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Charting a new course for artists

Adrian Debattista, Head of Strategy at Arts Council Malta, outlines the creation of a Charter for the Status of the Artist.

The French novelist and playwright Andre Gide famously mused how: “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” While many will probably agree that there is an element of the unworldly when it comes to inspiration, they will also certainly concur on the need for basic rights such as having a place in which to work in, for the artist to be able to create.

Working conditions, social security and fair practice are some of the long-overdue factors of the artist’s and professional’s working life that are finally being addressed as a Charter for the Status of the Artist is set up. 

Adrian Debattista, Head of Strategy at Arts Council Malta explains how the process was initiated in 2023. The overarching goal, he stresses, is “to promote and safeguard the freedom of artistic expression, the right of associations representing artists, cultural and heritage workers, and related professions, and the access to platforms in which artists and other cultural, heritage, and creative professionals may express their views on their status be it economic, social or legal”.

These issues became all the more apparent following the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly impacted the working conditions of artists and cultural and creative professionals in Malta and across Europe. Indeed, Debattista highlights how the pandemic acted as a catalyst, unveiling the vulnerabilities within the cultural and creative sectors. This prompted urgent calls for comprehensive policy measures to protect and support artists.

Indeed, safeguarding the freedom of artistic expression, advocating for the rights of cultural workers, and creating a more supportive environment for the creative community were pivotal factors that helped push for the development of the Charter for the Status of the Artist. Now, this was not just a local concern; the European Parliament echoed similar sentiments, advocating for a ‘European Status of the Artist’ and setting the stage for an EU-wide framework that encompasses minimum standards, equitable access to social security, and a common definition of artists.

Following these calls, an Open Method of Coordination (OMC) group was formed, comprising experts from each EU Member State, including Malta’s representation from the Ministry for National Heritage, the Arts, and Local Government, as well as Arts Council Malta. The group created a report that shaped the discourse around the status and working conditions of artists and cultural professionals.

Explaining further, Debattista points out how: “The findings of the report and its recommendations are focused on artist status and social security, fair practice, skills and lifelong learning and artistic freedom.”

A pivotal moment for Malta came in June 2023 when Arts Council Malta coordinated eight focus groups open to all stakeholders within the artistic, cultural, and creative ecosystem. These groups, led by independent sectoral and legal experts, were designed to ensure that the insights acquired from the focus groups are truly reflective of the lived experiences of artists and practitioners. Each group delved into critical themes ranging from income and self-employment to intellectual property, labour rights and cultural infrastructure.

Debattista emphasises that the insights from these groups were eye-opening. What became overwhelmingly evident was the need for an environment that enables the long-term flourishing of the cultural and creative sectors (CCS). Participants cited challenges in equity within these realms. Beyond mere funding for temporary projects, there was a resounding call for increased public investment in social infrastructure and capacity-building to sustainably nurture the sectors. This includes frameworks for funding conservation efforts, renovations of heritage venues, and repurposing unused spaces to provide artists’ havens.

Furthermore, participants highlighted that a more decentralised approach to public funding of the arts and culture would be helpful. This could mean, for instance, local and regional councils working “more directly with their communities and grassroots arts and cultural organisations to enable a cross-sectoral approach to how arts and culture can be integral to more sustainable communities” notes Debattista.

Fair practices, social security and taxation are also sore issues: participants proposed stringent legal frameworks to enforce existing legislation or introduce amendments that account for the unique working conditions within the cultural and creative sectors.

They advocated for fair practices as a compulsory condition for funding (for example, in relation to artistic fees, contractual obligations, respect for human dignity, non-discrimination), professional indemnity and insurances, and more enabling measures for collective action mechanisms such as unions or associations to protect artists’ rights.

Concerns were also raised about the need for cultural work to be seen as a part of the labour force. This goes hand in hand with the need for clearer definitions of artistic practice to address social security and taxation matters. The responsibility of Public Cultural Organizations in upholding fair treatment, remuneration, and safeguarding artistic freedom was also a focal point.

The next phase involves drafting the structure of the charter based on these insights. The charter will be taken to different ministries to ensure it is correct when it comes to, for instance fiscal and social policy. The draft overview should be ready by the end of the first quarter of 2024 and the charter finalised by the end of the same year.

“The development of Malta’s Charter for the Status of the Artist stands as a testament to the collective commitment towards creating an inclusive, supportive and sustainable environment for artists and cultural professionals,” comments Debattista.

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