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Les Rencontres d’Arles: Director François Hebel questions the festival’s future

© Molly Benn

On the eve of his last tenure as director of Les Rencontres d'Arles, François Hebel discusses the challenges he faced in his 13 years in Arles and questions the festival's future in a city that's being redefined. He speaks to Molly Benn

François Hebel first directed Les Rencontres d’Arles festival in 1986 and 1987. When he returned in 2001, it was to an event on the verge of bankruptcy, with €450,000 in debts and just 9000 visitors per season. He spent the following 13 years redefining Les Rencontres, taking possession of the celebrated Ateliers, where most of the exhibitions take place each year, and bringing back private sponsors to develop a stable and healthy economic model. Yet, when the city took the decision to sell the Ateliers to Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation, a conflict arose which led to Hebel’s resignation. As he prepares to present his last Rencontres, he speaks to Molly Benn of Our Age is Thirteen.

Molly Benn: The festival was bankrupt when you became director in 2001…

François Hebel: Yes, the Rencontres had debts of €450,000. At that time, the overall budget was around €1m; it had no sponsors and there were around 9000 visitors each year. We had to draw up an economic plan. I first turned my attention to the sponsors. Then, once we became more successful, we could make visitors pay. Today, 40 percent of our budget comes from these visitors. In 2001, everyone told me that I’d never convince professionals to pay because they were used to getting in for free. Today, these professionals are paying. On the other hand, we stopped charging for under-18s because I didn’t want to prevent families from coming to the Rencontres. And we developed our entry fees policy – it’s now very generous.

In 2001, 95 percent of the festival’s funding came from public funds and five percent from its own revenues. In 2013, 40 percent of the budget came from visitors, 40 percent from public funds, and 20 percent from sponsors. No one has a majority. We have total freedom. When you depend on just one company, you become a prisoner of that relationship. When you diversify your funding sources, you develop some sort of freedom from these different interests. And, curiously, your partners have more respect for you.

Our audience is our main source of funding. I’m not the kind to adopt the popular stance that everything should be free. Cinema is not free, museums are not free, books are not free, so I don’t see why photography should be free. Les Rencontres d’Arles is probably the only festival that has the means to produce everything it does. When I get in touch with curators, they all ask what my budget is, and my answer is always the same: “What’s your budget?” I’ve never put limitations on a project because of budgetary concerns. I’ve conquered that freedom.

Molly Benn: You insist that a sponsor should offer funds instead of products…

François Hebel: That’s because an event can’t exist without funds. To print the catalogue, to pay for the hotel rooms, to produce the exhibitions, you need money. You need cash. So when a printer manufacturer tells you it can give you a printer and some ink but no funds, and people accept that deal and add their logos everywhere, that kills the entire market. They become marketing tools for these brands and are offering them amazing visibility. They showcase their products without having to pay for it. That’s scandalous. But many people in our field don’t see it that way. Often they complain they can’t find money, but to find that money you have to follow ethical rules. If you want to keep a sponsor for several years, you have to spend money. Each year, I hire a manager just for my partners. If you want to keep these sponsors, they have to be happy. You have to spend time with them, you have to think and talk with them as a marketing agency would. They have to feel they’re getting something back. It takes time and know-how, and that has a price. And you cannot chase small sponsors, you have to work with the ones that will be generous. In France, we don’t really have that culture because, since the dawn of time, it’s the government that’s been paying.

Molly Benn: Today, you celebrate this financial freedom, yet Les Rencontres is going through tough times…

François Hebel: Yes, what I didn’t see coming is that our exhibition halls would be stolen. Well, I did, because I’ve been telling everyone for the past three years. I came up with the Ateliers development project. Seven years ago, I suggested to Maja Hoffmann that she buy these ateliers to refurbish them for Les Rencontres d’Arles. But in 2009 she changed her mind and came up with the project of a contemporary art centre. She wanted, little by little, to expel Les Rencontres. So for four years I’ve been trying to warn the local and national authorities. I think her project should be realised, because it’s a beautiful project, but it shouldn’t crush Les Rencontres d’Arles. We created the Ateliers, so let us live in them during the summer. Everyone told me not to worry, that the whole thing would remain a public/private place. In four years, no one sat down with Maja Hoffmann to negotiate. The local council sold the land without conditions and Maja Hoffmann explained, in writing, twice, that Les Rencontres d’Arles would be expelled.

Molly Benn: Why didn’t the government help Les Rencontres?

François Hebel: I don’t know. Ask them that question. Why does Aurélie Filipetti [France’s Minister of Culture] talk about that situation being a mess when she could have prevented it all?

This article was 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.