Barbara Bell looks back on her time with Kingston WritersFest

Jennifer Robson, author of ‘The Gown’ and Barbara Bell on the festival stage at Kingston WritersFest. Photo credit: Bernard Clark, courtesy of Kingston Writersfest.

Kingston WritersFest is an annual highlight for the vibrant literary culture here in Kingston. Since 2009, their vision is to be the organization in our community that celebrates the power of the written word by connecting writers and readers in conversations that inspire, engage, and expand our worldview.

Barbara Bell, the outgoing Artistic Director of Kingston WritersFest, has been with the festival since its inception.

“I was part of a committee of volunteers that launched the professional festival in 2009, and my first role was to manage the production side of things,” Bell told Kingstonist in an interview. “I had some experience in community theatre, so understood about the more technical aspects such as professional lighting and sound, clear sightlines, and of how to get people on and off stage on time.”

Bell said, as a lifelong reader, she was excited at the prospect of live presentations from great Canadian authors that Kingston WritersFest would provide.

She took over as Artistic Director (AD) of the festival in 2014. In that role, Bell oversaw the whole organization, with a focus on establishing the creative direction for the festival, adherence to the vision and mission, and programming the authors and events, inviting and confirming authors, and negotiating support from publishers for their authors’ appearances.

“I liken creating the schedule to building a puzzle, each piece falling into place, or being moved until it fits, and gradually showing you more of the whole,” Bell said of the festival. “That has definitely been my favourite part of the job.”

The Artistic Director is also the public face of the festival and spends a lot of time building relationships with grantors, funders, and other stakeholders in the community, including corporate and private supporters, and other arts organizations.

Barbara Bell with festival attendees. Photo credit: Bernard Clark, courtesy of Kingston Writersfest.

Kingstonist asked Bell to describe the festival to someone who’d never heard of it. She explained: “Kingston WritersFest is five days of stimulating and entertaining live onstage readings and conversations, plus half-day writing master classes, for readers and writers, with something for every age group, from school-age to teenage, to adult, to senior. All are welcome!”

When asked about her first year as AD for the festival, Bell said she remembers the challenges of stepping into the role and making it her own, while reassuring loyal attendees that it was still the festival they know and love. “I didn’t try to change everything right off the bat. I saw continuity as important, in the quality and general direction of the programming, and in the Festival experience, which is something unique and intimate, and a large part of the appeal for both attendees and authors,” Bell said.

Over the years, Kingston WritersFest has continued to grow under Bell’s direction. Expanding the programming and including more difficult subjects has created a more inclusive feel to an already diverse festival.

“We began to hear comments that KWF was one of the ‘top five’ festivals in the country, which certainly felt confirming, and like a feather in our cap! We continued to innovate, turning our focus to a diverse line up, more Indigenous authors, some Francophone programming, and emerging authors with unique perspectives,” she explained. “We launched events like the Kingston Dinner Club with well-known chefs/cookbook authors like Jamie Kennedy. We did events with walking tours, bird watching, live music. We tackled difficult subjects like euthanasia, the environment and climate change, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and the #MeToo movement.”

Being Artistic Director does come with its own set of challenges. The role as overseer requires the AD to know every facet of the festival at all times.

“One of the big challenges of the job is that you have to have a global understanding of every piece of the organization: who is doing what? When do we expect this revenue? What’s our deadline for that?” Bell pointed out. “You also have to have a great memory and an excellent system that helps you keep track of it all. Then you have to appear like a swan at the festival itself, meanwhile your duck feet are paddling madly just out of sight!”

Making the decision to step down from the Artistic Direction position was not one that Bell took lightly. “This change has been several years in the making,” she shared. “I believe that creative entities like the festival need fresh vision at regular intervals, and it was never my intention to stay on for 20 years. Still, I was with the festival for 12 years, seven as AD, and that’s long enough!”

Bell will continue to serve the community as a Professional Coach, opening a practice early in the new year. After two years of study and practice, she had earned her credentials, and her website, will be live very soon, for anyone wishing to learn more.

Aara Macauley will be stepping into Bell’s shoes, taking up the mantle of Artistic Director at the beginning of 2021. When Kingstonist asked Bell her thoughts on Macauley taking over the role, she replied, “I’m thrilled for the festival and for Aara. She certainly deserves this appointment; she has been dedicated to the fest for years, and she and I have worked really closely in administrating the festival. I wish her only the best, and am really looking forward to seeing where she takes KWF creatively.”

Bell also expressed what she hopes to see from the festival going forward.

“I trust that the festival programming will continue to focus on quality and diversity, and to honour the organization’s vision statement, which is ‘to be the organization in our community that celebrates the power of the written word by connecting writers and readers in conversations that inspire, engage, and expand our worldview.’”

And can regular attendees of the festival expect to see her face at events in the future? “I hope so,” she remarked. “I will always feel part of the festival family, and will certainly welcome any invitations to appear onstage, once I have got my coaching practice up and running.”

Barbara Bell (far right) with (L to R) broadcaster Eric Friesen, award-winning authors Marina Endicott and Johanna Skibsrud. Photo credit: Bernard Clark, courtesy of Kingston Writersfest.

For more information about Kingston WriterFest, visit their website,, and mark your calendar for next year’s festival, which will run September 22 – 26, 2021.

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