Contact Manchester helped set Keisha Thompson on her artistic path when she joined one of the venue’s programmes as a young poet, writer and performance artist at the age of 15. Now, at age 32 she has become the venue’s youngest Artistic Director and CEO, as well as the first Black woman and first Mancunian to hold the role. She talks to Carmel Thomason about leading the venue in its 50th year and her vision to create a ‘castle of curiosity’ and ‘place of opportunity’ for young Mancunians in its sustainable new building.
You bring a lot of firsts to the role: the UK’s first poet to run a multi-arts venue, the first woman, first Mancunian, the youngest person at age 32 to run Contact, and I guess the only CEO to have come through its programmes as a teenager. What does that feel like for you?
Keisha: “I feel so supported. When we announced the appointment I had the warmest reception. It felt like my city was giving me a hug. Growing up in this city and taking part in so many projects means I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know people from so many different areas. I feel super blessed to have so many people cheering me on in this role”.
What can you remember your first visit to Contact as a teenager?
Keisha: “I remember feeling like it was a leap. I was the theatre for older kids. It was so wholesome. I was singing my little heart out in the foyer as people flocked into Space 1 for the main show. I can’t even remember what show it was. I just remember feeling excited to be there and smiling with eyes as our choir leader instructed us to do, haha”.
If someone had told you then that one day you would be running the venue, what do you think you would say?
Keisha: “I defo would have been surprised. At that age I was dabbling with the idea of being a lawyer, a journalist or an accountant. But to be honest when people asked me what I wanted to do / be, I would say, ‘I don’t think I know what’s called yet’. I knew what I was passionate about but every time I tried to align that with a profession I was aware of, it didn’t feel completely right”.
What would you say to your 15-year-old self now?
Keisha: “Not a damn thing! I’ve read too many books about parallel universes and butterfly effects. I could sneeze and wake up the next day with a third eye. I’m good, thanks”.
How has Contact played a part in your life since then?
Keisha: “Oof. What’s the word count? If I simmer it down, they have supported me as an artist but in doing so they have helped me have a better understanding of myself as a human. I have a great sense of agency. I have come into contact with so many people who have completely different backgrounds to me. It is a beautiful thing. Then I started to work for them as a producer and my career catapulted once again. I’ve always said that they can’t get rid of me now. Whether I’m working there or not – I’m always there.”
How will your experience influence your role as CEO?
Keisha: “I will use my empathy. I have been an artist, an audience member, a core staff member, a participant and a freelance consultant for Contact for years. Those experiences will inform my decisions but that will only take me so far. I need to check in with my team, with my audiences, with the young people, and the list goes on. I know it is a role that will challenge me consistently. There will always be new stuff for me to learn or consider. But that’s what I’m into. Good thing, eh?”
What does it mean to you to create a ‘Castle of Curiosity’?
Keisha: “I want people to know that their curiosity is currency at Contact. If you have a child-like want to learn new things, if you want to investigate or research or interrogate something, if you want to find out about new writing, if you want to find out about identities, politics, society or if you just want to find out what those turrets on top of the building are all about, we’ve got you!”
What have you got planned for the 50th anniversary of Contact?
Keisha: “Lots of juicy things that I can’t talk about just yet. Keep your eyes and ears open”.
What are your hopes for the future of Contact beyond that?
Keisha: “Cultural spaces are powerful places. We have a responsibility to serve a variety of communities. We get to contribute to the arts sector. We have a particular interest in advocating for young people and youth leadership. If I can uphold the wonderful legacy that we already have in doing this, I’ll be a happy lady”.
How can people get involved?
Keisha: “Head over to our website. I’m pretty sure most people will find something to tickle their fancy. We’ve got shows, workshops, food, blog posts, podcasts, playlists. Go on! Be curious”.