Valletta: Small city, big dreams

 Valletta - A difference of night and day. Spot the differences between 10pm and noon.

Valletta – A difference of night and day. Spot the differences between 10pm and noon.

Valletta, Malta, will be the European Capital of Culture in 2018. With only 7000 inhabitants, it’s a small city that dreams big. But why are they excluding figures in the Maltese cultural scene from their plans?

Valletta 2018 Foundation The main plan of the Valetta foundation is engaging young generations by giving art more attention in schools, setting up international networks to create more jobs and other opportunities for cultural professionals and – last but not least – redeveloping parts of Valletta and investing in culture to make the city more appealing to locals and tourists.

Let’s take a closer look at Valletta as it stands at the moment. One of the first comments you hear about the city by locals is quite worrying: “In the 80s everybody used to go to Valletta, where nightlife was booming, but now it’s so quiet in the evenings that nobody wants to visit the city,” sighs Tiziana Camilleri. She is right. Wandering around the city at ten o’clock in the evening leaves you with a feeling of isolation. The streets are deserted, with the exception of a few drunken English tourists trying to find their way back to the hotel. A square where during the day little stalls selling henna tattoos and cheap souvenirs had set up shop is suddenly completely deserted. Often we expect capitals to be buzzing with activity twenty-four hours a day, but this is definitely not the case when it comes to Valletta.

The mayor

Alexiei Dingl, the mayor of Valletta and board member of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, is sitting in his office. It’s a small room at the back of the local council building that can only be reached by a seemingly hidden entrance guarded by two massive velvet curtains. Dingl is more than happy to share his vision about Valletta. “Unfortunately there are many people who claim Valletta is dead at night. What they don’t see is all the cultural activity that goes on behind closed doors,” he says. “The theatres offer shows, but you have to go inside to experience art.”

However, a city with empty streets is simply not inviting. “That’s why I have many plans to bring culture alive in the evenings. At the moment we are thinking about developing an open-air opera in the centre of Valletta. We are also thinking of organising a summer carnival on the water, big floats on boats with music- which will be great for both locals, tourists and will create work opportunities as well,” responds Dingl.

The outcast

Cue Chris Gatt, creative director of the St. James de Cavalier Centre. St. James is one of the prime locations on the island for experimental and performing arts. It’s housed in a beautiful historic building, with a long stone staircase that leads you up to the entrance. Inside it’s spacious, modern and yet feels warm and welcoming. “When I look at Valletta, there are many options for this city. We have suggested building an open-air theatre, to lure people to Valletta at night,” he says. “It’s main occupants during the day are politicians, lawyers and tourists, they all leave at night.” Gatt echoes the city’s mayor with his vision of open-air theatrics. “Don’t get me started on that. Our suggestion was to place it right next to the entrance of the city, so it would be one of the first things you see when you’ve crossed the cast-iron bridge leading to our historical streets. However, the council rejected the plan and are building a new government office there. Now they are talking about moving it all the way to the South of Valletta where nobody will see it. I really don’t understand their vision regarding all of this,” says Gatt passionately.

Entrance to the St. James de Cavalier Centre.

Entrance to the St. James de Cavalier Centre.

The conflict

It’s clear there is tension between Gatt and the Valletta 2018 Foundation. As one of the main artistic venues, and also a government funded institution, one would expect that he or it would be heavily involved in the plans for Valletta 2018. “Yes, you would certainly expect that wouldn’t you,” says Gatt. “It’s ridiculous they haven’t even bothered to involve us, excuse my language but it’s abso-fucking-lutely ridiculous. They talk about professionalizing art, but they are not listening to what we, the ones dealing with art on a daily basis, actually need and what we could contribute.”

The vision

With or without Gatt, Mayor Dingl already seems to have a clear vision on how the city plans to achieve its 2018 objectives. “We really need to professionalize our arts and culture sector as we are still very much at an amateur level. Even our professional artists are not at the same level compared to international acts,” Dingl states. “Up until now, culture and arts were not something that young people were encouraged to pay interest to. Our schools follow a strict curriculum, of which art is not really a part of. Yes they might have a few hours of drama classes, but after that, it stops.”

Dingl thinks this is linked to a lack of jobs in the creative sector. “It’s almost impossible to find a job as a full-time artist in Malta at the moment. When I was young I was very interested in sculpting. At a certain point I was faced with the choice to either pursue a career in becoming a sculptor or studying IT – the latter did give me the outlook on a decent job and a good salary. Most people in our country, including me, choose the second option. We need to create more jobs in the creative industries.”

Gatt, in charge of the centre, knows that Dingl wants to invest in schooling and has already suggested a project for this, but his ideas have been rejected. “We started our own initiative where we invited a group of international artists to Malta. The artists visited several schools, where they sat down with the children for a week and taught them all about art and expression. It was a big success and I proposed to continue these types of exchanges on a recurring basis, but my idea got rejected first hand because it ‘didn’t fit the plans.’ Have they offered to set up a meeting to discuss this and maybe make some plans for the coming years that would fit the brief? No, nothing, nada,” he says.

The power struggle

According to Gatt, the real problem with the plans for Valletta 2018 is the current distribution of power in Malta. “There are a few people pulling the strings and they are afraid to distribute the ‘power’ to other parties that might be better suited. Alexiei – the mayor of Valletta – is a great guy with great plans, it’s not his fault things are not happening as even he has to answer to above,” he explains. “Instead of involving Maltese artists and institutions they are writing the plans themselves and executing the plans themselves, it just feels like the wrong way to approach Valletta 2018. Also the focus is very much on ‘branding’ the city instead of making concrete plans.”

The brand

Valletta’s ‘brand’ indeed seems to be a big focus for 2018. Just before the official election of the city as European Capital of Culture, the Valletta 2018 Foundation organised a special conference ‘Valletta: Small City/Big Dreams’ in the Manoel Theatre, a lovely old theatre tucked away in a side street of the city.

Valletta - The colonial Manoel theatre.

Valletta – The colonial Manoel theatre.

It has a colonial feel, private booths illuminated dimly and big wooden doors that give access to a small foyer. The kick-off to the conference was some music by a jazz-trio. All over the age of 50, all wearing tuxedo, all very high-brow. Curiously enough, only one of the invited speakers was Maltese. What followed were lectures on branding, branding, and again, branding of a city. Specifically, how to be the subject of conversation, how to promote the name and how many tourists it can attract. A woman seated towards the front could be overheard complaining in a hushed voice to the man next to her that she hadn’t received any feedback on her request to be granted funding for a ‘dance project.’

The future

It cannot be denied there is a rift between the governing bodies and the local arts and culture sector. In order to make Valletta 2018 a success, they need to be on the same wave-length. “We all need to work together, politicians, artists, venues and inhabitants alike. We have five years left, but we need to start now in order to stimulate our next generation to develop an interest in culture and care about it. Culture is a gift to society, without it, a city will never come alive,” says Gatt. There’s only one thing to say to that: Amen.

Valletta - The banners of Valletta 2018 are a bit of a sad sight.

Valletta – The banners of Valletta 2018 are a bit of a sad sight.