Interview with Norbert Francis Attard
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Norbert Francis Attard by Emma Fsadni
In 2020, Valletta Contemporary (VC) will open its yearly program with a celebration of achievements as a contemporary art space since opening. As the year’s first exhibition, Up to Now will present an eclectic mix of works by local and international artists, each having already made an appearance in the gallery throughout shows from the past two years. In tandem, VC will also launch a series of events across an entire month, including talks, workshops and exhibition walkthroughs. The gallery will become a social and communal place where discussion and exchange freely take place. In light of this celebratory event, Ann Dingli speaks with VC’s gallery owner and director, Norbert Francis Attard, about the defining moments of VC’s story so far, and what lies in the gallery’s future.
Ann Dingli (AD): It’s been quite a year for VC! What have been some of the high points of 2019 for you and for the gallery?
Norbert Francis Attard (NFA): By the end of 2019, Valletta Contemporary will have been open to the public for just over eighteen months. During this relatively short yet prolific period, VC presented a total of twenty solo and collective shows, all of them accessible to the public free of charge and presenting high-quality emerging and established artists. 10 of these shows took place in 2019 alone.
In addition to this remarkable achievement, numerous cultural, educational and other events also animated our space. We have been busy developing an educational program with the help of VOPS funding awarded to us for the second time for 2020. And then, I cannot help but mention that time when famous architect Lord Norman Foster gave an informal talk to a group of local architects at our gallery. As an architect myself, you can say that was a dream come true! I’m grateful to MICAS for their support in making this event happen.
(AD): When you set out to launch VC’s programme in 2018, you already knew you wanted to make education surrounding art and art practice one of the gallery’s central drivers. How will this carry on as the gallery moves forward?
(NFA): I believe that a solid educational and outreach program is equally important to a good exhibition program. Having educational events take place in the exhibition space add another dimension to the show and offer the participants the opportunity to experience contemporary art more actively than just through the act of looking and moving on.
In addition, at the end of 2019 VC launched its Gozo Contemporary artist-in-residence initiative. It is important to note that Gozo Contemporary was initiated around 20 years ago, way before VC was in the pipeline, and has been very well-attended over the years. From January 2020, Gozo Contemporary is officially a branch of VC and open for applications by artists and art practitioners who are looking for a space to develop their practice or work on a specific project over a couple of weeks or months. This initiative is not just a meaningful way for the gallery to engage with the artistic community, but it also introduces a new layer of financially sustainability for VC.
Valletta Contemporary at entrance level
(AD): Growth has always been important to you – mainly intellectual growth. What have been the greatest obstacles to the gallery in this sense?
(NFA): As with most other situations in life, the beginning is the hardest part and our challenges were numerous and diverse. We spent quite a bit of time working on improving our financial sustainability, marketing and communication efforts and achieving credibility on the global contemporary art scene. Our aim has always been to work with international, established curators, artists and galleries. How do we introduce ourselves and the local scene to these people? What will convince them to collaborate with us? In addition, as previous team members moved on to new things, new staff members moved in, bringing diverse experiences and perspectives to what we do. This element is also a contributing factor to how we can move forward.
(AD): You’ve also always had a very expansive agenda for your annual exhibition programmes. This year saw a staggering amount of shows – some of which were group shows that included a healthy number of exhibits. Operationally, how has the gallery coped with such an ambitious calendar?
(NFA): Between 2018 and the end of 2019, VC followed a model which enabled it to build a strong portfolio of exhibitions, achieve a certain amount of visibility and establish itself as a prominent contemporary art space in Malta within a relatively short span of time. Exhibitions lasted around five weeks with a quick turn-around of a week between shows. This model enabled the gallery to produce around 8 major shows per year but it was also quite taxing in terms of physical and human resources.
Moving into 2020, the exhibition program will consist of less shows with a longer duration and a slightly longer turnaround while maintaining the same good balance between exhibiting local and international, emerging and established, male and female artists. This gives the team ample time to plan in advance for upcoming shows, promote each show properly and focus on little things and finishing touches. In addition, the public also has more time to come and visit each show and not miss out.
(AD}: VC’s international standing has always been important to you. How do you think the gallery has progressed on this front?
(NFA): As founder and artistic director, the internationalisation of the gallery was always at the core of my personal philosophy and vision of what VC should stand for. The contemporary art world is highly globalised and therefore in 2019, it was absolutely necessary to maintain and build further on this identity.
In the beginning, international collaborators might have been a little hesitant to partner up with VC, simply because we were brand new and they wanted to see how VC’s artistic vision would unfold and the quality we were capable of delivering before signing their names to our program. After producing 2 successful year-long programs, we have something to show for ourselves and significant achievements under our belt, so it is much easier to attract the interest and initiate those conversations.
By the end of 2019, VC had also been selected to have a presence on OCULA online contemporary art platform and found itself sitting among leading galleries and art spaces from around the world. Being part of this authoritative resource for serious curators, collectors and contemporary art followers worldwide is highly meaningful to us and we are expecting positive results from this in 2020. More frequent travel to international exhibitions, art fairs, galleries and artists’ studios was also on my agenda for 2019. Following the restructuring of the team behind VC, I am optimistic that I will be able to concentrate more on my role as artistic director in 2020, translating into even more frequent international visits.
Valletta Contemporary at basement level (well), photo by Alex Attard
(AD): You’ve also had some remarkable international artists showing at the gallery. What have been some of your personal high points in terms of artist collaborations?
(NFA): Our 2019 exhibition program launched in late February with a very ambitious project, impeccably executed by German artist Nadine Baldow titled Pristine Paradise, whose work I fell in love with the first instant I came across it. To realise this show, Nadine worked for a whole month as an artist-in residence at Gozo Contemporary. Our calendar year came to an end with another stupendous show by Charlie Cauchi whose exhibition transformed the exhibition space in a way that we had never seen or expected before. In between, VC hosted six other major shows including solo exhibitions of Eric Meier and Aaron Bezzina, one duo show of Almagul Menlibayeva and Mikhail Karikis and three collective exhibitions - Afterminimalism, Non-Aligned Networks, and The French Idea(l). 2019’s shows provided a great variety in artistic disciplines exhibited, the presence of established names such as Damien Hirst, Christian Jaccard, Denis Pondruel, Dominique de Beir, Liam Gillick, Brian Eno, to name a few. Eric Meier, an emerging German artist also outdid himself with the imposing site-specific installation he managed to pull off.
(AD): What is the future for VC, and what place do you believe it occupies within Malta’s art scene and beyond?
(NFA): For 2020, we also have an extremely exciting string of exhibitions coming up, once again retaining the balance between the showing of local and international, male and female, emerging and established artists. Our program kicks off with the exhibition of Up to Now, presenting an overview of works that have made an appearance in previous shows between 2018-19. The opening night aptly coincides with the launch of VC002, VC’s second annual publication looking back on 2019. Alongside the show and the book launch, we are launching VC Community Month, an exciting month of events open to the public, emphasising the future of VC – what we have accomplished so far fuels us to keep on looking and moving forward, after all.
Our exhibition program for the year also has some fantastic shows in store. After Up to Now, we will present They Were Told That Money, a new media art group show looking at money as a societal construct. This show opens in early April. After that, we will present Three Women, a group exhibition consisting of only female artists and their powerful standpoint in a rapidly changing contemporary world, opening in May. In the second half of 2020, we are looking at presenting a solid photography show and established local and international names. We will not give away too much information at this stage, but hopefully enough to get you excited.
We also look forward to continuing our mission of being a key player and contributor to Malta’s and Valletta’s creative ecology, and to welcome visitors to our space and to another successful year ahead. VC has a broader vision for the promotion of contemporary artists and for its outreach initiatives. Diversity is the key word in this case; in the myriad ways contemporary art can manifest, in our mission of showing different disciplines and in the types of audiences we are hoping to attract.