Continuing the legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and the success of the European Capital of Culture year, the Valletta Cultural Agency supports, plans, and creates a programme of cultural events in the city. Today, Catherine Tabone channels her extensive experience and passion for the arts into her role as CEO, leading a busy team as they redefine the cultural events landscape in the wake of the pandemic.
Life for Catherine Tabone has always revolved around the arts. Growing up in an artistic family, a young Catherine was surrounded by artists, painters and singers from an early age, inspiring both a personal passion for classical music and opera, and a professional interest in the humanities – one that she also pursued academically.
A graduate of the Universities of Malta and Cambridge in cultural history, Catherine moved onto managerial positions at the Public Administration of Malta and also served as Curator of the National Museum of Ethnography at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu. In 2013 she was appointed Malta’s Director for Culture, where she provided policy direction and advice on heritage, the arts and the audio-visual sectors. Here, Catherine played a pivotal role in meetings held on these topics as part of Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Aside from publishing historical research works and active participation with a local cultural NGO, she also spearheaded Malta’s ratification of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and led a historic collaboration between Malta and the Holy See. Paving the path to her appointment as CEO at the Valletta Cultural Agency, Catherine served as Executive Director at the Valletta 2018 Foundation, overseeing the European Capital of Culture initiative in Malta.
“One of my favourite moments was when the Vatican chose Malta as the first foreign state to collaborate with the Holy See, creating together an unforgettable Nativity scene and a concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra in Rome that Christmas,” she recalls. “I also look back with pride on Valletta’s year as European Capital of Culture, knowing the extraordinary work and preparation that went into it. With the help of all involved it was a huge success, boosting Malta’s economy and impacting many sectors. And, of course, the creation of the Valletta Cultural Agency after Valletta 2018 has built on that work and investment, and made all our efforts worthwhile.”
Established in early 2019, the Valletta Cultural Agency indeed builds on the legacy of the capital’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2018. While ensuring that Valletta 2018’s many achievements are not lost, it also aims to keep that investment into Malta’s cultural scene alive by engaging with the community in the long term.
Since its launch, the Agency has catalysed over 90 in-person, online or televised events, as well as community-centric workshops – plus one game- changing milestone for the entity, as Catherine recalls. “Aside from the Agency’s creation, one of the shiniest feathers in our cap was the launch
of the Valletta Design Cluster,” she says. “We restored a formerly derelict building dating from the time of the Knights and created a space that gives opportunities for start-ups across the world of design. We also opened the Cluster up to local NGOs working on the annual festi in Valletta. It is a space produced by local people, for both the local and international scene.”
Catherine also points to her team’s resilience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our superb team rose to the occasion to ensure we could still inject happiness into people’s lives through culture, at a time when everyone needed hope and colour,” she explains. “In fact, we were one of the few to continue with initiatives, taking quick decisions to accommodate the ever-changing guidelines.” The Agency’s events programme included a city-wide flower installation with webcams installed so that people staying safe at home could enjoy it, with viewers both in Malta and around the world. The team also shifted some events from in-person to online, such as the popular Artists in Residency programme, while televising the flagship Pageant of the Seas and holding concerts in isolated venues such as convents.
“The Agency is lucky to have such an excellent team. I have worked with most of them since 2017 and we have a great relationship and bond, which certainly makes my job easier,” Catherine interjects, giving insight into her leadership style. “As CEO, I am part of a team. I am not there to be unapproachable or merely to give orders – my role is to collaborate with my colleagues to solve problems. Our achievements are ours, not just mine. I am only as strong as they are. They are the best team I could ever wish for.”
Meanwhile, the challenges of the pandemic put both the team’s dynamic and Catherine’s open-door approach to the test. “Our trust in each other, as well as our mutual passion and commitment to the arts, was simply heightened,” she confirms. “While everyone adjusted to the health crisis on a human level, as a team we came together to support culture against the odds.”
While ensuring that her team weathered the physical and emotional storm, Catherine also recognised the positive impact of culture and the arts on the well-being of the wider community during such a difficult time. “This may be one of the most significant – and encouraging – outcomes of the pandemic. Historically, culture and the arts were never sectors that held the interest of a large part of society. Yet, despite the sudden shortage of events taking place nationwide, people didn’t lose interest – on the contrary, the situation made them thirsty for the arts. Society recognised that the arts nourish the spirit and that they are an essential part of being human. When all else seems lost, we as humans turn to the arts for comfort and solidarity, to process what is going on in the world. As an Agency, we became more conscious of our responsibility to offer the community cultural events, especially in these most challenging of circumstances.”
With this renewed social passion and interest in the arts, Catherine now hopes that a wave of investment in the sector from private sponsors will revitalise Malta’s cultural scene. “Investors must realise that the benefits of culture and the arts are far greater than they may have thought. We need a concerted effort towards financial incentives for private firms to invest in culture – particularly cultural education – to put it on a level playing field with other sectors such as sports,” she affirms, while spotlighting the urgency of preserving Malta’s cultural heritage. “As a historian, the ongoing devalorisation of our historic landmarks concerns me deeply. I understand it is a difficult balance to strike, but we must think first about the soul of the country. It is our past that defines us; destroy that, and we will not only destroy our national identity but also reduce long-term economic value in sectors such as tourism. We must not be short-sighted.”
Now, as the local artistic community attempts recovery amid ongoing COVID-19 protocols, the Agency looks forward to a host of exciting projects this year, including collaboration in the bid submissions of Victoria and Birgu to become Malta’s next European Capital of Culture in 2031.
“The pandemic has proven that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Catherine concludes with a smile. “When you are committed to a goal, it is achievable in even the most difficult of circumstances – and with a strong team behind you, even more so. As restrictions hopefully ease, we are ready to create more quality cultural events. Malta must strive to give back to the cultural sector the dignity it deserves. The Valletta Cultural Agency is at the forefront of this effort.”
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