The annual conference on cultural expression in contexts of urban development organised within the framework of Valletta 2018: European Capital of Culture, starting today, will allow stakeholders to take stock, exchange views and plan ahead in an international milieu.

One expects discussions to focus on the various tensions that make Valletta alive, including a respectful attitude towards the heritage, both tangible and intangible, of the city that struggles to harness the commercial investment in boutique hotels, restaurants and cafes that have breathed an economic vibrancy into the capital.

It is true that the capital city has received much attention resulting in a long-awaited regenerative effort that has spilled over to surrounding localities. After all, as a project of a European dimension, a tiny peninsula, whose tangible cultural heritage has been taken over by State-serving offices in turn serving their respective institutions, leaving barely enough space for cultural activity to grow without having the need to be supported, sponsored or controlled by the various manifestations of the State itself (be this a public cultural organisation, a ministry or a government-funded agency), would not have done justice to the vision of an international cultural hub professed by different ministers, chairmen and artistic directors responsible for State cultural entities over the years.

The structuring of the Maltese islands into five regions was aimed at adding weight to individual local councils when working together by joining forces in addressing local matters within a European perspective. Having been part of the EU for more than a decade, it would be interesting to learn what economic and social contribution have our regions made to national development also thanks to EU funds.

The timely survey of theatre spaces has literally put tens of underutilised cultural spots back on the map

The Valletta 2018 Foundation itself pioneered a closer rapport between the capital and other localities within the different regions thanks to the establishment of regional officers enabling closer collaboration between players in the different cultural ecosystems.

It is also worth noting the timely survey of theatre spaces that has literally put tens of underutilised cultural spots back on the map, enabling cul-tural and commercial services to invest further in growing audiences and their particular demands.

While this has been achieved and will be channelled into the festivities organised for the cultural capital year, one wonders whether strong enough foundations have been set for the sustainable development of the creative sector in Malta in the coming years, including the run-up to the next capital of culture in 2030.

The declared ambition of the foundation to establish a regular village of culture every other year sounds underwhelming. Mimetic post-colonial exercises transplanted to one’s territory may struggle to go beyond a surface-level branding stunt.

It is also interesting to note that while research into the thought-out UK exercise is giving indications of positive results in terms of urban regeneration in relation to culture, its Italian copy looks like it is lagging behind.

One also wonders whether the State would consider addressing the cultural scene there where it can make a difference in the long-term, that is, not by encouraging further dependence through funding schemes that are prone to suffer from degrees of piloting and control.

Rather, a better investment in the physical, educational and financial infrastructure should be envisaged, to allow creatives and innovators to operate in ways that thrive on and lead to greater change, as opposed to copies of copies that lower standards that are difficult to recover.

The results experienced and projected in the independent scene, including literature, film and design, albeit small and scattered, are promising.

As queried by the Valletta 2018 Foundation itself in relation to the keynote speech by Sebastian Olma addressing the concept of the serendipitous city:  “What kind of infrastructures, programmes or, indeed, cultures do we need to nurture today so that together we can invent and discover the city we want to live in tomorrow?”

Echoing the questions set by urban historian Peter Hall over the past decades, it’s time for a serious discussion about our future.

Karsten Xuereb is a cultural policy researcher and lectures on cities and culture at the University of Malta.

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