Meet the new Director, Helen Thackray

I’m Helen and I’m the new director of Blaze. I’ve been in post for three months now so it feels like time to introduce myself.

I grew up in North Yorkshire. My step dad was a plumber and my mum was a seamstress. I went to school in Nidderdale, a rural area full of families who had lived on the same land for generations. I was a nineties kid so I was the first person in my family to learn about the world through the internet and I was also the first person in my family to leave the area and go to university. 

After finishing my degree I knew I wanted to work in an art gallery but I didn’t know how to get there. I was working on a checkout in a supermarket when someone told me about Leeds Visual Art Forum and their free mailing list that shared opportunities like jobs, commissions and training. Within months of signing up I got on to a 12 month curatorial traineeship that I heard about through the mailing list. The traineeship provided paid work experience and training that led to my first full time job in an art gallery.  

Since then I’ve worked in a range of cultural venues in Yorkshire, Nottingham and the North West and had the opportunity to work across a wide variety of programming from contemporary art exhibitions to historic machinery demonstrations and immersive theatre experience for autistic young people. In all of these roles my aim has been to make arts and culture more relevant, welcoming and accessible to people from all backgrounds. 

Before joining Blaze I was Programme Manager at People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester. PHM is the national museum of democracy and they’ve explored how they can work with communities to interpret heritage, curate exhibitions and create programmes that are mutually beneficial. Unlike many museums, PHM are willing to take risks and do things differently. In 2019 we worked with young people on a project exploring the history of protest. The group chose artists to collaborate with and together they produced an event for other young people that transformed spaces within the museum and attracted new and diverse audiences. 

My experience of working on that project was one of the reasons I applied for this role. I believe that all young people should have the opportunity and support to turn an idea into a reality and create something new. The process of producing something often involves collaboration, creative thinking and problem solving; transferable skills that are useful for individuals and communities. Having worked in large museums and galleries for over eight years I’ve seen how rigid structures, prejudices and funding processes often prevent people within these organisations from creating meaningful and relevant experiences for young people. 

That’s why I’ve joined Blaze. This organisation is a beacon of best practice when it comes to youth led creative activity and we’ve already supported and inspired numerous organisations to create the space to listen to young people and support them to produce their own culture. 

I’ve joined the organisation during the Covid 19 pandemic which has highlighted the huge inequalities within our society. From the conversations I’ve had over the past three months I know that some young people have been able to find new opportunities within this period of disruption but for others the pandemic has been incredibly destructive. It feels more important than ever that Blaze provides the space for young people from all backgrounds to connect, collaborate and create. 

I’m excited to see what we can achieve together.