Why is the majority of Malta’s younger generation so turned off by fine art? Lovin Malta met with Sandro Debono, the curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts and the driver of MUŻA to try to find out.
Admiral’s House, South Street. Ring any bells? Nope. It wouldn’t even to the most culturally-inclined twenty-something year-old on the islands. It’s completely missable – a tired, under-maintained facade with two flakily-painted columns flanking the doorway into the unknown. Very few people have the remotest idea that this is the site of Malta’s most precious collection of fine art. How could they? There’s barely even a sign on the door.
But it’s okay, now they don’t even need to. It’s closing. The National Museum of Fine Arts on South Street is relocating to the Auberge D’Italie on Merchants Street with a shiny, new identity. As MUŻA. Well, really it’s returning there – the collection began to take shape in 1925 in the Auberge before it was moved to South Street in 1974.
Since then, the works of art hanging on its walls have remained largely unchanged. A shrine to Baroque art with countless Grandmasters casting their musty gaze onto the 27,000 or so onlookers that visit each year. (Just to put things into perspective – most European museums visitor numbers run into the millions).
The curator of the Fine Arts is Sandro Debono. A man who despite a nauseating lack of workable budget, public enthusiasm, and sometimes peer encouragement, has maintained a steady energy for his role for over nine years. A unfalteringly positive person, brimming with warmth. On meeting him you feel almost certain that he is probably too nice for the job.
But he does acknowledge that there are very real problems in the relationship between the Maltese public and art. It’s been on the rocks for ages, and so far institutions have failed to rekindle a spark. Debono puts it down to one underlying problem – the inability to separate the idea of art as a commodity, and art as a resource.
“I was once told a story about an older lady who visited a museum in Dublin just because she wasn’t sure what colour she wanted her bedroom curtains to be.”
“Here, whenever you watch a programme about art it usually focuses on how much things are worth. You get a Picasso exhibition coming to Malta and it’s described as a collection of works ‘worth a lot of money’.”
"We can’t keep harping on about people not being able to understand because they are ignorant. Let’s look in the mirror and see what we’re missing"
Debono believes the latter outlook to be impenetrable. Alienating to anyone of an age or class that cannot ‘afford’ art. That’s why his cause champions a return to what he calls community art. He would like to cure the broken rapport between art and the public with a new kind of museum.
“MUŻA is the national community art museum. Because we need to bridge this existing gap. We can’t keep harping on about people not being able to understand because they are ignorant. No. Let’s look in the mirror and see what we’re missing. Are we not speaking a language that people understand? If so, how do we compensate for that? That’s why institutions are there. We’re at the service of the community. We need to make something which makes sense for everyone."
Debono is absolutely convinced that creating a relatable link between the everyday man and the fine arts collection is the only way it can become accessible, and enjoyable. He talks about his team’s most recent initiative – Naqsam Il-Muża (Share The Muse), which calls for community leaders to choose works of art from the collection and put their own personal meaning to them. Once they build their narrative, they are invited to tell their community about it.
""The biggest problem that we have in Malta is visual literacy"
“Practically none of them had ever been to the museum before.” Debono practically squeals. His earnest joy in giving people ownership over art’s meaning is palpable. But is it really the answer to the problem at hand?
At first glance this feels like a somewhat parochial approach to addressing the public's art-apathy. It is positive to bring people through the museum's doors, but not significant enough by the tens or scores. It is constructive to allow people to build their own artistic narratives, but not without first being exposed to the kind of art which speaks a contemporary language.
Debono gets this as well. "The biggest problem that we have in Malta is visual literacy. We read images by comparison. We can read things that refer to our own baggage – we can read Grand Harbour, we can read portrait, but when we see an abstract painting – we struggle.”
This seems quite obvious when there is an almost complete absence on the local art scene of works that can provoke, confuse, elate and even shock Maltese audiences. After the Malta Contemporary Art (MCA) research platform disbanded it left a serious lacuna on the islands. The independent initiatives that are left to fill the void offer a very positive contribution to the art scene. But realistically, they just speak to the converted – to pre-disposed art lovers. This kind of art needs form part of a national collection.
"there is an absence on the local art scene of works that can provoke, confuse, elate and even shock Maltese audiences"
"We are ethically and morally obliged to present good quality art. But it's a challenge." Debono concedes. "Since 2010, [the National Museum of Fine Arts] has been acquiring contemporary artworks."
A glimmer of hope. So, will these new acquisitions form part of the MUŻA permanent collection?
"With MUŻA we make a distinction between the curation of the the collection and the curation of the space. Firstly, there's an element of rotation, roughly 30% of the collection will be constantly changing, but secondly we are creating what we call the study collection. For example, video art forming part of the cafeteria experience."
"Its not about creating a space to exhibit objects, it's about creating a space where art becomes part of the discussion."
Debono's ideas might appear to be idealistic, but they are actually being seen as an exemplar model for museums all over Europe. MUŻA's community approach is being hailed as the way forward in the creation of engaging museum experiences.
But will it work here? It remains to be seen. Debono confirms that many of the hidden modern art treasures will be liberated from the Fine Arts' archive and woven into the MUŻA collection.
However, his main concern remains less connected with the collection itself than it does with how it is presented to the public. It must be seen as a resource, not an unattainable luxury. It must be accessible to all, not just art-lovers. It must not alienate, it must draw in. He really believes that in this way the public will take the time to get to know art again.
Here's hoping he's right.
The National Museum of Fine Arts will be closing it's doors on South Street on the 2nd October 2016. MUŻA will be opening next year. You can read more about the project here.