Turning a cultural corner

Jo Caruana – 31st March 2017

Valletta’s transition into European Capital of Culture 2018 has begun, and already the country is making cultural strides forward. Valletta 2018 Foundation Chairman Jason Micallef talks us through the planned programme of events and the legacy projects to come.

With the European Presidency now in full force and the associated cultural programme in action, attentions are shifting towards our island’s next major opportunity in the spotlight: Valletta’s role as European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in 2018.

Preparations for this milestone event have been underway for years, and nobody knows that better than Jason Micallef, who was appointed head of the Valletta 2018 Foundation in 2013, and has been active in its development ever since. Now, with just 10 months to go until the opening ceremony, Mr Micallef believes that everything is in place for Malta to enjoy the success of the hard work that has gone into this so far, while also looking forward to the legacy that this year-long event will leave.

“The ECOC is a beautiful concept that was first created by the European Commission in 1984,” Mr Micallef explains. “In my opinion, it’s one of the nicest culture-related activities to come out of the EC and it has certainly proved its worth in the towns and cities that have taken part since, including places like Glasgow, Liverpool and Lille. I believe it is a project that leaves its mark long-term, especially where regeneration is concerned, and that is so important.”

Notte Bianca 2016 - Photo by Chris Mangion

Mr Micallef explains how, in the years since Malta was awarded the title, the Foundation has put a strong structure behind it. The team is now made up of over 25 full-timers, as well as many more part-timers and others working on a contract basis. “Together they have crafted a strong programme, both for our flagship events and for the ones that will take place throughout the year.”

The first flagship – a grand opening on 20th January 2018 – will be followed by three others, namely the second edition of the Pageant of the Seas in the Grand Harbour, a festival of four new operas by local and international composers, and a closing event throughout December. The rest of the year will feature a huge range of over 400 events, with something to suit all tastes and across the genres of music, dance, drama, poetry, literature, film and more.

“I am also very excited about the regeneration activities being spearheaded by Valletta 2018, including many that are already in action. For instance, there’s the restoration of the Triton Fountain and the completion of St James Ditch, as well as the conclusion of the City Gate Project, which will finally give a huge public space back to the people. This project will later grow towards Floriana, and results there will be witnessed well beyond 2018.”

Meanwhile, Mr Micallef cites other projects that will have long-reaching effects, including the ongoing restorations of Palazzo Ferreria opposite Pjazza Teatru Rjal and the Jesuits Church on Merchants Street, as well as the reopening of the Old Market on Merchants Street – plans for which are said to be on schedule and due for completion by the end of the year. The Old Abattoir on Bull Street, which has lain derelict for over 40 years, is also undergoing restoration and will be unveiled soon as Valletta’s first design cluster. Finally, the largest project of all will be MUŻA, the city’s new art museum, which will be located within the Auberge d’Italie.

NYE 2016 - Photo by Chris Mangion

“In addition to all of that, we have also witnessed huge support and investment from the private sector,” he continues. “By the end of this year, there will be 21 boutique hotels operating in the city, all occupying properties that were previously derelict or in a bad state of repair. They blend beautifully with our vision for Valletta, and will become an important part of our offering.”

Mr Micallef believes that, throughout 2018 itself, Valletta, and Malta as a whole, will thrive. However, he also feels strongly that it is the post-Valletta 2018 legacy that will be of most value to the island. “Stats show that, already, Valletta has become a destination in its own right; this is visible from online search information. Valletta is now more in-demand than Malta and there’s nothing wrong with that. What was once a dead city is now thriving.

“As a consequence of all this, I think we have shown the authorities and local government that Valletta is earning her keep and that further investment into other aspects are now crucial. Logistics, for instance, need to be addressed and there is a lot to be done; we need to see how to ensure Valletta is practical for the people that live, visit and work in it everyday.”

Parking, of course, is a major concern, but Mr Micallef is quick to quell worries that Valletta 2018 will present a repeat of the early days of the EU Presidency, when many of the city’s streets were completely cleared of cars, causing chaos. “I think we’re better prepared now; those involved have learnt from that experience, and I believe things will work a lot more smoothly for the rest of the Presidency, and Valletta 2018.

“Further down the line, other elements will be introduced to further help with this, including the new 300-car car park in St James Ditch, which will be attractively obscured by a garden. Similarly, environmental decisions are also crucial for the medium- and long-term plan for Valletta, as well as constantly-improving maintenance projects to ensure the city’s upkeep. I am pleased to say that this aspect is well under control, and that there is now plenty of smooth coordination between the entities involved, all under the supervision of the Grand Harbour Regeneration Foundation.”

Pageant of the Seas 2016 - Photo by Viktor Vella

“The last three-to-four years have seen Valletta transform, and that will continue. Short-term we can look forward to a year of fantastic events both within the city and beyond its walls that will be enjoyed by a huge variety of people. Further beyond that, Destination Valletta will continue to shine. Going beyond the €70 million that has already been invested by the Government alone, a further €30 million worth of European Regional Funds will be pumped into the lower part of Valletta for a large scale project there.

“Together, these short-, medium- and long-term investments all showcase our vision for the capital. It is one that will certainly guarantee exciting times for the city, and our country as a whole,” Mr Micallef concludes.

This is a snippet. Read the full interview on the latest issue of Commercial Courier.