An interview by Jill Glessing
MaryAnn Camilleri is the executive director of the Magenta Foundation. After completing her BA in photographic arts at Ryerson University, Toronto born Camilleri moved to New York, where she worked at Magnum Photo for ten years. In 2003, she returned to Toronto and, with the goal of publishing high-quality art books and promoting Canadian photographic artists, she started up Carte Blanche. The project gave rise to Magenta, founded the following year. Since then, the non-profit arts publishing house has organized promotional opportunities for photographic artists, in an international context. Its projects include Flash Forward, an umbrella title that encompasses festivals, exhibitions, and publications – most recently, Flash Forward Tenth – and the Incubator program; individual artist monographs (such as Robert Bourdeau’s The Station Point); Magenta Magazine; and pop-up art installations (such as Magenta POP: Pittsburgh Exhibition). www.magentafoundation.org
JG: Magenta is known for a lot of “mixing” in its projects – mixing of photography genres (documentary, fine art, editorial), career stages (from emerging to established artists), and professional backgrounds (jurors and literary voices from different fields in your publications). This creates a dynamic working environment for the artists you highlight. What is the thinking behind this curatorial practice?
MC: When I began Magenta, I already had experience creating successful combinations within books and exhibitions. I have always felt that matching a solid body of work with an author is key to marketing and selling products. I also like the idea behind limited editions and making things special for artists and consumers.
When Magenta began, ten years ago, we decided to keep it flexible in terms of direction and of how we wanted to work. We have had a great track record championing emerging artists and making sure that artists who have fallen off the radar gain attention. We have taken chances on those who simply have good work and given them the spotlight. Greg Girard’s Phantom Shanghai was a great example of this.
We have changed a lot in the past ten years but our original conviction to highlight canada on an international stage has always been a key factor in what we do.
JG: What do you think distinguishes Magenta within the Toronto and Canadian arts context, particularly in relation to publishing photography books?
MC: We spend a great deal of time and spare no expense in producing the best possible publications we can. All of our books are works of art, and that’s extremely important to us. We stepped up in a big way with our educational programming, Flash Forward, to invest in a platform that encourages and brings awareness to new talent. Flash Forward is regarded as one of the most valuable emerging artists programs in the art world. This year, we hosted our fourth Flash Forward Festival in Boston. At present, we are working toward helping, educating, and encouraging high school artists in the same way that we did when we started Flash Forward. The difference here is that we are trying to help sustain arts funding in high schools so that they can afford to keep arts programs. Although it’s only in year two, we’re really excited about the future of our Flash Forward incubator program.
Magenta’s strongest quality is its ability to diversify and keep ahead of the curve. The redesign of Magenta Magazine and putting it online was a key factor in this success. Our editor, Bill Clarke, deserves full recognition for that. He has done a remarkable job in creating a complete and fully rounded arts platform for us.
JG: The book industry is currently in great flux, particularly for quality imprints. How do you situate your photography book projects within the challenges of the international art publication landscape?
MC: I seem to be on the other side of this argument. I love the state that books are in. I think it’s making people think outside of the box and produce better-quality publications. I also embrace the self-publishing influx and hope that it too challenges the way we think. As a publisher, the key to success is lining up a good artist and project with national and international exhibitions. The problem that many publishing houses face is that they work on a book and then walk away from the remaining 50 percent of the work. That’s one of the main reasons that we don’t publish too many books peryear. Instead, we spend two years strategizing on a project and then initiate it.
I am not worried about Magenta’s future in this climate. We have a few new projects that are already underway that will stretch us out even further. I will also do many more boutique editions like Jack Burman’s The Dead. To take it one step further, all sales of The Dead were driven solely by social media and the book has been sold out for a while. I see this becoming more of our platform in the future, as well.
JG: How do you see the intense expansion of digital and social media affecting the styles and approaches of Canadian photography and your publishing activity?
MC: The future is totally exciting. I love the blurring of lines. For example, digital photography has started a revolution and artists are pushing the boundaries of their media. there is so much more to come and it’s so great to embrace the change. We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of Magenta and Flash Forward, and seeing the diversity among artists and countries really makes me excited about what’s to come. I am inspired to figure out how we can be a bigger part of it.
As for social media, it is such a great way for getting things out there and recognized. I cannot tell you how many times I have told artists to create a project on instagram and let everyone know. Bringing a new audience to your work is key to all success stories and everyone should be making the most out of these platforms. This past year at the Flash Forward Festival in Boston, stacey Baker of The New York Times told the crowd that she looks for photographers by going through Instagram profiles.
JG: Magenta has expanded quite quickly at a time when, particularly in Canada, the arts have been under financial pressure. What are some of the challenges in funding such ambitious projects?
MC: The challenge for any organization is always growth. Right now Magenta is at a tipping point. We have expanded into three cities (Toronto, Boston, and Pittsburgh). Our programs – such as our incubator program, which is already in demand – have been very successful, and we want to expand more. I have solid people around me whom I trust when I am strategizing, a solid board of directors that plans how we make our moves, and some great sponsors who are invested in everything we do and work with me to keep us growing. I keep striving to bring in more sponsors to allow our programs the growth they deserve. But, as much as we appear to be doing, we say no to so much more. I really listen to my advisors and then plan the best route to take. We’ve done very well with what we have created and our sponsors, but it is time to grow. It’s exciting not knowing what our future will look like and who will be brought into the mix.
JG: From my sneak peak at the next edition of Flash Forward, it is clear that Magenta’s support of emerging canadian artists has paid off. What are you anticipating for future projects?
MC: Supporting emerging artists has been a mission of mine since I graduated from Ryerson years ago. When I started investing in emerging talent and getting people on board with my vision, I took a lot of heat from Canadian artists who thought I should be focusing more on mid-career and established artists. When Flash Forward started, there was no support for emerging artists, and we took a huge step in providing that. Not only has it helped the Canadian artists we feature, but it has helped British and American artists as well. I know so many editors, nationally and internationally, that call the Flash Forward books their go-to for finding talent and hiring photographers. I witness it myself when I open publications such as The New York Times, Wired Magazine, and Air Canada’s enRoute, and see our photographers shooting for them.
We’ve covered many great artists in Canada and have given them the platforms they deserve. Aside from the emerging artists we promote, there have been monographs for artists such as Greg Girard, Jack Burman, and Sandy Nicholson. Volume 2, Carte Blanche: Painting featured other media. I have my eye on a few Canadian painters and, should the opportunity arise, I will make sure to publish them.
I don’t know where we will end up in the next decade. It has been a crazy journey thus far. The one thing that I do know is that I wake up each day, eager to see what’s out there and find a way to help.
Jill Glessing teaches at Ryerson University and writes on visual arts and culture.