Toni is the Founder and Director of Culture Venture, an arts advisory and management firm in Malta. He was previously the first Director of Strategy at Arts Council Malta, after serving as an advisor to the Ministry of Finance to co-author the Creative Economy strategy and Malta’s national cultural policy. He lectures in arts management, speaks at international conferences, and is a theatre director and actor (among many other projects!). While based in Malta, Toni is now a consultant working internationally across a variety of projects, collaborating both with individuals and governments. Last year he worked in about 12 countries with most of his work being international.
Listening to Toni speak about his career, there is a strong sense of adventure paired with a fierce devotion to the arts. Toni mentions that he has never had a role in which he followed directly in someone’s footsteps, with a complete handover of responsibilities. He has been successful because he likes to start new and exciting ventures (pun intended), and has learned to manage the lack of stability and continuity that comes with a mindset where ‘day one of all my projects is day one of my exit strategy...what do i do next?’ The impetus for Culture Venture was exactly this -- a desire to try something new, risky or not. Toni realised that, while he was lecturing arts management students about how to start their own successful business, he himself had never been an entrepreneur. The challenge was, how could he grow as a professional?
From the strategies he has worked on, Toni believes the most successful principle has been the introduction of Malta’s Creative Economy. An important metric of success for Toni is the positive impact of a project on the community. He mentions that ‘the driving force of Malta’s creative economy came from a joint project between two ministries led by the ministry responsible for finance and the economy’. Focusing on the creative economy was important, because it highlighted the capacity for creatives in Malta to contribute to their community, as ‘not just hobbyists, but professionals’. Working on this and Malta’s first official cultural policy helped Toni understand and reflect on the purpose of arts and culture and the importance of the voice of artists in the discussion. He understands that ‘people tend to see those on the official side of culture as the “other”’, but thinks this doesn’t do justice to the relationship between creative practitioners and policy-makers. As a policy-maker he understands that artists don’t need or want policy in order to create but policy can stop or limit them. As Toni puts it, ‘policies can hinder your freedom of expression...on the other side, policies may be used to give direction’. It is important for him to empower citizens and to work with policy that will create positive change within a community.
Toni’s deep understanding of the recent development of cultural policy in Malta is invaluable, especially when linked with his devotion to the arts. He asserts that ‘a policy on its own may just be a set of lovely words, of principles, of conventions which do not mean absolutely anything to the people who participate in the art’. The success of Malta’s recent cultural policy work, for him, is in the principles and declarations of cultural rights that underpinned the new cultural policy. The challenge for policy makers is always to navigate a framework that is amenable to the targets of politicians (who often expect results on a short time scale). In creating the first strategy for culture in Malta, Toni describes how they ‘ear-marked culture as a pillar for socioeconomic development’ but in new strategies are reflecting more on cultural rights, and ‘going back to basics’ to understand the core value of culture within society. So far, the best success has been the positive impact on the community through centralising cultural discussions, increasing transparency and accountability in governmental decisions about culture, and gathering the interdisciplinary sector together.
Listening to Toni speak about cultural policy and the importance of strategy is extremely engaging. He, of course, has a handle on the ongoing discussion surrounding the purpose and efficacy of culture and he is exactly the kind of person with whom you would want to have a long discussion about the pull between instrumentalisation of the arts and the intrinsic value of arts and culture. His perspective is particularly interesting due to his involvement formulating Malta’s first ever national cultural policy -- he can give insight into how the arts are valued and justified despite only recently gaining the support of bespoke policy. He notes that implementing cultural policy takes significant time, and you absolutely ‘need strategic framework to deliver policy into action’. His positive impact on the creative sector in Malta will definitely continue to develop for years to come, as he continues to work with Arts Council Malta.
Toni sums up well how many must feel about the current situation, saying ‘my guess is as good as anyone’s for the future’. He has been lucky that current projects have not been majorly affected, but normally he travels much more (probably up to 8 international trips missed due to lockdown). As a strategist, he also thinks immediately of risk management and strategic planning while speaking about the situation. He mentions that ‘probably very few risk plans included a global pandemic...but this has shown us that even the most unlikely scenario needs to be considered by any arts organisation’. By reflecting on the trends we are seeing in how the sector is impacted, how creatives respond, and where the struggle is the worst, we will (hopefully) be able to better anticipate and plan for future hardship. Toni also emphasises the importance of trust, which can be built in part through detailed strategy and clear plans. Audiences need and want to feel safe and arts organisations can build trust by being clear and proactive in explaining how risk will be managed. Toni notes that ‘it’s not about how we recover from Covid, but also about how we use the time we are living in to change our current practice’. The underlying lesson is that readiness to change, fluid risk management, and ability to respond to changes (rather than just react) are vitally important for any strategy.
Unplugged Sessions Common Questions
If you could have lunch with someone who works in the creative industries (dead or alive), who would that be?
Toni's first choice is the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern who also happens to be the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. For Toni, she is not only a unique figure from his side of the world on how to lead her community through so many different crises, but as a minister of culture, he would also like to understand how important is culture to her.
Maltese dramatist and novelist Francis Ebejer would be Toni's second choice. Toni had the honour to reinterpret one of his works to commemorate 25 years since his death. He believes that Francis is a true legend who helped him understand how Malta's Arts sector was in the past.
Toni also insisted on adding Andy Warhol, who for him he is not just a true artist but also a great entrepreneur.
What 3 words would you use to describe the arts and culture?
Produced and interviewed by Christopher Buttigieg at Hello Creative
Written by Julian Almeida