The recent national arts awards recognised cultural and creative operators for their contributions to the arts. But will this latest edition of Il-Premju għall-Arti mark the final year audiences enjoy the volume and quality of creative output we’ve grown accustomed to from producers like these? Only time will tell how severely COVID-19 will affect cultural and artistic production in the long term, but meanwhile, Times of Malta finds out how the virus has impacted Arts Council Malta’s cream of the crop and gets their thoughts on the outlook of the arts as a whole. In this first article of the series, we talk to the winners in the visual arts sector. 

With the physical awards ceremony of Il-Premju għall-Arti cancelled due to COVID-19, the winners of each award category were instead announced in a ‘virtual’ ceremony on social media. Just like the Arts Council itself, the rest of the sector has had to quickly adapt to the new post-COVID reality. For artists, designers, curators and other visual arts practitioners, online alternatives have been useful, and a proliferation of virtual exhibitions and projects have been launched on social media.

However, virtual options are not a blanket solution for all. Many events do not translate from an in-person experience to the screen, and long-term design or construction projects have fallen victim to expensive delays. For some, government support measures have been an important financial safety net, but it remains to be seen whether this temporary prop will be enough to ensure operators’ financial survival, thereby securing their creative output in the future.

Arts Council Malta’s award winners were asked what it meant to be recognised for the quality of their work, how COVID-19 is affecting this work, and how the situation might impact the quality and range of artistic production in the sector as a whole. Here’s what the winners in the visual arts said.

 

Caldon Mercieca

Caldon Mercieca, project leader of Valletta Design Cluster, winner in the category of Best Artistic Programme or Season.Caldon Mercieca, project leader of Valletta Design Cluster, winner in the category of Best Artistic Programme or Season.

Winning the award meant two things for us. Firstly, it acknowledges the fundamental value of artists’ work, especially now when meaningful public encounter with the work of artists is in many cases made impossible, with profound implications on artists’ livelihood. And secondly, it highlights the responsibility of public entities like ours to continue serving as a platform of opportunity for creative work that is built on social and cultural values rather than market dynamics and profit-oriented ambition.

Progress on the Valletta Design Cluster’s new building is entering its final phase, and we are taking precautions to minimise any risk that COVID-19 may have on the remaining works. Once this situation eventually resolves, people will be looking to re-engage with their community, and to work together on innovative approaches to the challenges that this crisis has helped expose. The Valletta Design Cluster, through the Valletta Cultural Agency, will be ready to fill this role.

This period has been challenging for many in the community. At the same time, creative leadership is needed now more than ever, to comfort, support and inspire people as they navigate uncertain times. With the help offered by Arts Council Malta and Malta Enterprise, we are confident that people can find creative ways of adapting to this time and responding to the emerging needs and opportunities that it presents.

Julian ‘Julinu’ Mallia

Julian ‘Julinu’ Mallia, visual artist at www.julinu.com and drummer with band Weeping Silence, winner of Artist of the Year.Julian ‘Julinu’ Mallia, visual artist at www.julinu.com and drummer with band Weeping Silence, winner of Artist of the Year.

I am grateful for being awarded Artist of the Year because these kinds of initiatives are informed by objective criteria and recognise immersive commitment toward artistic practice. Such awards help get the message across that, despite elements of subjectivity, art should also be subjected to scrutiny and evaluated in terms of quality and innovation.

Those who pursue art on a professional level are in the same boat as all workers in any other entrepreneurial activity. If anything, the COVID-19 situation has merely amplified common challenges artists already face. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of culture and artistic development, but when push comes to shove, the arts seem to be quite low on decision makers’ priority list. For instance, in my case, at the time of writing, wage supplements have not materialised yet and I’m still chasing clients for payments they owe.

My commitment to artistic practice proceeds regardless ‒ despite the additional compromises, detours and anxiety-inducing obstacles. I have been self-recording drum tracks for a music project I’m involved in and also working on the lengthy pre-production phase for a new set of oil-paintings. However, new commissions have dried up and the situation is not sustainable in the long term. Someday we’ll be able to look back at this time and measure the true impact on artistic output.

These are uncomfortable times but I am sure that the arts will survive because they are humane activities that we eventually end up resorting to. Without romanticising suffering, discomfort and limitations do force us to change habits and routine ‒ and this can yield output that has some degree of artistic merit. Nonetheless this does not absolve authorities from assisting the sector in practical and timely ways. A society that nourishes and embraces culture is more likely to cultivate effective problem-solvers. Besides enriching the cultural landscape, creative thinking can yield clear economic benefits in any sector.

Jonathan Mizzi

Jonathan Mizzi, studio director and architect at Mizzi Studio, winner in the category of Best International Achievement. Photo: Joshua MillaisJonathan Mizzi, studio director and architect at Mizzi Studio, winner in the category of Best International Achievement. Photo: Joshua Millais

Primarily, it feels very rewarding that our work is being recognised by the Malta Arts Council as an art form in its own right. Architectural appreciation on the islands has suffered over the past 50 years, silenced by a spate of overproduction that is overwhelmingly made up of concrete square boxes. This feels devastatingly environmentally and spiritually criminal, and is killing our nation’s ability to have a positive outlook on urban development. Awards like this help to change that outlook.

Our studio has worked tremendously hard to achieve the international status we now enjoy. We’ve had to endure serious economic and cultural obstacles – including a three-year run-up to Brexit that shook all business sectors in the UK. It’s always encouraging to receive a symbolic pat on the back by the industry – it pushes you to keep going, especially during hard times. It means a great deal to receive this kind of recognition from my home country.

I was delighted that the awards ceremony was still held and that artists were able to make the most of the online experience. My own team at Mizzi Studio threw a zoom party between our Malta and London bases, sharing some virtual celebration drinks. It was, however, a great pity to have to miss the experience of the ceremony at the majestic Manoel Theatre. We were all excited to see old friends and meet new artists. But it is, of course, very understandable – health and safety must come first. It also brings into focus just how important physical places are to us all, and how hard as artists and designers we must work to carry on crea­ting beautiful things for people to enjoy.

I believe new mediums will evolve… we may start to see some powerful work emerge that reflects, captures and inspires this brave new world we are living in- Jonathan Mizzi

The pandemic has had a big impact, with some of our work being paused, some being outright cancelled, and some still at risk. We are both fortunate and unfortunate that Malta’s construction development sector is booming and has been hailed as the industry that can rescue us economically as we move into an uncertain future. This is reassuring in business terms, but concerning with regard to increasing density and the problems connected with construction pollution. Our London studio, on the other hand, will struggle more.

 On a personal level, I will definitely be doing less travel between Mizzi Studio’s Malta and London bases. Technology has proven the power of remote work. We can no longer rest on the reasoning of having to be physically present to work internationally. If there is one thing this crisis has taught us, it’s how adaptable we all can be as a collective workforce. 

Mizzi Studio already had a reasonably flexible work-from-home policy before the outbreak began, which I think will be strengthened post-COVID-19. Architects generally work long hours, but evidence is mounting that if as practitioners we allow ourselves to be more rested and focused – cutting out needless commuting and implicit distractions – we can perform better. I am constantly in touch with my team over video calls and they have never looked so well and rested!

 The art world is sadly always one of the first sectors to be affected by economic downturns. Therefore, the proliferation and amount of artistic production will likely decrease as commissions and sponsorships dwindle. This doesn’t mean that quality should decrease however, and as artists and designers we should make it our mission to ensure we’re doing the best quality work possible. COVID-19 is forcing us all to be introspective as we work in relative isolation. This hopefully means artists will react by producing more meaningful and elevated work.

I believe new mediums will evolve, the tools of technology can inspire great new forms of expression and, when coupled with a more soulful, in-tune creative approach, we may start to see some powerful work emerge that reflects, captures and inspires this brave new world we are living in. Specifically, with Mizzi Studio, we are fast-tracking our research and development efforts into virtual reality, gaming and cinematic architecture – all of which is exciting in many ways.

 Overall, we must adapt in order to survive and progress. Mankind has always been the best-placed species to do this. Hopefully, the art of tomorrow can inspire us to ensure we evolve conscientiously, and not allow ourselves to become the personification of the planet’s real virus. We need to truly learn to respect and live in harmony with our environment, otherwise we risk doing more damage than good to our natural and urban home.

If we do not recognise this time as an opportunity for betterment, then a return to life will become exceedingly less and less worth fighting for.

Raffaella Zammit

Raffaella Zammit, executive director of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, representing the team winning Best Community Project for the collaborative project Nimxu Mixja. Photo: Elyse TonnaRaffaella Zammit, executive director of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, representing the team winning Best Community Project for the collaborative project Nimxu Mixja. Photo: Elyse Tonna

It’s an honour having our project Nimxu Mixja awarded in the Best Community Pro­ject category. This project was developed in collaboration with Kristina Borg and myself, the Birkirkara Primary School and the Gabriel Caruana Foundation. I wore two hats in this project, as a creative working with Kristina to develop the project and as the programme manager of the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, which includes managing the artistic programme of The Mill ‒ Art, Culture and Crafts Centre, Birkirkara.

I was really pleased that we won this category, since community is a core value for our foundation, and working with the Birkirkara community and the students of the primary school students was extremely rewarding.

As I said, the Gabriel Caruana Foundation manages the artistic programme of The Mill and we had to close the door just as we launched Privat: The Natural Body as Fiction, Charlene Galea’s solo exhibition. It was a sad decision to take, especially considering all the investment that Charlene made into developing her work. The launch of the exhibition was in itself successful and we were hoping that it would attract more visitors during the following weeks, but alas we had to close less than a week into the exhibition.

We’re now working on our online platforms, we’ve recently updated our website. We are soon launching our online gallery shop and we’re working together with Maltese ceramic artists, ACT and Spazju Kreattiv to participate in Buongiorno Ceramica!, an Italian initiative focusing on ceramic art. Together with Elyse Tonna, our curator, we’re seeing ways to reach out and connect.

Working in socially engaged art is challenging since the human connection is key in such a practice. It’s also an important element of The Mill and how we operate, with exhibitions, visits and workshops, people are the common denominator.

We’re taking this time as a time to plan and act. Working within the artistic sector is always challenging and precarious and you always need to wear a couple of different hats. I feel that this situation is no different, it came like an avalanche but it’s already fuelling some creative responses.

Nominations for Premju għall-Arti 2021 are now open at www.premju.mt.

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