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After eight years at Contact, Artistic Director Matt Fenton is handing over the reins. Here he reflects on how the leadership role has changed.

People sitting around tables
Round Table at Contact

Contact MCR

It’s a strange time to be writing about leadership. It was a term already becoming devalued from overuse - everyone’s a leader, pretty much from childhood - and now so debased in the British political context as to be almost worthless. 

And yet, the last few years has revealed innumerable inspirational leaders, from local community organisers during the pandemic to Black Lives Matter and global action on the climate emergency. People whose selflessness and drive inspire not just their immediate community, but sometimes the whole world. 

Just as hopeful are new forms of collective decision-making, in youth and climate movements, finding better ways to reach consensus and representing more widely than our historic, hierarchical and colonial institutions ever have.

A window onto my own background

My time as a leader in the formal, paid sense has recently come to an end. This spring, I stepped down as Artistic Director and CEO of Contact in Manchester to make space for a younger generation. Contact is now headed by chair Junior Akinola and new AD/CEO Keisha Thompson. Both grew up close to the venue and engaged with the building from childhood.

My career mirrors a paradigm shift in how cultural leadership is viewed and practised. I began as a venue director under the impression I needed to bluff my way from the front, pretending I had a map, a compass and a clear vision. 

Over time, I became more confident to approach leadership as an artistic practice, informed by contemporary theatre-making: an instinct that a theatre’s programme and strategic direction could be ‘devised’ collaboratively, rather than visioned from the top.

With the help of an Arts Council England leadership programme, I came to realise that the early programmes I had been so proud of were exciting in form only, not in terms of who was making or accessing the work. They were a window onto my own background and were far from diverse - neither was the audience.

Experiments in citizen curators

My resulting experiments in citizen curators marked a turning point - first at Nuffield Theatre Lancaster and then following a merger which I also ‘led’, with Peter Scott Gallery and Lancaster International Concerts, to create what became Lancaster Arts. 

Inviting local residents to form a programming team, or schoolchildren to curate artworks from the gallery collection, was radical mainly in that they were not engagement projects alongside a professionally curated programme. They were the programme, with full budget, production and marketing weight. 

Their success ended any notion of programming as the domain of one person’s expertise or taste-making, challenging the idea of a single artistic director - a role in which I was increasingly uncomfortable as I became conscious of the relationship between my taste and my class, race, gender, sexuality and disability status.

This growing unease led me to Contact, the singular British model of a public theatre that for over 25 years has approached programming, commissioning, staff appointments and business planning as an opportunity for young people to take the lead. Despite its youth and community focus, there is no education, engagement or outreach department at Contact. These things are at the centre, the thing itself, not routes into a programme decided by others. 

‘Come back with vibrant colour’

Leadership at Contact is the facilitation of young people, and at its best, their creativity, ideas, music and performances organically feed the public programme. And most excitingly, it’s a programme that is for everyone, not just young people. As artist and young trustee Ali Wilson says: ‘youth culture is culture’.

This distributed, facilitative leadership model extends to young people under 30 making up over 50% of Contact’s trustees and forming interview panels for all staff and board appointments. Above all, it’s about trusting a collective process, and being comfortable that a theatre’s output will be unpredictable, and extend into sport, health, gaming, activism and entrepreneurship.

The ultimate expression of this approach was the £7.5m reimagining and expansion of the Contact building. From consultation with young people, staff and audiences over several years, a set of priorities was drawn up by ConStruct, a dedicated group of around 15 young people committed to the project, and who put access and environmental sustainability front and centre. 

It’s shaming that, in 2015 sustainability would have been lower on my list. The young people’s commitment led directly to the appointment of architects Sheppard Robson, the only diverse team who pitched to the young selection panel. The young people entered a co-design process with the architects on the new spaces, at one point throwing out an entire proposed interior design scheme - a raw concrete, chipboard and exposed ducting ‘urban pop-up’ vibe since adopted by basically everywhere. 

‘Come back with vibrant colour, comfort and planting’ they said. The result is stunning, and locks in carbon savings through a natural ventilation and heating system building on original architect Alan Short’s ‘nat-vent’ design of the 1990s, giving Contact its distinctive castle turrets.

Shifting the dial on access and diversity

Everyone working in an organisation plays a part in enabling collective leadership, but it takes time. How much longer to support a group of young people to attend shows and festivals, research artists from across the globe, and work out what is affordable and logistically possible before commissioning a new production (as young curators did for a Contact and Manchester International Festival co-production in 2019). 

An artistic director could do that in a fraction of the time by relying on existing contacts, reputations, reviews and a sense of the likely possibility of things. Yet how much more boring, how much less likely to engage unexpected artists and communities.

Perhaps what I am most proud of is that, unlike in my early career, you know almost nothing about me from the new productions created at Contact during my time as AD. But you can tell a huge amount about the priorities, interests, experiences and inequalities facing young people and local communities.

Of course, there remain inconsistencies and power imbalances. At Contact, the artistic director/CEO remains the highest paid role in the organisation. Young people are increasingly paid for their time and expertise, but it’s a small gesture compared to salaried staff. 

But in the end, if we do not change how organisations think about and structure leadership and artistic programming in new ways that move well beyond the tastes of a culturally similar and very small club of people, we’re never going to engage and represent our communities, or really shift the dial on access and diversity.

Matt Fenton is a theatre director, dramaturg and arts consultant. 

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Matt Fenton headshot