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Director of Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival, Karl Wallace, reflects on his career making big things happen.

Photo of Karl Wallace

Barnaby Festival, Macclesfield (2015 – 2016)

My latest role is with the Barnaby Festival in Macclesfield, a historic mill town nestled on the eastern edge of Cheshire that was once at the centre of the silk industry. A few years ago, Macclesfield borough was named the most culturally deprived place in the UK. This drove a group of passionate ‘Macc’ residents to show just what their town had to offer, and the Barnaby Festival was born. It was that revolutionary spirit and ambition that attracted me to the project and I am excited to be a part of it for 2016.

Over ten days next June, Barnaby will reimagine Macclesfield into a nucleus of vibrant cultural celebration, mixing performance with visual arts and spectacle. One eye is on nurturing local talent, the other on commissioning and producing work with partners across the town. It’s proudly an arts and cultural festival that is powered by its community.

Macclesfield is still without a regular arts venue but I believe that there is great power in this and it was one of the many reasons for me accepting the post. We have an opportunity to utilise empty listed buildings, thoroughfares, churches, shops, offices and homes, turning them into a network of arts spaces woven into the fabric of the town. You cannot underestimate the power of placing the arts in the public domain. I love working this way; it brings a democratised approach that feels right, timely and fitting for the festival.

In terms of my career, this role is defining. It has made me realise what attracts me to arts and cultural projects. It’s about trying to do something in a place traditionally not well served – ensuring regional arts thrives and develops. I have always been attracted to projects that are about making significant change in communities or organisations.

Limerick City of Culture (2013 – 2014)

I had similar personal passion for my role as Artistic and Creative Director of Limerick City of Culture 2014. This was an opportunity to work on a large project and make significant changes.

I was most proud of developing and overseeing an award-winning programme with my team, Maeve McGrath, Jo Mangan and Claudia Woolgar. This consisted of Irish premieres, introducing Royal de Luxe and Fuerza Bruta to the country. It also involved implementing a €2.3m local grant fund for community and creative projects and a €1.2m legacy projects fund to ensure the development of local cultural infrastructure.

Limerick, like Macclesfield, had an undeserved reputation born out of anecdote rather than fact. I am proud to have played a role in helping to reimagine its future.

Siamsa Tíre / National Folk Theatre of Ireland (2008 – 2013)

I spent five years as Chief Executive and Director at Siamsa Tíre. During this time, I sought to broaden the organisation’s vision and restructure its management. I stabilised its funding during Ireland’s crippling economic crisis and saw it become recognised as an organisation of national importance. Following three years of lobbying and closely liaising with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Siamsa Tíre was granted protected funding status. This was confirmed just before the end of my tenure – a great high to depart on.

This is also where I also picked up my ‘lilt’. My native London accent – previously impervious to any influence – changed significantly while listening to the musical tones of the Kerry natives. It was probably the journey I took around Ireland that did it!

Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick (2006 – 2007)

I was Artistic Director at the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick, where I headed up the Unfringed Festival as part of my duties. It was here that I established my love for the ‘underdog’ city and festival management.

Kabosh Productions, Belfast (1997 – 2006)

Going right back to my roots I can now see where my passion for making big changes started.

My career began as co-founder and Artistic Director of Kabosh Productions in Belfast. The organisation grew significantly during my nine years, becoming internationally recognised. It was made part of the British Council showcase and became one of the highest funded companies in Northern Ireland. The emphasis was on breaking the mould of traditional theatre making, offering something different and challenging the status quo. As I recall, it was a hotbed for incubating talent. Diego Pitarch, Conor Mitchell, Rachel O’Riordan, Owen McCafferty, Sean Kearns, and Richard Dormer – they all helped to make Kabosh a respected and award winning company. Their careers are all significant now and it was a great honour to work with them at that time.

Who’d have thought that a purported ‘cultural wasteland’ and former mill town would crystallise the essence of my career journey to date. I think my future lies increasingly in festivals but there is a lot of evolution still to happen.

Karl Wallace is Festival Director of Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival.

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Karl Wallace portrait