resources. The main challenges here are to help emerging artists overcome the initial hurdle of approaching networks. An over-dependence on public funding was identified, together with weak links between academia and the industry. Policymakers need to take an active role in facilitating access to these resources while maintaining a decentralised approach.

Well-being in artistic practice - This is an area that, if prioritised, can result in more energy to be dedicated to the creative process. Artists are encouraged to reflect on their life in a holistic manner while being honest with themselves regarding areas that require improvement. Achieving self-awareness will help artists create strategies that help them find out what methodologies work best for them.

Education and professional development - There is a need for more opportunities for specialised training in the arts. The challenges are attributable to policy but also to the geographical limitations of Malta. It is still a reality that many artists work in the arts as a secondary job, a decision that limits the potential for further professional development.

Arts Council Malta does provide opportunities for professional development, and this responsibility also lies within the Ministry for Education to ensure that more resources are allocated, mentorships are instituted and access to international tutorship is facilitated. It was noted that most students have minimal exposure to arts within the general curriculum framework, with schools focusing on numeracy and literacy areas of study rather than arts and creativity. More investment is required for The Malta Visual and Performing Arts School, which is the main public school in Malta that focuses on the arts.

Internationalisation - Given our geographical constraints, it is vital to place this at the centre of Malta’s cultural policy. There is a need for a stronger legal and financial infrastructure to facilitate international cooperation, thus alleviating the burdens to access international networks.

Arts Council Malta is well-placed to facilitate international cooperation via diverse funding models, networking opportunities, export research, toolkits and training.

Professionalisation - It was noted that being employed in the arts is a challenging endeavour, with artists facing atypical working conditions that can be characterised by flexibility, but also by the prevalence of short-term projects. The industry has, however, managed to foster a strong sense of community, providing opportunities for collaborations, favourable fiscal incentives and high transferability of skills. On the other hand, negative conditions include limited audiences, budgets, lack of collective action, lack of support from the private sector and the expectation of multi-tasking leading to burnouts.

Entrepreneurship - The development of skills is crucial to the success of an entrepreneur in the creative sectors; this must be underpinned by a coherent vision. It is vital for artists embarking on a professional project to acquire ancillary skills that are necessary for the success of any business. These include project management, a degree of financial prowess, risk assessment, digital skills and leadership skills. As with every other business endeavour, the ability to network and to build trusted relationships is also of the essence.

Conclusions and Learnings

To conclude, the State of the Arts Symposium spurred a much-needed conversation between artists, practitioners and the country’s cultural stakeholders. The documented outcomes of the symposium will form part of the continuing journey spearheaded by Arts Council Malta towards fulfilling the goals and objectives of the Strategy 2025 while strengthening the cultural and creative industries.

ACM would like to thank all Symposium speakers, workshop leaders and participants for their contribution to these outcomes as well as the rapporteurs for documenting the discussions:  Sean Borg, Mark Cachia, Christa Callus, Daniel Darmanin, Michael Farrugia, Althea Valletta Troisi and Francesca Zammit.