Interview with Darcy Killeen, Executive Director of CONTACT

Interview with Darcy Killeen, Executive Director of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
by Seowon Bang

Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival is the largest of its kind in the world. “And we’re also trying to be the best photography festival,” proclaims Darcy Killeen, Executive Director of CONTACT, who had served as a Chairman on the festival’s board of directors eight years ago. “I actually wrote the call for the Executive Director,” recalls Killeenwith a chuckle. “And one day, I was talking to my wife and said, ‘I might just apply for this thing.’ And so I became the first Executive Director.” With his financial accounting background and Wall Street business savvy, he manages the festival on the operation and business end, working with Bonnie Rubenstein, the Artistic Director. Together with her and other curators, gallery owners and artists, they brainstormed ideas for this year’s theme, trying to make it as open-ended as possible so as to allow for free interpretation and engagement by the artists and the audience. This year, CONTACT explores the theme of ‘Public.’

Darcy Killeen

Seowon Bang:Public is a very broad yet such an interesting concept. We live in a society where over-sharing is the norm, and every aspect our lives is captured on Facebook and Twitter; and while we over-share, we are simultaneously and consciously preoccupied with the way we portray ourselves to the public. For example, Suzy Lake’s work (Georgia Scherman Projects, 20 April – 26 May, (featured exhibition) explores ideas of image-making through self portraiture.

Suzy Lake, Suzy Lake as Francoise Sullivan, 1975/2012, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto

Darcy Killeen: What with street photography, cellphones, and Google, there is a global circulation of images in the world right now. Forms of communication are changing nowadays. We’re shifting from verbal and written communication to visual and image communication. Words used to tell the story—now images do, sometimes not even accompanied by words. Photography shapes experiences as everything we see as public—and photography as a medium completely embraces the theme of public.

Seowon Bang: Surely enough, photography is enjoying a renaissance. In the age of iPhones, Instagrams and other ubiquitous photo apps out there, anyone can take a nice-looking photograph without the heavy equipment or extensive technical knowledge. But at what point do you become or call yourself a photographer and not just simply a point-and-shooter? Or, is there a merit in being a point-and-shooter?

Michael Kohn, Luminato Lobby, 2010, from 365 days

Darcy Killeen: Anybody that can take images can call themselves a photographer. My little daughter has a digital camera and she takes pictures all the time, and they turn out very well. (laughs) In CONTACT, there are several exhibitions consisting entirely of iPhone photography, mostly in the Open Exhibiiton section, such as iPhoneography (IX Gallery, 26 April – 25 May), 365 days (Voulez-Vous Cafe, 2-31 May), SHI-Phoneography (No One Writes To The Colonel, 1-31 May), and Jennifer Reedie: iPhoneography (Wychwood Barns Community Gallery, 22-31 May). They may not have the quality of a $5,000-camera, but still qualify as art.

Jennifer Reedie, Cakes, 2011

 Seowon Bang: With almost 200 venues and approximately 1,600 artists, what is the selection process to be included in a CONTACT exhibition?

Darcy Killeen: This sprawling festival is organized in multiple tiers. Primary Exhibitions showcase many internationally renowned artists and are curated in conjunction with big institutions—such as AGO, ROM, MOCCA, UTAC, and NGC—while Feature Exhibitions involve a juried process and are shown in other prominent galleries in the city. And out of approximately 1,600 artists, majority falls into the Open Exhibitions section, which is the biggest portion of the festival. It is open to everyone, and there is no jury. We put out a call for submission, and as long as they have a body of work and they can find a venue for their work, it’s included. It’s completely grassroots. Open Exhibitions feature works by amateur photographers as well as by professionals, and it is a stepping stone for emerging artists to gain critical exposure. CONTATCT is a marketing service that entirely supports the photographic community. We have a massive, loyal audience and provide fantastic national and international exposure. Being part of the festival really is the best way for a photographer to be seen.

Lynne Marsh, Upturned Starry Sky from the Camera’s Point of View, 2011, Courtesy of Galerie Donald Browne, Montreal, Primary Exhibition, Contact Gallery, May 1 – June 15.

Seowon Bang: Let’s talk numbers for a little bit. As the largest photography festival in the world, with its programming being largely free of cost, it must be reliant on public and private funding. Arts funding in Toronto and Ontario is taking a lot of hit right now, most recent and glaring being the hit that Luminato suffered, whose provincial funding is to be cut by $3.5 million over the next two years. What’s your outlook?

Darcy Killeen: We obviously don’t receive as much [government] funding as Luminato. 20% of our funding comes from the government partnership … but corporate sponsorship is the biggest reason for our growth. We are grateful to have a major financial institution like Scotiabank as a title sponsor, and other high-profile businesses such as BMW and Nikon follow suit to be part of CONTACT.

Seowon Bang: What is the most exciting aspect of CONTACT festival?

Darcy Killeen: Oh, getting lost inTorontoin the month of May. There are world-class exhibitions in every part of the city that are accessible to everybody. Walk around, see different types of photography. Immerse yourself in imagery.

CONTACT Photography Festival is running through the months of April and May. Festival officially launches 27 April with a party at MOCCA. Check for details.

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