Matt Fenton, our Artistic Director and Chief Executive, announces his departure after eight years at the helm of the organisation. Suzie Henderson, Head of Creative Development at Contact, will also be moving on to a new role, as Creative Director of Storyhouse in Chester.
After steering Contact through a £7m capital project, reopening the building in a pandemic, launching their new season, and appointing Junior Akinola as Young Chair of Contact’s trustees, in 2022 Fenton and Henderson will pass the reigns to a new Artistic Director/Chief Executive and Head of Creative Development to propel Contact into its future.
In their time with Contact, Matt and Suzie have produced scores of shows for national touring, several going on to TV broadcast, developed the youth social enterprise programme The Agency as a national force for change, and nurtured generations of artists and emerging leaders such as Sophie Willan, Haiesha Mistry, Adam Ali, mandla rae and Keisha Thompson.
“I’ve loved every minute at Contact, working alongside Suzie and our brilliant team. Contact’s unique approach to working with young people as decision-makers, trustees, artists and activists has inspired and rejuvenated me. It’s genuinely the best AD job in the arts, but it’s time to create some space for new voices and experiences. I can’t wait to take the learning I have gained when I relocate to Belgium next year, where Contact’s approach remains highly regarded and influential.
Belgium was my first theatrical love, where I discovered the Flemish miracle of contemporary performance at the start of my career, more than 25 years ago. It’s also where I met my wife, and our eldest child was born there. During my time at Contact, it has been great to connect with Belgian organisations Vooruit, Campo, NT Gent, Fameus, Larf, KVS and Het Paleis, and I can’t wait to re-immerse in the European performance scene”.
“It has been an absolute privilege and a joy to work for Contact for the last fifteen years. A place that took a chance on me as a young person when I was first appointed and that has allowed me to do the same to many more young people. It’s been an honour to work with the dedicated staff team, brilliant young people and talented artists that make Contact what it is. I have learned so much from so many people and have had the opportunity to work with the best partners. I am excited to take what I have learned to Storyhouse and begin a new adventure with them in January”.
Junior Akinola, Chair of the Board at Contact
“My first time meeting Matt was in 2015 when I first joined Contact as a Project Manager in the Creative Development department. I quickly noticed his unique leadership style and enthusiasm for our building and all of its work. Even in high-pressure situations he always kept a sense of calmness which is something I admire.
Matt has always made it his mission to empower young people that step through our doors and made it his priority to embody the values and ethos of the building.
Aside from showcasing his creative flair when directing shows in the building over his tenure a big part of Matt’s legacy will be the completion of the capital project, (8 years in the making) Matt, along with our senior staff, has been instrumental in getting this project over the line and from my many conversations with him he’s extremely proud of this achievement, as we all are. This transformative work will allow us to continue our impact in the lives of young people all over the city which will create more great moments and achievements for Contact’s long-lasting legacy.
I think I speak for everyone in our building when I say we truly wish Matt the best in all his future endeavours and we thank him for all his work and commitment to Contact.
Going forward it’s important we now look to find a successor who can build off the great foundations Matt has helped lay and help Contact carve out a new era of great achievements.
My first time meeting Suzie was also around the same period in 2015, the first thing I noticed was her calming presence in the creative development office which was one of the busiest in the building, it’s rare that an individual can manage a revolving door of creatives so well to the point where both staff and participants feel valued, and the buildings overall mission is never lost in the process. This is a skill that Suzie has always showcased countless times and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Suzie has always shown great commitment to Contact and not seeing her around the building in the role that she’s made her own will take a while to adjust however, due to the high standard she’s maintained there are great foundations for a new great individual to step in.
Again I think I speak for everyone in our building when I say we truly wish Suzie the best in her new role, we have no doubts that she’ll continue to have great success and we truly thank her for all her work and commitment to Contact!”
Dave Moutrey, Director of Culture, Manchester City Council
“Contact has redefined how arts organisations work with young people putting them at the centre of decision making that then makes vital and great theatre to challenge, engage and entertain. The inspirational and visionary Matt Fenton as Artistic Director and the hugely creative Suzie Henderson as Director of Creative Development left whatever personal creative egos they have outside the front door of Contact to focus on supporting the young talent in our city to make their best work. They have done this brilliantly and led a much needed project to update the Contact building. They leave a massive legacy and have been the best of collaborators not only in Manchester but nationally and internationally”.
Liz Moreton, Director of Creativity and Social Change, Battersea Arts Centre
I’m immeasurably proud of our strong partnership with Contact theatre and the huge creative and social impact we’ve made over the last ten years of the Agency under Suzie’s leadership.
The significant impact we’ve had on young people bearing the brunt of austerity and the pandemic from Manchester to Belfast and beyond would not have been possible without Suzie’s vision, grit, tenacity, and constant commitment to putting young people in the driving seat of making the change they want to see.
I will miss working with Suzie terribly, she’s been a great source of inspiration, support and friendship, but she leaves The Agency in the best possible shape, having taken it from its inception to now a national programme with an international reputation for best practice”.
Charles Lauder, previous Chair of the Board at Contact
“If every appointment is an exercise in risk, logic suggests, the more senior the post, the bigger the risk. So, following an unsuccessful recruitment using standard methods, Contact engaged a specialist consultant to do a targeted search. There was a sense of heightened expectation when Matt Fenton was selected as Contact’s new Artistic Director/Chief Executive in 2013. (He subsequently told me he had deliberately not applied first time around!) There was early validation when Matt’s selection was widely welcomed within the sector.
In his application, Matt referenced a resonance between his and Contact’s ‘commitment to artist development, young people, innovation, digital activity and new audiences’ and projects he had done within young communities outside presumed core arts audiences. These have been a feature of Matt’s successful stewardship of the unique organisation that is Contact.
When he joined Contact had already started planning for the transformation of its iconic building – that, too, became part of his remit, as well as his artistic responsibilities. As my fellow trustee and successor in the role of Chair, Steven Lindsay says: “Matt was a pleasure to work with both during normal periods of operation and, even more impressively, during the major redevelopment of the building.”
How do you lead an organisation where the ethos is that the young people participants and users are the true determinants of the direction of travel? From the outset, Matt grasped and understood the concept that AD/CXs at Contact are custodians of their individual stage in a relay of young people’s evolution as leaders in the arts environment”.
David Jubb, CulturePlanB, former Artistic Director, Battersea Arts Centre
“The cultural sector has so much to learn from Contact’s model, mindset, governance and leadership. Matt and Suzie have been outstanding leaders for Contact over the last decade; their modest, inclusive and inventive approach is a complete inspiration; and the manner of their departure is typically gracious and strategic. Suzie has brilliantly co-led The Agency in the UK since 2013: she has been absolutely outstanding in her support for young people, fundraising to sustain the project and enabling visits to the House of Commons. Suzie has ensured that The Agency methodology has had a profound impact on Contact and Battersea Arts Centre. She is simply one of the UK’s most generous cultural leaders who has inspired thousands at Contact and beyond with her humility, integrity and good judgement.”
Afreena Islam-Wright, artist, producer and previous Contact board member
“I was part of the young people’s panel that appointed Matt, and our view definitely carried the most weight – it was crucial that candidates impressed us. It was clear that Matt was someone who understood how important young people’s roles are at Contact.
I was a Trustee for the majority of Matt’s time at Contact, and I’d be hard pushed to tell you a decision he made on his own. I am really grateful to Matt for the energy with which he led Contact and hope that his future holds something that will fill the Contact-shaped gap in his heart”.