Keisha Thompson Talks … Multi-Arts Centre ‘Contact’

Keisha Thompson is an award-winning writer, poet, performance artist and producer …

She took over as Chief Executive & Artistic Director of leading Manchester-based multi-arts venue Contact last year as it celebrated its 50th birthday. Making her the first poet, first woman, first Mancunian and youngest person ever to take on this role.

Earlier this year Keisha was invited by producers Mediale to give a keynote speech at ‘Let’s Debate’, commissioned by Arts Council England to bring together the nation’s arts and culture sector to interrogate the ACE Investment Principles, to celebrate the most innovative practice, and share barriers to action.

We spoke to Keisha about what life’s like for her right now …

Please introduce yourself …

I am Keisha Thompson and I’m from Manchester, pronouns she/her. I am the Chief Executive and Artistic Director at Contact which is a multi-arts centre in Manchester. I am also an independent artist, mainly known for theatre poetry and music, and a producer and facilitator. I was born and bred in Manchester, a very proud Mancunian, and my heritage is Caribbean. My mum is from Guyana, which is geographically in South America, but culturally it’s Caribbean, and my dad is Jamaican.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

Fluctuating.

Congratulations on your role as Artistic Director and CEO of Contact. You’re conquering a lot of firsts in this position, first poet, first woman, first Mancunian, and the youngest person ever to take on this role. Why do you believe you were the right person?

There could have been a number of people that took on this role, but I definitely felt right for it because I’ve been associated with Contact since I was 15. I’ve worked for the organisation as an artist, and then as a producer and I’m very much an advocate for the arts in this city. Contact represents so many things I care about – supporting young people, supporting emerging artists. It also always had a strong ethos around environmental responsibility and accessibility, so I really felt like my personal values and principles would complement the role and that I could essentially manifest my artistic vision. And I like to challenge myself, to punish myself. When I went to the interview, I was very much like, “This is what I’m about, this is what I’ll do and if you like it, you like it, if you don’t, you don’t“. I think all those things – being the first woman, the first poet etc. are important but there’s such a thin line and it can become tokenistic and almost gimmicky. And I’m not interested in pandering to that.

Please explain what Contact is and how it serves the artistic community ..

We recently did some consultation with young people and artists, and they said that Contact is where they come to be themselves, and where they come to be, which I think is a great way to articulate what Contact does. So, it’s more expansive than art, though the art is our vehicle. We’re interested in people finding themselves and finding out about the world. So even though we advocate for art and creativity, we’re not interested in churning out artists.
We’re very much about being collaborative and supporting people who are emerging. And that doesn’t mean that you’re young, it might be that you’re exploring an art form for the first time. You’re not just coming in to do a workshop, but to ask yourself – what’s your practice? What’s your identity? How do you market yourself? All these questions are really important in getting people to understand what it requires to be in this sector.

We do lots of work outside of the art sector too. We work with loads of researchers, and we’ve had young people come and set their businesses up with us. I was speaking to a friend of mine, who was on a young programmers’ project with me; he’s a lawyer now. I love that.

And we’re seeing the success of our anti-racism programme which we designed to support other organisations in the sector make proactive change towards a meaningful and enduring anti-racism culture. What’s been great coming in at this 50-year point and looking back and thinking, OK, this is what we’ve done for the last 50 years, but what’s the direction now? What do young people need now? They’ve just gone through COVID, there’s all these different types of crises happening, and lots of funding cuts so we can’t just keep going on as normal. We need to be pioneering, we need to take risks.

Keisha Thompson – Credit: Audrey Albert

What are your plans for Contact and where are you drawing inspiration from, and how do you hope your work at Contact will encourage other artistic institutions to follow your lead – thinking about your Manifesto of Care?

In terms of my vision for Contact, I’ve been calling it the ‘castle of curiosity’. I think it’s a space that protects people, that has a civic duty but is also a place for people to convene, and celebrate, and congregate. One of the major things I want to do next year is launch a new festival called Refute, which is about refuting the present and reimagining the future. I want it to be agile and malleable so it can represent whatever is current and needs to be discussed culturally at that time.

We are very self-critical at Contact, we get nodded to a lot, which we definitely appreciate. But we know that we’re not perfect. It changes every time a new person comes into the organisation. So, you can never be complacent. There’s always something to learn. I’ve got my own personal interests that I’d like to start weaving into the programme, like how do I teach mathematical pedagogy as an artist? I’m still very much in the research stage but because I’m trained as a maths teacher, I’ve always wanted to converge those worlds.

We have lots of partnerships which is another lovely thing about being in Manchester that I haven’t always found in other cities. During COVID we created the Greater Manchester Artistic Hub where we were all online doing one to ones with different artists and giving them support and advice.

The Manifesto of Care is our statement of the beliefs and rules that should shape a caring arts institution and was created through conversations and consultations with young people, artists, freelancers, audiences, people who have never been to Contact, our staff and other arts orgs. It was already in place when I took over so for me it’s thinking how we can continue it. It’s essentially a catalogue, because there are so many organisations out there doing great work, and we do great work, and we can share our practice.

Tell us about your new team, who has been your absolute rock?

The team is great. I definitely felt held when I came into this role. I appreciated it even more so because at the time three people had left very senior roles that left a bit of a historical hole in the organisation. In terms of who’s been my rock, there’s no one person. The senior team and all the different teams within the organisation have been absolutely brilliant. I can easily say I appreciate everyone in the organisation, because it’s hard being in this sector. Times are really tough. It’s not easy saying come and see this show whilst people are lining up for food banks.

You recently delivered a keynote speech at the Arts Council’s Leadership Conference – what were the key points of your speech and with so much arts funding being cut and the importance of the arts constantly being undermined by the government, how do we work together to keep the arts healthy and thriving?

I was asked to talk about Dynamism which is one of the Art Council’s Investment Principles. So, I was talking about how that’s an invitation to be positive, resilient and proactive and drawing on my experience of working at the Arts Council for a year. My aim was to try and give people a sense of tangible hope, and not to be led by fear. We are organisations in the creative industries so if anyone is going to be creative it should be us. We’re in a space to demonstrate what it means to be imaginative and visionary. It was a nice challenge and I enjoyed being able to dance between talking in quite an abstract way but then also saying, it means this and it looks like this, and the Arts Council actually think this, don’t be afraid.

Keisha Thompson – Credit: The Arts Council England

Because the Arts Council is made up of a bunch of people. When I joined there were about 700 people which can feel quite intimidating but it was also just super-human. In my first week, I had a one-to-one with Darren Henley who I’d already met and had a really real conversation with him. He’s always up for having conversations. He makes himself as accessible as he can being a leader of such a massive organisation, and I think he does a good job of being public facing.

If you want a certain level of consistency and you’re an arm’s length body interacting with the government, there are certain things you can and can’t do and a certain language you have to use. Actually, the Arts Council is a buffer, funnelling money from the government to organisations that then don’t have to play that game. So, if you understand that, maybe you’ll spend less time attacking the Arts Council.

The cuts from the government are a shame but they’re not a surprise and I haven’t got the time to be distracted by it. When I was training to be a teacher the government was annoying me because Michael Gove was the Education Secretary and the decisions being made were wild. I could see the impact they would have generationally, and it made me furious. I just thought I’ve got to operate outside of this, so I’ll take what I can from training as a teacher, but I will not be complicit in this system. So that’s how I feel in general about the government. I think the structure is broken. I love that I’m in Manchester where we have devolved power. So, because of those values and because I’m able to see the ways you can grasp pockets of power, I’m aware of what the government is doing but I’m not intimidated by it, and I’ll just operate within it.

When you reflect on your career thus far, how do you feel?

My answer is a paradox. I’m not very good at commending myself, getting distracted by praise.

I’m so grateful and I look back and I’ve done all these things but at the same time I almost feel like I’ve done nothing. And I’m thinking, what’s the next thing? And the next? Don’t get distracted, keep going, keep going!

I speak to people, and they say, ‘Oh you’re in this role, you’re the CEO, that’s amazing’ and I’m thinking, what are you talking about? What have I done? I haven’t even started!

As you are a creative yourself, are you parking your own work to focus on this new role, will you find a way to balance, or do you have plans to combine the two?

I’m still making work, I’m just being very selective. I think being an artist makes me a more empathetic leader and decision-maker. I’ve got a commission with Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a T.S. Eliot poetry commission which came via Simon Armitage, so it was amazing to receive that. They’ve been brilliant. I go to them every month, staying on-site and coming up with ideas.

A lot of my work feeds into Contact. I’ve got a new play starting there in October about football culture, called 14%. The protagonist is a female football player who gets pregnant and starts to grapple with her sense of identity, belonging and Britishness and how she passes that on to her child. I’ve got another play coming out next year called Bell Curves which is about gene hacking.

Keisha Thompson – Credit: Audrey Albert

What are you hopeful for …?

My head just said regenerative economics, also called Doughnut Economics! The woman behind it is a hero, she’s called Kate Raworth and I met her when I hosted TEDx Bath. She started her talk singing and dancing and I thought – you’re a hero, I love you. She was so fun, and the kind of mathematician we need more of. She has a very serious ground-breaking theory that could change the world but is still getting so much delight from it; showing that it’s fun and inviting us into an alternative world where we don’t have to be burdened, competitive and wasteful and communicate with statistics.

I was telling my boyfriend last week that I want to make a board game based on Doughnut Economics – it’d be shaped like a doughnut and we’d all be eating doughnuts while we play.
So that’s what I’m hopeful for – a board game shaped like a doughnut that teaches us about regenerative economics.

What’s your current plan B? (if it all goes wrong what’s the plan?)

I’d probably go back to Singapore and connect with the brilliant artists and mathematicians I was working with in May last year with the Esplanade Theatre. They had a really brilliant project which was about encouraging artists and artist-researchers to come and explore whatever we wanted. I was explaining that if you have access to mathematical knowledge, you can easily become quite an influential person in society. If you’re a coder or a scientist or a banker or an economist, you’re in the part of society that’s quite elitist and filters down and has a great impact.

So, if we really want to see change then you need to make that space more equitable and demystify mathematics because we have quite a big culture of dyscalculia in the UK in particular- of openly saying ‘I don’t like maths’ and it’s not helpful.

So, I would go back to that work and try to find the access point where I can have the most influence and connect to people who are already doing that stuff. I’m already aware of people doing great work so it’s just about joining up the dots. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I just need to see where a gap is and fill it. I don’t ever get intimidated by things not working. I think failure is interesting and unavoidable and a good way for you to not be complacent and think that you know everything, so I try my best not to be led by fear.

What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?

Sad – there was someone I worked with previously and it’s become apparent they’ve been gossiping, and it disappointed me. I get disappointed when people are being immature and not being their best selves, particularly in a work environment.
Mad – I’m politically mad all the time. I’ve been so sensitive recently that I’ve stayed away from the news because every time I listen to it it’s just ridiculous and I don’t want to be distracted by it.
Glad – loads of things. I went for a meal yesterday with a friend and my partner and we started coming up with this idea for a game show based on the fact that people would eat asparagus and it either affects the smell of their urine or it doesn’t! And we were thinking, who should be the presenter? Who would be the sponsor?

What are you watching right now?

I’m watching the women’s World Cup. I don’t watch that much. The last thing I watched was Wimbledon which was great

What are you reading right now?

Loads of stuff because I read more than one book at a time but I’m really enjoying, Beautiful Constraints by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden and Be More Pirate: Or How To Take On The World and Win by Sam Conniff Allende

What are you listening to right now?

Janelle Monáe, Age of Pleasure

The last thing you saw on stage?

Benji Reid’s show Find your Eyes at the Manchester International Festival. I had the pleasure of being in the creative team. I saw it on opening night but really wanted to go back for the final night and took my mum and nephew. It’s a beautiful piece and it’s been getting rave reviews, I’m really happy for him.

What’s on your bucket list?

I want to make a tapestry and go swimming with manatees.

Where’s your happy place?

Somewhere green, in a space I can breathe. I like climbing trees.

Celebrate someone else (who do you rate right now?)

I’m going to shout out Gaylene Gould. She used to be part of the senior team at BFI and now she’s running her own project – a community-centred garden near King’s Cross. She does a lot of artistic work as well as supporting and facilitating, and she’s just a great woman. Very inspirational, very open and honest.

Celebrate yourself … (make us proud of you)

I made a dessert over lockdown that I’m happy to boast about. It was very much a representation of my Jamaican heritage. I used bun to make a divine rich bread and butter pudding with a Guinness punch ice cream, and it’s just the best thing I’ve ever made. I shared it with people, and they loved it. One of my friends called me from his back garden because he’d saved it, taken it home and eaten it, and then called me to say he had a tear in his eye!

Whose footsteps are you following in?

I meet amazing people all the time. I’m inspired by them but I’m not trying to be like anyone. I know it’s about being yourself. There was a meditation I used to enjoy doing that my dad gave me to visualise your best self; to be Freudian about it, your superego. Strive for that and don’t be distracted by trying to be like anyone else.

What’s Next?

I’ve got a staff meeting in 20 minutes.

Where can we find you?

You can find me IG: @shebekeke T: @Keke_Thom FB: shebekeke. My website will be up and running soon.

Where can we see your latest work?

Yorkshire Sculpture Park
My new play 14% on 14 October at Contact

I’ve got a book out called Lunar. It includes some of my poems and the script of my award-winning solo show Man on the Moon you can find it here.


You can watch Keisha and all the other Let’s Debate keynotes on Arts Council England’s Investment Principles Resource Hub.

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