Cover photo: Department of Information (DOI) Malta
This week the Maltese art world was shaken up by some mild drama surrounding Heritage Malta’s most recent fine art acquisition. A 17th century painting – believed to have been created by Mattia Preti – was purchased by the agency for €75,000.
A celebratory inauguration atmosphere was swiftly converted into a prolonged moment of awkwardness when Prof Keith Sciberras, Head of the Art History Department at the University of Malta, declared on Facebook that, no, this is definitely not Preti.
Sciberras, backed by a herd of students and fellow art-lovers in comments on his truth-telling status, asserted that the painting is in fact a creation of Preti’s workshop and not by the Calabrian master painter himself.
Sandro Debono fired back in this online war of the art worlds, posting an image of an exhibition catalogue showing extensive bibliography pointing to the veracity of the attribution.
For anyone left on the island who doesn’t know who Mattia Preti is – he’s a Calabrian artist of admittedly great skill, but relatively minor renown on a global level. He worked in Malta for a while, transforming the interior of St John’s Co Cathedral with his paintings in the 17th century. He was a massive deal for Malta when the Knights of St. John were around, and to be fair, has left us with an epic late Baroque painting legacy that we’ve been able to lavish in for about four centuries.
But really, enough is now enough.
“[Why is Malta] insisting on flogging at the chiaroscuro horse for eternity?”
Spending €75,000 of Malta’s Fine Arts acquisition budget on what could potentially be an erroneous attribution is certainly a little bit farcical. But the real folly is the fact that we are still allocating money to this period of art history when our Baroque cup more than runneth over.
Last year Malta’s National Museum of Fine Arts (NMFA) received approximately 27,000 visitors in total. According to Sandro Debono, curator at the NMFA, there exists no quantitive data on what percentage of those visitors were aged between 18 and 35 – there isn’t a budget for this kind of data to be collected (first example of where €75K could have been better spent).
In contrast, in the same year more than 370,000 attended a single, temporary exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This means an exhibition by just one artist that was brought to the institution for a defined period of time, separately to their permanent collection.
“There is no quantitative data on what percentage of those visitors are aged between 18 and 35 – there isn’t a budget for this kind of data to be collected”
Sure, it’s hard to compare the two scenarios – Malta’s population is only about as large as 5% of London’s. But, the Maltese equivalent of 5% of the visitors that attended the RA temporary exhibition would be around 18,000 people. That’s about two thirds the visitors Malta receives in a whole year. To look at all of the museum’s permanent collection.
Ok enough with the numbers. Let’s discuss the why of it all. That one temporary exhibition was a collection showing the work of contemporary Chinese activist/artist Ai Weiwei. His works are known for being highly provocative, political and tactile. They are relevant, they speak of current socio-political issues, and they are not just for art-lovers.
If Malta were to spend €75,000 on an artist who is even fractionally as thought-provoking as Ai Weiwei, instead of insisting on flogging at the chiaroscuro horse for eternity, then perhaps our abysmal visitor statistics would enjoy some of the success museums around the world have seen.
With the impending arrival of MUŻA there is some hope that this obsession with Preti and his band of merry apprentices will cease to take front row. No doubt, they are a favourite of the historian-elite in Malta, and always will be. But those people are the converted – we no longer need to preach to them. More importantly – we don’t need to spend more of the very limited money we have for the arts in Malta on them.
We need to mobilise today’s generation, and generally the everyman, to visit our collection. To be moved by art, to ask questions, to be confused, to reject, to misunderstand, and to love it. Give 75,000 Maltese people aged between 18 and 35 just €1 each to tell you what art they want to see. That would be a hell of a better investment for our local art scene.