Les Rencontres d’Arles: The search for a new director

The city of Arles is entering a new photographic era – Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation has started work on the promised Contemporary Art Centre, which will transform the city into one of France’s largest art centres. Yet, the project, worth €100m, will also force Les Rencontres d’Arles to scale back the size and number of exhibitions it hosts each year, a situation that led to François Hebel’s resignation as director [read our interview with Hebel here]. We speak with Daniel Barroy of the French Ministry of Culture, a major investor in Les Rencontres d’Arles.

Olivier Laurent: How important are Les Rencontres d’Arles for the Ministry of Culture?

Daniel Barroy: For us, it’s France’s main photographic event. It’s essential. Les Rencontres is the largest festival in France, not only in budgetary terms, but also in the number of visitors. In 2013, there were 100,000 paying visitors, which is very good. It’s also an important festival because of its length – it lasts the entire summer. Finally, it’s also important for the local economy. It’s at the origin of the School of Photography, which will be moving to new premises soon.

Olivier Laurent: With the change of director planned for next year, do you see this as a positive development?

Daniel Barroy: I don’t know who will be the new director. In 2014, François Hebel will direct the festival. We’ve received enquiries from 17 candidates. Some are serious, others less so. I don’t know who will be selected, but I know François Hebel has given a more credible and professional stature to the festival. Thanks to him, Les Rencontres d’Arles is now world-renowned. The professional week has become an important meeting place for photographers. Now everything will rest in the arms of the next director – and there will be short-term and long-term challenges. First of all, the Ateliers will be rebuilt – and you cannot get around that. The new director will have to rethink the size and number of exhibitions. He or she will have to find short-term or long-term solutions to that problem. The second issue centres around the role that other institutions will play within the festival – that includes the city of Arles, the Luma Foundation, which is relatively new but also the richest. And there’s Actes Sud, which we shouldn’t forget. The new director will have to maintain the festival’s stature. Les Rencontres is a place where we can discuss the evolution of photography.

Olivier Laurent: How is the new director being chosen?

Daniel Barroy: There’s been a call for entries, which closed in February. We received 17 applications and a shortlist will be unveiled soon by the festival’s president, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, and a small committee of board directors. They will meet again with local and national authorities to select the new director.

Olivier Laurent: Will François Hebel participate in the deliberations?

Daniel Barroy: No. Of course, I’m sure François Hebel will follow the proceedings, but he won’t have a role in them.

Olivier Laurent: Should the new director be someone who can get along with the Luma Foundation?

Daniel Barroy: It all depends on what you mean by “getting along”. Of course, if they start trading insults, it will complicate things. And if the new director gives the festival’s keys to the Luma Foundation, that will also complicate things. The new director will have to find the right equilibrium, and this will take time. Yet we’re all wondering what the Foundation’s plans are and how these plans will develop. The Foundation is building its project, and we thank them for this. But we’ll need to take the festival into consideration. And that’s also the case for Actes Sud, which also owns some of the Ateliers [where the new Contemporary Art Centre will be based].

Olivier Laurent: Should the new director dedicate all of his time to the festival? I’m thinking about Julien Frydman, one of the 17 candidates, who is currently in charge of Paris Photo. Could he take care of two large events such as these?

Daniel Barroy: I don’t know. The committee will have to decide. Why not? In essence, time is relative. I’m more interested in the editorial and ideological conflicts this could bring. Paris Photo is a commercial art fair. It showcases work from private collections. I think Les Rencontres should have an editorial independence. Of course, I know that Paris Photo has a committee that selects which galleries will attend the fair. I don’t really have an opinion on this.

Olivier Laurent: We’ve heard that François Hebel will receive a payout from the festival once he leaves…

Daniel Barroy: I cannot comment on this. Les Rencontres d’Arles is managed by a private organisation. Of course, the government is a funding partner, so we’ll be looking at the accounts later this year to see how the money was spent. Yet, I have to say that François Hebel’s role, how he’s shaped the festival, its evolution and financial model, has been incredible. The challenge for the new director will be to maintain that financial model. Public funding will, in the best of cases, remain at its current level. So if the festival wants to grow, it will have to do so according to a financial model that still has to be defined – a model that will rely solely on private funding. That’s the challenge, especially in the current fragile and evolving context.

This article was co-written by Molly Benn, editor-in-chief of Our Age is Thirteen, a French photography website established in 2012, in partnership with British Journal of Photography. Visit Our Age is Thirteen.