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BIFB: looking back to look forward

When the new Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) Chief Executive Officer, Vanessa Gerrans, took on the role she felt contrasting urges about how to realise her vision of the festival.

Vanessa Gerrans, Ballarat International Foto Biennale CEO, and City of Ballarat Mayor, Cr Des Hudson. Photo: Ellen Eustice

Having moved to Ballarat about nine months ago, after seven years as the Warrnambool Art Gallery director, Vanessa joined BIFB at a pivotal moment in the festival’s lifetime.

Her debut BIFB, running from August 26 to October 22, is the festival’s 10th edition. To celebrate the big milestone, the new director plans to pay homage to BIFB’s history, while also taking the festival into a new era. This includes another massive task: turning the derelict heritage-listed Union Bank Building into a National Centre of Photography.

Vanessa has the professional credentials to lead BIFB, having also served as an RMIT Gallery curator for over a decade. And her stint in Warrnambool left her with a strong appreciation of how important the arts are for regional communities.

But the gravity of stepping into the driver’s seat of a mature event that many people hold close to their hearts isn’t lost on Vanessa. Much of the last nine months has been spent learning as much as possible about the festival’s legacy.

‘The tendency [when appointed the new CEO of BIFB] can be to race and be driven by a combination of excitement and anxiety, but you know that coming into this role it’s about listening to people and understanding the past and history,’ she told Inside Imaging. ‘That’s really important. That past, I’ve found [understanding it] really enjoyable – going back into the archives to find out how the festival started, what was it suppose to be, how did it change.’

How did BIFB change?

BIFB 2015 Opening Night, with Jeff overseeing the crowd at The Mining Exchange.
Full house: Jeff overseeing the crowd at The Mining Exchange on BIFB 2015 Opening Night.

And BIFB does, indeed, have quite a vibrant and dynamic history. It was founded in 2005 by fine art photographer, Jeff Moorfoot (OAM), initially running in Daylesford, a trendy regional town about 40kms from Ballarat. After two runs on the board, the festival outgrew Daylesford, and the City of Ballarat enticed it over with an accompanying re-brand.

Jeff and his small network of dedicated volunteers built BIFB into a reputable international photography festival. The volunteers included many photographers, whose expertise helped turn the old and often frumpy historic sites into exquisite photo galleries. Despite showcasing a polished program of great photography, the festival was always run in a frugal manner, due to Jeff’s primary challenge: securing funding. His successor, Fiona Sweet, on the other hand, excelled in this department.

But by comparison, Fiona’s flaw was Jeff’s big strength: curating a diverse program that, in Inside Imaging‘s opinion, maximises audience engagement. Here’s our takeaway conclusion from Fiona’s 2019 festival:

With the festival embracing new concepts like ‘renegotiating photography’ and ‘challenging the photographic medium’, there is an underlying sense that BIFB is distancing itself from ordinary folk who perhaps don’t know much about fine art, but know what they like about photography.

Contemporary and fine art photography takes centre stage at BIFB, including downright obscure ‘pushing-the-boundaries’ projects. This isn’t ordinarily an issue – a dose of weirdness is always welcome – but there was a distinct lack of other styles, such as documentary or fashion photography. Perhaps these accessible, bread-and-butter applications of photographic skill are just too darn photographic.

When highlighting this critique to Vanessa, she drew a parallel between photography and music, which both have a multitude of genres and sub-genres. To expand on this parallel, some music fans may be  diehards for one particular genre, while others enjoy a broad range of styles.

‘Maybe we don’t always think about photography that way [as having genres/styles],’ Vanessa said. ‘I think this festival (BIFB) could give a layered offering. You can choose your own adventure. If you want to go down a more pop side, you can, or if want to go down a really esoteric line of inquiry, you also can!’

Fiona mined a rich seam of funding, with the well-connected director bringing a sleek ‘corporate arts’ touch to BIFB. Through a combination of government grants and philanthropy, BIFB purchased the Union Bank building for $1.3 million in 2019. She later secured a further $6.7 million Victorian Government grant, by far the biggest single cash grant to go to an Australian photographic organisation, to build the new National Centre of Photography.

Other major achievements include the yellow and black re-branding and handing out the iconic yellow tote bags, which can still be regularly spotted slung over the shoulder of cool cats in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. That same year brought BIFB another critical triumph: the headlining Dave LaChapelle exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

The Dave LaChapelle BIFB 2017 headline exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

A new era

Fiona stepped down from her role with just a few weeks remaining before her tenure would officially end. By this stage Vanessa was already living in Ballarat and preparing to be the successor, so it seems the handover was planned well in advance.

In these intervening months, Vanessa spoke to various BIFB stakeholders to ‘find out what they loved about past festivals’.

‘And this is very different [depending on the person]. I was surprised to hear that sometimes it wasn’t even about photography. Someone said “we love the yellow bags and the vibe!”, and I asked “yeah, but what about the photography?” and they said “yeah, sure, but we can’t name any [of it]”. And that’s not nothing. It’s a reminder the festival means something different to everyone. ‘

This also included touching base with founder Jeff Moorfoot, and inviting him to contribute in some capacity to the 10th festival. It’s a promising development after the (lack of) relationship between Jeff and the Fiona Sweet-era BIFB. The festival’s founding father was effectively written out its history for several years.

Vanessa has also surrounded herself with a ‘great team’, including several experts, locals, as well as a strong cohort of volunteers.

‘There is something exciting about being in a dynamic organisation. Especially a not-for-profit, which are generally supported by very passionate people who want to see a cultural life, particularly in a regional place. Those passionate people are great motivators and often inspiring.’

Regional cities are ‘places for innovation and experimentation to thrive,’ Vanessa remarked. ‘The geographical isolation just breeds creativity. And people run with this.’

The upcoming BIFB theme is The Real Thing, and will be a ‘dynamic view of modern life through the lens of local, national and international photographers, and how their images and the channels they use, shape us.’

Vanessa highlights how this will involve an exploration of ‘truth’ in an image.

‘You have [always had] it from a photojournalistic perspective, but now from a much bigger sense with the emergence of AI and deep fakes,’ she said. ‘That’s becoming one of the completely ascendant topics of our time. It’s critically important. And photographers also get to have fun with the notions of reality.’

Renovation work has commenced at the National Centre of Photography, with the first stage scheduled to be completed at the end of this year. Vanessa didn’t want to give much away, but mentioned how the old bank vault will make for an exciting gallery space, the Centre will fund and show new commissions, and there is a beautiful three-story void space which has huge potential.

The BIFB Curated Program, including the festival headline exhibition, will be unveiled in about a month, as well as entries into the Martin Kantor Prize.

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