The Malta Independent 26 June 2019, Wednesday

A Museum of modern art in Malta

Malta Independent Sunday, 9 August 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

In the 1980s, there was a short-lived attempt to convert Palazzo Spinola in St Julian’s into a Museum of Modern Art. Since then Malta has been without a Museum of Modern Art, perceived by many to be a major deficit in the cultural fabric of this country. Museums are ethical constructs and a museum of modern art reflects the fabric and texture of a culture’s creativity. They tell us who we are and cure social amnesia. A successful museum is a social and learning space, a community centre and a place of collective engagement. It is a place where people of all ages can meet for different reasons and interact. If we ever were to a have one, I hope that it will be exciting and funky and not a chilly empty space that discourages human interaction.

Why did the first attempt to introduce a museum of modern art in Malta fail? Is it only because it should have been given far more importance and housed more centrally in the capital, Valletta? I believe this to be a central cause and yet there are certainly several reasons that have to be delved into and examined if the whole project had to one day resurface. Much is to be said about finding the “Big Picture”, the right formula that also helps museum directors, curators and artists feel good about themselves and what they do. There is the general public that is to be considered, and educating the layman on the value of a museum of modern art is a major hurdle that will have to be faced and overcome. Finding convincing reasons for such a project should not be underestimated if such a museum is to be sustainable within Maltese society. No ivory towers please! No ghostly place in which a miracle of the magnitude of Lazarus can never raise from the dead! Instead, a place where people can feel comfortable with culture and feel that their participation and presence is a valuable contribution. In my view, the public’s participation is one of the more valuable presences in any museum. Let us not delude ourselves otherwise.

Finding the “Big Picture” also includes finding a location for a museum of modern art and the eventual regeneration of Fort St Elmo could possibly include such an institution within the fort. There are other alternative sites in Valletta that would potentially make for an interesting location. Raphael Vassallo’s article “Closer to the arts” in MaltaToday mentions the ground floor space in Renzo Piano’s Parliament as The Denis Vella Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, a name given by the artist Isabelle Borg. Given Denis Vella’s scholarly commitment to Maltese 20th century art, and the encouragement he gave to contemporary Maltese artists, it would be hard to find a more fitting person to dedicate it to. Denis helped create awareness and love for modern art. His research also includes a book on the sculptor Antonio Sciortino. He also researched how several Maltese artists in the early 20th century lived and studied abroad, mainly in Italy and his area of specialization was exploring the link with 20th century contemporary Maltese art and the link with Italy during the Colonial Period. This traditional artistic link with Italy persists even today, yet with many Maltese artists today choosing to study further afield. Denis will be missed by his friends, many of whom, like me, are artists. A museum of modern art would give focus and definition to something Denis pioneered so diligently throughout his life. Naming a museum after him is an act of love and esteem to someone who dedicated himself to modern art in Malta.

When conceptualising a museum of modern and contemporary art in Malta, it may be worth investigating other fairly new and medium sized museums. The Brandhorst Museum in Munich and Whitechapel in London are both intriguing examples of what a medium sized museum could be like. The Brandhorst Museum in Munich is designed by Mathias Sauerbruch. The building is clad in 36,000 vertical ceramic louvers in 23 different coloured glazes behind which are beautifully crafted white walled galleries, which are illuminated by natural light. Another example of a stunning urban art space is the recently renovated Whitechapel in London, which had exhibited Picassos Guernica in 1937, shortly after it was shown in Paris. Today, it contains Sarah Lucas, Frank Auerbach, and Lucian Freud. It also showed the first British retrospectives for Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly. Whitechapel today now seems more like an institute than just a gallery and people are rightly comparing it to PS1 in New York. It includes public reading, evening classes for adults, discussion sessions for artists and a beautiful studio dedicated to teaching children. Something Malta could well emulate! A museum of modern and contemporary art in Malta should see itself in a relationship with people. It should aim to attract a wide variety of people who find significance and meaning in its surroundings.

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Other typologies of Museum Venice are The Palazzo Grassi and The Dogana in Venice awarded to Francois Pinault in which to house his immense contemporary art collection. These sites are now highly successful museums in their own right. What will a museum of modern and contemporary art contain here in Malta? Would it be strictly a collection of Maltese art starting from an established time line? There are many quality Maltese artists of the Modern period whose work is virtually unknown by the general public. Much of their work is in storage for lack of display space. The idea of attracting big art investors like Pinault is also a possibility. There may already be art collectors who would donate their private modern art collection, There may already be art investors willing to house an immense modern art collection in a prestigious Euro/ Mediterranean capital, and having our own museum of modern art shows commitment to culture and the arts. At this stage, these ideas may seem remote, however things do change, and when the credit crunch is over, it would be advantageous to have our house in order.

A museum of modern and contemporary art within the Renzo Piano City Gate project is a suggestion that some have been advancing for a museum of modern art on the ground floor of the parliament site in Freedom Square. Other sites in Valletta have also been mentioned. In the end, the choice of location and the planning of such an institution have to be made by judging ideas based on whether they resonate as true and meaningful to our lives, instead of degenerating into irrelevant ad hominem criticism.

Surely, a Mediterranean port city like Valletta, which is dependent on tourism, like Venice can only stand to gain by investing in art and culture. Marseille, another Mediterranean city port and designated European capital of culture for 2013, is working hard to upgrade its image. The French government is pouring money into two new museums. Yet another example, this time of smaller museums dedicated to one or possibly two artists would be the Marino Marini Museum, also in the heart of the historical centre of Florence, between Via della Vigna Nuova and Piazza Santa Maria Novella, which is housed in the ancient church of S. Pancrazio. The museum contains 180 works by Marino Marini (1901-1980) donated by the sculptor and his wife Marina at different times of his life. Museums of this nature would lend themselves to historic city centres like Valletta, as well as creating difference and interest. Small museums dedicated to individual artists make a valid contribution as well as adding interest and flavour to urban life.

Malta deserves a museum of modern and contemporary art, if we are to go with the idea of joining the two together. Our artists who will be classified within the definition of “Modern” deserve to be represented in public collections. Antonio Sciortino, who was both the Director of The British Academy in Rome and the Curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Malta, made a name for himself internationally as a sculptor. He is displayed here on the island with barely any importance. He is one of many.

Unless a museum can earn its keep and be relevant to the community in which it is built, it will not be sustainable and will be no more than a glorified store room of a culture’s collective memory. Location is of vital importance, ideally followed by prestige that a first class architect would bring to the project. A museum here has to have relevance within the community as well as being a tourist attraction. In a small community of 400,000, the challenge of sustainability is great. I strongly believe it is worth it and will enrich our sense of who we are within a Mediterranean European context.

Much has been written and debated in the media and Facebook on a museum of modern art in Malta. Denis Vella’s scholarly contribution and support of the visual arts in Malta rightly deserves to be commemorated. Naming a museum after him, which also reflects his area of interest, would be a tribute to someone who was so loved in this field.

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