Interview with Owen Bonnici, Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and Local Government, Malta

Interview with Owen Bonnici, Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and Local Government, Malta

BF: Malta’s economy is one of only four EU countries with projected growth rates of about 1% in 2023. What key factors have led to Malta’s fast economic rebound in the last few years, and how is this economic stabilization affecting the country’s focus on arts and heritage?

Owen Bonnici: The main reason why we are so successful economically is because we are very agile: we take decisions in a very efficient and expedient manner, and we are, as a government, very in touch with the business community and the families at large. Of course, having a strong economy helps to foster a good cultural ecosystem. Talent is important in the cultural sector, but talent alone cannot make it; you also need the financing to make projects work. The fact that our economy is going forward is good news for the culture and the arts.

BF: Tourism provided Malta with almost 17% of all employment and expenditures of around $2.4 billion in 2019. According to the OECD, pre-pandemic rates of the vital sector are expected to return in 2024 or 2025. How significant is Malta’s thriving tourism sector in maintaining the country’s arts and heritage segments, and how has the pandemic affected their operations?

Owen Bonnici: The tourism and cultural sector work together. They are so connected to each other that you cannot imagine having one and not having the other. Through a robust tourism sector, we can have very good numbers of visitors in our museums, for instance. I’ve been told that, compared to pre-pandemic times, tourists are spending more. Even in terms of quality we’re seeing positive results. Of course, the arts and culture are not only about tourism, but tourism fosters a very good backdrop for a strong ecosystem. Of course, having a strong cultural calendar helps to attract tourists to Malta as well. For instance, right now we’re having a Baroque festival, where we play Baroque music, and take people round about the main baroque places here in Malta, including churches, not only theaters, and it’s full of foreigners. When I go and listen to fantastic Baroque music, I can look around and see the room full of foreigners, tourists who come to Malta simply to enjoy January here, but also to enjoy fantastic Baroque music. That’s just an idea.

BF: In mid-December 2022, you launched the five-year cultural strategy for Malta’s six regions. Can you tell us about the country’s main projects under the strategy, and what kind of overreaching goals does the country want to meet in promoting its regions, such as the recent large emphasis on the development of Gozo?

Owen Bonnici: We have six regions in Malta, which is a reason for creation; it’s only very recently that we have these six regions here in Malta. The idea is to accentuate and enhance the various aspects of our culture, which are distinguishable according to the regions they are found in. You have realities in one region which you do not find in other regions and vice versa. We are keen to celebrate the cultural ecosystem of each and every region here in Malta.

Malta is a small country. The idea of having regions in a very small country is testament of how rich Malta is in terms of culture. If you take a look at the Gozo zone and compare it to the southern region, you will find differences. It’s fantastic, and each and every cultural strategy is, in itself, a labor of love. The regions work hard. It will also create new opportunities for the artists. We have a lot of people in Malta for whom art is their job, their workplace. They earn money out of arts, and the fact that we have those new initiatives creates new opportunities for the artists to work and earn money while they’re living in their own communities.

BF: One of Malta’s largest projects is the Malta International Contemporary Art Space (MICAS), which you’ve described as one of Malta’s largest investments ever. Can you tell us about the size and scope of the MICAS project and its expected impact on tourism and the local community?

Owen Bonnici: This is a project where we are putting a new meaning to culture, building a high-quality built environment full of culture. We have 13 acres of land; currently nobody goes there because it’s derelict, and we’re giving it back to families and the business community, to utilize and create wonderful opportunities there.

There will be top notch galleries, so that people from Europe and elsewhere, even from America (we’ve had an American artist come over), could promote their own installations and art. It will be in Floriana, with the bastions as a backdrop. We’re going to have this love affair between the old and the new. It’s a fantastic project, and we were very keen on it. This year, the galleries will be ready. I think people will absolutely love it. It will take arts and culture and Malta to another level. These bastions were utilized in the past as an instrument of war, and now we’re turning them into an instrument of peace, of art and creativity.

BF: Heritage Malta recently declared the world’s first deep-water archeological park. What kind of impact will this new site have on tourism and conservation in Malta, and how will this and other protected sites help toward ecological conservation and lowering Malta’s carbon footprint?

Owen Bonnici: This is an amazing topic. Malta is an island, so we’re surrounded by the sea. The sea forms part of our own way of life. I cannot even imagine not living on an island surrounded by the sea. The sea is so intimately linked with us. Even our business, our commerce, what we do, there is a lot of sea in it.

We decided to take underwater heritage seriously. We are lucky to have Professor Timmy Gambin, who is a leading authority on underwater heritage. He is Maltese and is working with Heritage Malta. He’s doing a fantastic work there. For instance, we have a Phoenician vessel which is underwater. Imagine it: 7000 BC, how ancient that can be, and it is still intact. You can dive and see it. It’s in Gozo.

We’re turning Malta into this fantastic destination for diving, not only for fun and leisure, but also to learn more about history, about past civilizations, about what happened since time immemorial. That’s a lot of hard work, and we’re so very proud of that work we’re doing. Unfortunately, throughout the centuries, a lot of things were stolen from Malta, either by conquerors or even people who would go diving and steal what they found. But we’ve decided to turn over a new leaf, and we’re doing that in a scientific manner.

BF: Previously you’ve had an extremely successful career in politics, including acting as Minister of Justice and Minister of Education and Employment. What are your current top three priorities in your new position, and what vision do you have for Malta’s heritage and the arts segments as we move into 2023 and beyond?

Owen Bonnici: This is my second term, actually, as culture minister because I spent five years as shadow minister in opposition on culture. Then I spent six years as culture minister, along with the justice portfolio. I had this dual role. After the elections, I was reappointed again as culture minister, which is my first passion. This is a sector which I really love because Malta is so good in it.

I really must explain why Malta distinguishes itself. Malta is the result of two important things. First, the fact that it lies in the middle of where the action was until World War II. Before World War II, Europe was the center of everything, of the main things which used to happen. Now things have changed through globalization. But for a chunk of history, Europe was where the action happened. Malta was in the middle of that, and we were conquered by practically all the major forces in Europe.

Secondly, we are between North Africa and Europe. We are members of the European Union, but we speak a Semitic language, which is essentially Arabic, with some changes in it. When I speak in the European Council with my colleagues and we speak Maltese, they are like, what does this language sound like, it sounds like Arabic. It is a semitic language. This is what makes Malta so different.

Culture and heritage are important. If you put culture and heritage in the middle of everything you do, you are celebrating creativity. Creativity is what makes all the difference if you want to be a successful country or not. Even in economics and financial services, it’s creativity and innovation which makes the difference. When you look at it, culture and heritage are intimately linked to this innovating aspect. We would like Malta to be considered more as a leader in culture, historical affairs and heritage.

We are a Catholic country; we have a Catholic majority in Malta. But when we pray, we do not pray to God, we pray to Allah, which is the Arabic word the Muslims use to pray. That’s how fascinating it is. I have a lot of Muslim friends, and they are fascinated with this. We’re one people at the end of the day; there are so many things which bring us together,That’s why I’m very proud to be Maltese. We’re small, but we have a lot to offer.

BF: I would like to ask you if you would like to leave some final remarks to the readers of USA Today. 

Owen Bonnici: I want to speak about what makes life worth living, about fun, about creating memories, about creating experiences, about doing something meaningful in your life. Coming to Malta is doing something meaningful. If you’re an American, you’re on that side of the world, and you look toward Europe and say: Where would I want to go? Consider Malta. You can take a look at past histories. We have very ancient temples. But you can also take a look at what is going on in the middle of two major continents, which are Europe and Africa. Then from here, you can hop around everywhere you would like to go, like Italy, Tunisia, or Egypt. This can be the starting point of a very beautiful adventure.