A sculpture by a renowned Swiss artist, Ugo Rondinone, placed in an open-air garden in Floriana, has cost taxpayers almost half a million euro, The Shift found.
Research also shows that the commissioning of ‘The Radiant’ on behalf of Malta International Contemporary Art Space (MICAS) was made through a member of its board, Gozitan art trader Francis Sultana, who, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter, incidentally also sells Rondinone’s art through his private business in London.
While the government has mainly kept quiet on this major work of art, inaugurated in 2019 at the Sa Maison Gardens, a series of FOI requests and research by The Shift shows a close connection between MICAS, Sultana, and the selected artist.
The acquisition of the expensive piece immediately raised eyebrows among the local contemporary artists’ community, raising questions on how the commissioned sculptor was selected and whether it made sense to spend so much of taxpayers’ funds when the promised new art space for which MICAS was created, had not even started being built.
While the government refused to give details on the costs of the Rondinone sculpture, invoices acquired by The Shift show that the work of art was bought through Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich, Switzerland, for $440,000 (€401,000). It is not known why the sculpture, commissioned directly from the artist, was bought through a third-party art gallery.
However, according to the invoice, the acquisition included a discount of $110,000 (€100,000).
Apart from its commissioning, the government, through MICAS, also spent another €41,000 in freight, insurance, and a reinforced concrete base for the same sculpture to be placed in the garden.
Sources at MICAS told The Shift that this ‘extravagance’ was the brainchild of Sultana, who is also acting as Malta’s Ambassador for Culture, together with tenor Joseph Calleja.
Francis Sultana from Gozo has built a reputation abroad as an interior and furniture designer and is the CEO of art dealer David Gill Gallery. Gill is Sultana’s long-standing partner.
Through his art dealership, Sultana exhibits and trades in various works of art, including Rondinone’s.
Asked to state his involvement in the Maltese government’s commissioning of a work of art from Rondinone, Sultana declined to reply, but he told The Shift that “Rondinone was unanimously chosen by the MICAS board from among several other international artists.”
No public call for the commissioning of this artwork was ever published by MICAS, and Rondinone was directly selected.
“The Board’s decision to select the artist was based on the fact that Ugo Rondinone was considered to be the right choice, as the stone sculptural figure had a wonderful narrative, perfectly intertwined with Malta’s cultural history – the first iconic artworks of Malta being stone neolithic figures,” Sultana insisted.
In various interviews with several international art and lifestyle publications, Sultana boasted of his admiration for the Swiss artist and showed some of his own Rondinone acquisitions for the private London residence he shares with David Gill.
Asked by The Shift to state whether he also sells Rondinone’s artworks through his private business in London, Sultana did not reply.
In the meantime, the MICAS new art centre, scheduled to open in early 2021 in Floriana, is still under construction despite some €20 million of government and EU funds being pumped into it.
The project, chaired by businesswoman Phyllis Muscat, a close associate of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and a business partner of his then chief of staff Keith Schembri, has fallen significantly behind schedule and is now earmarked to open later this year at a still undisclosed date.
Despite not having any experience in the world of art, Phyllis Muscat was made Chairman of MICAS in 2017 and has been drawing a government financial package of some €60,000 a year ever since.
Recently, the government amended its cultural laws, lifting restrictions on re-exporting cultural artefacts.