Expert authors: Adrian Debattista and Neville Borg Last update: July 27th 2021
The local cultural sector undertook several steps to adapt to the COVID-19 restrictions that were in force over the past year. Many of the annual festivals or activities, such as the Malta International Arts Festival, Għanafest and Carnival festivities took place in a revised format, focusing either on online content or small-scale mobile performances or exhibits across several public spaces in various towns and villages. This online shift was also the case for initiatives targeting young people such as the Culture Pass, a joint initiative by Arts Council Malta and the Culture Directorate aimed at connecting schoolchildren of various ages with high-quality cultural and artistic experiences, whereby a curated online programme was developed throughout 2020 and 2021.
Arts Council Malta itself sought to support the creative sector through various initiatives, funds and activities aimed at helping the sector overcome the financial and social challenges brought about by the pandemic. Aside from the Malta Arts Fund Special Call and the Special Series ACMlab, several other initiatives were set up, most notably the Transition Arts Task Force, a consultative forum to provide space for discussion and guidance on how the creative sector can manage the difficulties brought about by the pandemic. This Task Force sought to bring together various experts and stakeholders across the sector and devise a series of recommendations to be put forward to the Ministry for National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government and Malta’s public health authorities. Amongst other things, the outcomes of this Task Force included proposals to invest more directly in digital skills in order for the creative sector to be better equipped to adapt to the online sphere, to support the experimentation process within the development of artistic work, and for greater cross-sectoral collaboration between the arts and other related sectors.
In response to the limitation of physical events as opportunities for knowledge exchange, other initiatives from Arts Council Malta included the launch of ACMHangouts, a virtual platform for networking and knowledge sharing sessions as well as discussions and regular meetings with the cultural and creative sectors, and ACMChats, a series of podcasts featuring informal discussions between practitioners and experts about topics such as minority representation in the arts, the arts and democracy, and arts management.
Following from the recommendations proposed by the Transition Arts Task Force, Arts Council Malta announced the launch of the RESTART Schemes, a series of 12 arts investment and support schemes throughout 2021 totaling to €3.62m. These schemes seek to address the survival and resilience of the creative sector, as well as its development and ongoing sustainability, through schemes that address topical issues including arts education, international cultural exchange, professional development, and the development of artistic programmes and projects. The schemes included funding programmes that existed previously which however were revised in order to reflect the new realities. They also included the new Programme Support Scheme with a total investment of €1.3 million meant to address the recovery of cultural and creative industries. It is aimed towards enabling artists and cultural operators to restart their programming and production activity while operating in a sustainable manner even if circumstances require postponing the reopening of certain activities to the public. During the first call 16 beneficiaries were awarded funding with another two calls still to be awarded. Also of particular interest is the Digital Research and Development Scheme, another new funding scheme encouraging creative practitioners to develop their digital skills through research, experimentation and training. Funding for the first call of this scheme was awarded to 13 beneficiaries who will be using funds to explore their artistic development, develop their digital skills and broaden their audience engagement through digital technology. A second call for this scheme will be issued in October 2021.
As from January 2021, the wage supplement scheme was to be calculated according to drops in sales based on VAT declarations. This also started to include replacement of employees with an eligibility backdated from October 2020.
Following a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases, Malta entered into a second lockdown on 10th March 2021, effectively shutting all non-essential shops and services, as well as schools and other educational institutions. This included all cultural activities or venues, such as theatres, museums, cinemas and exhibition or performance spaces. Cultural practitioners, together with other business establishments that were forced to shut during this period, were once again eligible for the Covid Wage Supplement scheme that was introduced during Malta’s initial lockdown period in 2020, whereby people whose income is drastically affected by lockdown restrictions are entitled to a monthly supplement up to a maximum of €800 per month.
Whereas during the initial lockdown in March 2020, persons working within the creative arts sector (including performing and visual arts) were deemed to be eligible for the full €800 supplement, this was changed to a maximum of €600 per month once restrictions were lifted in June 2020. In December 2020, following discussions with public bodies such as Arts Council Malta and sector stakeholders including the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association (MEIA), a revision to this change was confirmed by the Enterprise Ministry and Culture Ministry. Thus, the wage supplement was reverted to a monthly €800 supplement for full-timers and €500 for part-timers with payments backdated from November.
A number of studies into the impact of the pandemic on the local creative sector took place throughout these months. Following a public call, Arts Council Malta commissioned advisory firm EMCS to carry out a series of population-representative surveys exploring changes in the attitudes, perceptions and behaviour of audiences in relation to cultural events. In particular, these surveys examine the extent to which the public has participated in cultural activity that took place online during lockdown periods, the intention to return to in-person activities, and the willingness to financially support the local creative sector. Although this study is still ongoing, initial results show that participation in physical events following reopening in June 2020 was negligible and interest in participating in online cultural activity has decreased over time. However, there has been a fairly consistent willingness to support artists and arts organisations through increased ticket prices, donations and subscription schemes. Other findings from independent surveys, include a decrease in creative activity with cases of activities being stopped altogether which led to a decrease in income from the cultural sectors.
In May it was announced that a second round of government vouchers will be distributed in June with an investment of €45 million. The vouchers, each worth €100, were distributed to everyone aged 16 and over and apart from being redeemable for hospitality and retail services, they also included artistic and cultural services.
Lockdown measures were slowly eased throughout May 2021, with cinemas and theatres reopening on 7th June. Seated mass events are set to resume on 5th July, with audiences restricted to people who present a vaccine certificate from Malta’s health authorities demonstrating that they have been fully vaccinated. Audiences will be capped at 100 people, rising to 150 people on 19th July, and finally 200 people on 2nd August, with a minimum provision of four square metres per attendee. These measures were criticised by MEIA arguing that other sectors did not need to operate under such constraints. In view of this, public health authorities introduced some amendments to the previously existing measures for large-scale social events. Whereas the initial rules stipulated that audiences would be capped at 100 people, the new measures stated that an event could include multiple bubbles capped at 100 people, provided that each bubble is physically separated and makes use of separate facilities, staff and entry/exit points.
On 5th July, the Government announced the Events Support Scheme, a €2m scheme aimed at making the organisation of cultural and artistic events more financially viable between the periods of 5th July and 31st August 2021. This scheme provides a mechanism through which event organisers benefit from match funding on ticket sales as well as logistical support. Organisers can receive up to a maximum total of €30,000 for their events.