Until 2017, Malta had been absent from the Venice Biennale – the most prestigious contemporary art exhibition in the world – for almost two decades. Its return was rightly hailed by the Malta Arts Council as a major achievement in the government’s cultural strategy.

As the event attracts the world’s leading curators, gallery owners and critics, the choice of curators for the Malta Pavilion, which seeks to showcase the best of Malta’s artistic work, is considered to be one of the most high-profile appointments in the cultural sector. It can have a significant impact on an artist’s or curator’s international career. It was, therefore, inevitable that the stakes in the selection process would be high.

The selection process was straightforward. After initial screening, a shortlist of 11 eligible candidates was made. They were invited to present their projects during an interview with an international jury panel last June. The panel, presided by arts council chairman Albert Marshall assigned points to each entry and, on this basis, were to select the winning curatorial team.

But, regrettably, there have been credible reports that the process was flawed and the results vitiated by irregularities committed by no less than the chairman himself. Like all such incidents involving a combustible mix of artistic temperament, high stakes and potential skulduggery, the facts are difficult to unravel with certainty.

Various sources have informed this newspaper there were serious irregularities in the selection process as the arts council chairman had vetoed the choice recommended by the international evaluation panel tasked with picking the curatorial team, citing inter alia a “conflict of interest” concerning one of the members of the winning team.

In the face of strong objections from the panel – that was made up of established figures in contemporary art from the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, a London-based Maltese designer and the Valletta Contemporary Arts director – Mr Marshall decided to disband the first panel and appointed a new one on ground that “artistic concerns raised during the first evaluation were sufficiently serious to warrant a fresh outlook on the matter”.

Mr Marshall, a political appointee with a rather non-consensual approach to leadership in a field where artistic sensibilities run high, has, through his bullish and, possibly, high-handed approach left too many unanswered questions hanging in the air.

The prime among these is: was the disbandment of the first panel justified in line with established selection procedures? Were Mr Marshall’s accusations of “conflict of interest” and “artistic concerns” justified? Was the second panel – made up of artistic directors from State-funded entities (and, therefore, perhaps more amenable to supporting his preferred choice) - permissible under the established selection procedures? Was there any manipulation of the result to favour the particular candidate allegedly preferred by the arts council chairman?

These burning questions have cast a shadow over the whole unedifying process to choose Malta’s curatorial team for the 2019 Malta Pavilion. While they remain unresolved, the credibility and artistic integrity of Malta’s choice is undermined.

To threaten to end Malta’s attendance at the Venice Biennale, as Mr Marshall has so arrogantly done, is a puerile response, conduct that certainly does not befit a cultured person. It is essential that the Minister for Culture should immediately invite the Public Service Commission to examine these questions and to restore confidence in the whole process.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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