Not all culture is creative

toni santI interviewed Toni Sant, the recently-appointed artistic director of St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, about the road ahead. This interview first appeared on the Sunday Times’ Culture section.

His appointment as the first artistic director at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity is one of the few recent cultural appointments that was not met with political controversy.

The name Toni Sant garners respect across both spectra of the political divide and with good reason. Sant has proved his worth within the creative industries yet and yet again, both through a number of high-level management and academic roles that he held away from Malta and even from a more grassroots point of view.

His podcast, Mużika Mod Ieħor – which to date remains the only podcast focusing on Maltese music – is this week celebrating its 400th edition. He also co-founded M3P, a collaborative, multimedia database of Maltese music and associated arts.

Now, he has left a prestigious position as director of research at the University of Hull’s School of Arts & New Media, while on sabbatical from his other position as reader in digital curation at the same university to give the artistic identity of the national centre for creativity a new breath of life.

How do you view the role of St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity?

As its name and mission statement say, it is a centre for creativity and not an arts centre. Art is subjective, but creativity is not. The role of the centre is not that of culture hub but that of stimulating creativity in all its forms.

Why is this distinction bet-ween culture and creativity important?

The word ‘culture’ includes a lot of elements that do not fall under the umbrella of ‘creativity’. As an example I like to use the idea of ‘a culture of traditions and rituals’.

By their very nature, these are not creative. Christmas festivities are a major part of our cultural tradition but they are typically not creative. Can you really describe the majority of angels, cribs and decorations, that are all inextricably tied to the culture of Christmas, as creative? No.

Yet, this does not mean that creativity cannot be injected in this culture too. Take the song penned by Victor Galdes and sung by David Azzopardi, Bambin Iswed. That was a fantastic concept for the time, definitely creative.

The point that I’m trying to make is that my remit is not to focus on culture itself, but on creativity.

You say that creativity is not subjective. How do you define it?

We tend to use the words ‘creativity’, ‘art’ and ‘culture’ synonymously, whereas their meaning is quite different. Creativity involves producing something that was not there before. This does not necessarily imply that the material is original. Thus, in music a mash-up is still creative even though it combines pre-existing music.

Focusing on this idea of ‘something that was not there before’ is essential. Why do we face a lot of problems within the visual arts sphere in Malta? Because a lot of the art is interpretative, derivative or mimetic. To a certain extent this happens in music too.

How many times have we been told that someone is ‘l-Elvis ta’ Malta’ (the Elvis of Malta)? Picasso famously saw good sense as the ‘enemy’ of creativity; so maybe we are crippling creativity with good sense.

One of my priorities is to act as catalyst for the creative process

So what was being done wrong vis-a-vis St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity so far?

It’s not a question of what was being done wrong. The centre was in its infancy and, like all infants, there were teething issues. Now it is coming into its own, exploring its identity through a rebranding exercise.

Some would say that a rebranding is but a cosmetic solution.

No, this is not just a question of changing a logo. The whole process involves rethinking the relationship between the building of St James Cavalier itself and the Centre for Creativity that it currently houses. The two are separate entities, a fact that has been forgotten at times. If the centre moves to a different location, its functions are not affected.

On a practical level, the rebranding will also implement the separation between the administrative and the artistic side in a more definitive manner. This is a process that former manager Chris Gatt had already started to implement. the rebranding will consolidate it even in the mind of the public.

How will this rebranding affect that artistic programme?

Up until now, there was no difference between holding an event at a private hall and holding it here. The centre offered an online application and applicants were accommodated seem-ingly on a first-come, first-served basis, just like any other commercial transaction.

Acceptance of the application was not a reflection on the quality or merit of the event and there was also a heavy reliance on the 19th-century idea of ‘creative events’, ie exhibitions, plays and concerts. There was already an under-current of more diverse events, but these were overshadowed by the main elements.

One of my priorities is to redress this balance and to act as catalysts for the creative process rather than as lessors of space.

The online application will be removed and in January there will be a call for event proposals for the 2015/2016 season. The proposals will be assessed by a panel of specialist consultants. My job is to ensure that the programme is truly representative of as diverse a selection of creative arts as possible.

Will this team have final deciding power? And if so, how do you plan to avoid potential conflicts of interest, personal considerations and so forth?

No, the panel is a consultative one. There will be a minimum of three people on the panel and they will hail from as wide and diverse a background as possible, taking into consider-ation everything from age to gender and specialisation.

The issue of potential conflict of interest is one that I am giving due importance too, although the fact that the panel is a consultative one is already a safeguard.

How will this panel help to improve the programme?

Applicants are being reviewed by their peers, something which is very valuable. They will benefit from the guidance, advice and ideas of their peers, rather than simply being rejected or accepted. The New York based arts organisation Franklin Furnace, which focuses on avant-garde art and with which I have worked closely, use a similar method.

This is also what we are doing with our Sensiela Ideat series of consultative talks. The sessions are taking place regularly and are a call for public participation in the process of exploring our identity, diversity and legacy.

How do these three elements fit within your scheme of priorities?

These elements reflect the centre’s mission statement and involve an outreach to the people. I am address-ing diversity as explained before, by redressing the balance in the type of events that are on the programme.

To achieve this, the centre needs to reach out. The programme needs to include activities that are not tied to the building of St James Cavalier.

What about the legacy aspect?

We definitely need to start documenting and preserving works. There needs to be a shift in perspective between what we inherit from others and what we leave to future generations as their legacy.

The latter is important because to know who we are, we need to know who we were. My area of speciality is digital curation and I see archiving as an important part of the creative process. We need to preserve work and then consider what to do with it next.

On a personal level, what convinced you to take a sabbatical from your position at the University of Hull to take up this role?

Malta is one of the few countries where the budget in the creative industries was not cut. Other countries are cutting their education and cultural budgets. In Malta they were increased.

When I left in 1994 there was no Arts Council, no arts funding. Today, not only is that an official infrastructure but also a proliferation of private schools teaching the arts, for better or for worse.

The quality varies, of course, but the option is there. Today, it is possible to have a day job in the creative industries. That is why I came back.