Toni Attard reflects on why the arts must be included in the Government’s mini-budget and shares 7 recommendations for immediate action.

‘We are facing an emergency in the cultural sphere in terms of income, venues, public access, participation, and may I say social cohesion and fulfilment’. These concerns were expressed by Michael Higgins, President of Ireland and former Culture Minister, in a letter sent on June 5th 2020 to David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament and his Presidential colleagues. President Higgins is urging the European Union and his counterparts for a response to the unemployment crisis of the Arts and Culture in the European Union. He concludes by stating that ‘our artists of all ages and backgrounds, contemporary and classical, need our solidarity now’.

On Monday, the Maltese government will present a mini-budget for post-COVID-19 recovery. The cultural and creative sectors, most of which were the first to close and the last to open, must be included in this budget.

Of all the cultural and creative sectors, the arts, employing 800 people full-time, specifically performing artists, are suffering mostly from the pandemic. The value chain is broken and returning to a linear model will not work. Most freelancers who earn a living from the performing arts typically work from one project to the next with other income streams from teaching or one-off live engagements. Unless they are employed full-time by an arts organisation, or employed outside the arts sector, there is currently no other alternative to the gig economy. And before you push the, ‘find another job and keep your art as a hobby’ button, remember that most of the arts and entertainment you enjoy exists because more than one person in that process used skill and talent, developed over years, spent time and money to create, in what is equivalent to any other full-time job. Whereas, amateurs in the arts add huge value to our culture, seeking a profession in the arts is a right which cannot be denied. However, many are now considering leaving the professional arts scene for good, simply because the future is too uncertain to sustain a living.

In recent years, more people in Malta, especially young people have been pursuing a professional career in the arts. A mix of public and private initiatives have contributed to this positive development leading to increased employment, increased and improved arts education, especially in the private sector, improved production capacity, increased public investment and more robust policies for the arts. However, the survival of the performing arts sector in Malta in this unprecedented environment depends on the independent arts scene’s ability to retain its contribution and strengthen its role. If public cultural institutions, with all the known political biases impacting who and what is programmed, become the only option for live arts, then we risk falling deeper into a monopolised and state-owned arts scene. On the other hand, public arts institutions need a healthy and diverse independent arts scene because their earned income and content depends on them. This bleak scenario is ultimately a threat to the diversity of creative expression and a loss to the public-private relationship that has built the arts sector to the level we enjoy today. Research conducted by Culture Venture in the first weeks of restrictions had already highlighted the negative impact of COVID-19 on artists. The immediate response through the COVID wage supplement was an important first step, reassuring cultural and creative professional that their profession matters. A special Malta Arts Fund call by Arts Council Malta received a record 95 submissions, however funds were only available for 11 projects – a total spending of EUR75,000. The creative appetite to engage is strong and the next phase for the arts in a post-COVID environment requires immediate attention.

Some scenarios may help those not involved directly in the performing arts to understand the severity of the situation. Based on 2013 statistics, 188 schools and tutors closed their doors to 10,000 students in March 2020. Shifting to online classes, some schools managed to deliver some of the training, however most were probably unable to retain the same level of business. Whereas, full time employees may have been retained, part-time employees (average 300) are usually paid by the hour of training delivered. This income is one of the many different sources that keep freelance artists economically active. The owners of these schools, typically operating from rented studios, usual make up for the costs incurred during their school downtime (eg Summer months) throughout the scholastic year. As we now reach the end of the scholastic year, with a lack of clarity on whether classes can resume for those running summer sessions, some schools, assuming an October return is possible, would have had to pay for 7 months of rent without any earned income.

The situation for freelance artists, producers and crew is not much different to the early days of the pandemic. The cancellation and postponement of events meant a direct blow to their earned income and this situation is likely to remain the same for months to come. Unlike restaurants and salons that could welcome clients as soon as restrictions were lifted, most creative work still cannot be produced. The 60% box-office break-even target can never be reached if producers can only use 25% of the auditorium space. Rehearsing work with the current guidelines is not only challenging but for some, close to impossible. In addition, gaining the confidence and trust of audiences to return to arts venues requires time and investment.

Similar to other sectors, the arts also require a financial boost. Some of the immediate measures that may be considered in the budget this Monday include:

  1. Retaining the COVID wage supplement until artists and crew, especially those in the performing arts, are able to return back to work.
  2. Introducing the reduced income tax rate of 7.5% for artists, as announced in the 2017 Electoral Manifesto
  3. Launching an innovation fund to invest in innovative projects linked to digitisation, new ways of creating and accessing art.
  4. Creating a temporary theatre subsidy scheme that compensates for lost seating space required by the health guidelines by subsidising twice the value of each ticket sold, up to a maximum capping per ticket.
  5. Supporting studio space rental by private arts education providers.   
  6. Creating an arts recovery fund to support training, research and capacity building in skills which will require further digital transformations and audience development.  
  7. Incentivising open air local touring for small scale events by independent artists and producers in different open-air spaces in Malta and Gozo.

Hundreds of artists in Malta have contributed to support the authorities deliver a message of solidarity and support during the pandemic. Most did it for free. Now is the time to mobilise public resources to ensure that what has been built over decades is not dismantled in the coming months.

COVID-19 has also served as a wakeup call for the sector. Artists are now coming together to form the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association. On the 6th June over 90 artists from Malta came together to perform in Arts Youknighted – a special online showcase and fund-raising event by performers for performers.

May the coming weeks and months become an opportunity for renewed commitment to our artists. On this occasion, they cannot do it alone.

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