Ask the Expert

13 May

answers from Cathy Bolton on Literature Festivals

Cathy Bolton is the Director of the Manchester Literature Festival and is board member of Commonword Writing Development Agency. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and was the winner of the 2009 Ictus Award for her poetry collection A Fool’s Height Short of Heaven.

How did you come to be the Director of Manchester Literature Festival?

I came on board originally on secondment from Commonword when Chris Gribble (previous Director of Manchester Poetry Festival and first Literature Festival) left to start a new job at what is now Writers’ Centre Norwich. As part of my previous role as Writing Development Worker at Commonword I’d organised lots of literature events (many in partnership with the Festival) and had always enjoyed that aspect of the job so it was a great opportunity to expand my experience in this area. At the end of my secondment period I applied for the permanent position and was fortunate to be given the post.


What changes to the literature festival have you seen over time? What developments do you envisage for the future?

The Festival has more than doubled in size since our first instalment in 2006, both in terms of audience and number of events.  The festival programme started out quite niche (some might say cultish) and I’m glad to say that we still present a very eclectic programme featuring interesting emerging writers and new media collaborations alongside big literary hitters such as Margaret Atwood & Seamus Heaney - as the Festival’s profile has grown, so too has our pulling power.  

The most exciting developments for me over the last couple of years have been the expansion of our international programme (last year we showcased writers from across Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and North America) which introduces audiences to some of the best new writing from around the world, and our series of new commissions. In 2010 we commissioned Jeanette Winterson to deliver the first Manchester Sermon to a sell out audience at the Cathedral, followed by Andrew Motion last year. We’ve also produced a number of co-commissioning projects with Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Camerata and the Midland Hotel and are planning to introduce some new commissions this year.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been developing a series of Schools and Family Friendly events and we’ve just appointed a Children and Young People’s Programme Coordinator to help us develop a more year round education programme.


How do you decide who and what to programme?

We start out with a wish list every year of writers we’d like to come to the Festival – these might be lifelong literary heroes (these we invite every year till they eventually say yes), writers with interesting new books out, writers we’ve been wowed by at other events/festivals, or writers that have been highly recommended to us by partners and publishers. Sometimes we want to celebrate a specific anniversary (e.g. Gaskell or Dickens) or explore a certain theme (e.g. science and literature) so we then research which writers would best fit the bill.

We also get approached by many writers, publicists and promoters who would like to be part of the festival and we cherry pick those on offer, factoring in the quality of their work, their likely audience appeal and the financial viability of the event/project they have to offer.

Overall, we aim for a balanced programme of headline and emerging authors representing a range of genres and voices – we like to provide a selection of events to appeal to all literary tastes.


How have changes in funding affected the festival? (if they have)

Compared to others, we’ve faired quite well with recent funding changes – we recently became an Arts Council NPO and (touch wood) will once again receive funding through the City Council’s Events Unit. HSBC Premier also came on board as the Festival’s Principal Sponsor last year, which has made a big difference not only in terms of much needed additional cash but has helped raise the Festival’s profile amongst the business community. Like everyone else we are trying hard to grow and diversify our income streams in an increasingly competitive environment.

For us, the current austerity climate has impacted hardest on our partnership working – many of the venues and other arts organisations (where they still exist) no longer have the resources to support our work to the extent they did in previous years. We’ve experienced quite a loss in in-kind venue/staff support. The loss in industry expertise caused by all the staff cuts and restructuring in local authorities etc has been most alarming for us and this loss of specialist knowledge will I believe cause very serious long term damage to the health of the cultural economy.


What’s the best thing about running the festival?

It gets very stressful in the weeks leading up to the Festival, worrying about all the logistics, have enough tickets been sold?, will that group of visiting authors get through passport control? will the PA work….  but once the festival starts you just run on adrenalin and getting to encounter some really inspirational writers and seeing audiences visibly moved by the power of words makes it all worth while.


What are your three top tips for anyone wanting to organise a festival?

Visit as many different festivals/big events as you can – they all work slightly differently and have their own personalities so it’s important to cultivate your own.

Many people have the perception that Festival organisers are only really busy when the festival’s actually happening and the rest of the time they’ve got their feet up – I’m always been asked what do you do the rest of the year?  The answer is, constantly juggling fundraising (the amount of paperwork you have to do to keep funders and sponsors happy can be quite overwhelming), programming, marketing and publicity, liaising with artists, venues, publishers, hotels…, evaluation and of course balancing the books! So, don’t start a festival unless you are adept at multi-tasking or have a supporter willing to bank roll a big staff team.

Take up yoga or meditation – anything that will calm your nerves when the pressure’s on!