Can the Arts Survive?

Adrian Mamo is the president of the Malta Society of Arts

The past eight months, dominated by the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, have been tough on everyone, and artists may well argue that they have been hit the hardest − performing artists especially.

This may be the first time that arts practitioners are having to confront some harsh realities about their profession.

The intrinsic value of the Arts should be indisputable. Much of what we know of the world and of what we have learnt to appreciate about humanity has come down to us through the work of artists, writers and thinkers. Artists continually expose us to new worlds, both real and intangible, and heighten our sensitivity to the world around us. Who can quantify the benefits of our experiences of theatre and music performances, works of art and literature that have spoken to our very soul?

Locally, however, the arts are still considered largely as a “sideline”, something to be indulged in, at most as a second job, although it is proven that the cultural industries contribute not only to the wellbeing of society but also to the economic growth of the country. There are almost 5,000 people employed in the arts and entertainment industry in Malta including theatre, publishing, film, TV, libraries and museums.

The economic model of local arts organisations remains weak. Most theatre companies and producers of musical events, for example, rarely envisage more than a break-even situation. All producers in the performing arts will agree that the bottom line for success is “bums on seats”. This is now under severe threat, with theatres operating at less than one-third occupancy, or at worst, not operating at all. This means that any slight variation will jeopardise the industry; and a severe variation, as in the case of the pandemic, is catastrophic.

The Stage newsletter reported that a YouGov poll of more than 1,640 people carried out in October in the UK asked participants to rank what government should keep open in order of priority in the event of a second national lockdown. Top were schools and nurseries, with 57% putting this as the highest priority. Only a mere 2% said theatres, cinemas and art venues should be the top priority, just below pubs at 4%, while 12% said arts venues should be the government’s lowest priority.

This unfortunate perception by the general public is why arts practitioners turn to the authorities for support. Many artists may feel that they are being left out in the cold and that the measures taken by authorities are not appreciative of their contribution to the community. It has even been suggested to artists to “change their job”, which has understandably been met with less than enthusiastic applause.

It is encouraging to note that Malta’s Arts’ minister has expressed agreement that arts practitioners need to be treated as a priority and that they should benefit from the maximum that the government can allocate. However, the real key to success must come from the practitioners themselves.

In July, the Malta Entertainment & Arts Association (MEIA) was created, and includes key people in music, theatre, film, art & dance, who have started discussing how best to have the industry in Malta represented and protected. The Association couldn’t have appeared at a more opportune time and has already established links with the Arts Ministry and the Malta Arts Council.

Yet the future remains uncertain and the writing is on the wall. Yuval Noah Harari, arguably the world’s foremost historian and philosopher, suggests that what people learn in school or in college today will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40 or 50 and that if they want to continue to have a job, understand the world and be relevant to what is happening, they“will have to reinvent themselves again and again, and faster and faster”. (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow).

This approach is even more relevant in the world of art. Artists have to work on themselves as if they are their own start-up enterprise and be their own devil’s advocate. Pushing beyond one’s comfort zone will give the confidence to thrive under many adverse circumstances. Being knocked down a few times and finding the strength to get up, makes one tough enough to move on.

To quote Harari again: “Our AQ (adaptability quotient) is the new requirement for survival and spawning new mental models for success.”

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