Cultural Playing Field


NCVO Annual Conference 2019 by Robin Simpson
April 5, 2019, 3:19 pm
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On Monday I was at The Brewery in London for the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

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Sir Stuart Etherington, who has been Chief Executive of NCVO for 25 years and retires later this year, gave his final State of the Sector address. Referring to the current political turmoil, Stuart said: “In the vacuum to come there will be plenty of people trying to mould things in their own interests. We must be the ones sticking up for the interests of others – those who cannot speak for themselves. Investing in social growth should go hand in hand with investing in economic growth: productivity is no good without community”.

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Giving the keynote presentation Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB’s new Chief Executive, urged us to make this “the century of the citizen: a more empowered, connected and equal world”. On Oxfam’s safeguarding failures in Haiti he said “just because we are working to do good doesn’t mean we are exempt from doing harm”. He talked about the role bigger charities such as Oxfam could play within the voluntary sector, to become “less of a super tanker, more of a dockyard”.

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The afternoon keynote was an inspirational presentation by Ruth Ibegbuna, Founder, RECLAIM and the Roots Programme. She spoke about establishing RECLAIM – a charity for “the grey kids in the middle”: working class young people being seen, being heard, leading change. Ruth also explained how she had developed the Roots Programme as her response to the divisions exposed by the EU referendum. Roots focusses on understanding our differences, enabling families from very different communities to spend time in each other’s homes. It’s a brilliant initiative – one of very few to be actually trying to address the underlying problems highlighted by Brexit. Ruth said “I’m a tired woman with MS in the North of England who’s trying to fix Brexit” – all power to her. See: https://rootsprogramme.org/

Robin Simpson.



Cultures of Health and Wellbeing conference, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Robin Simpson
March 22, 2019, 2:36 pm
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On Thursday and Friday I have been at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to take part in ‘Cultures of Health and Wellbeing’ – the first national conference organised by the new Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. The Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance is the national organisation representing everyone who believes that cultural engagement and participation can transform our health and wellbeing. It has more than 3,700 individual members and Voluntary Arts is one of 70 organisations who have become Strategic Alliance Members.

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The opening keynote presentation at the conference was by Errol Francis, Chief Executive of Culture&, who discussed definitions of ‘culture’ and the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’. I then attended a breakout session on Democratising Our Practice, in the nearby Northern Stage Theatre, which featured a presentation on shifting power, drawing on the experience of Bait – the South East Northumberland Creative People and Places consortium.

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The second keynote presentation was by Neil Churchill, Director of Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England. He talked about the NHS Long Term Plan and its targets to double the number of volunteers in the NHS in three years. He also spoke about the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to social prescribing. There will be over 1,000 trained social prescribing link workers in place by 2020/21 and 900,000 people will be referred to social prescribing by 2023/24. Neil Churchill explained the intention to make small grants available locally to volunteer led groups to become involved in social prescribing. A panel session on social prescribing emphasised the importance of signing-up to the Social Prescribing Network. The Social Prescribing Network consists of health professionals, researchers, academics, social prescribing practitioners, representatives from the community and voluntary sector, commissioners and funders, patients and citizens. Members of the Network are working together to share knowledge and best practice, to support social prescribing at a local and national levels and to inform good quality research and evaluation. Over the past year regional networks have been established around England, Ireland and Scotland. See: https://www.socialprescribingnetwork.com/

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The keynote presentation on the second day of the conference was by Lord Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts & Health and President of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. Lord Howarth summarised progress on the recommendations in the APPG’s ‘Creative Health’ report, that was published in June 2017: https://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/ Lord Howarth said he was optimistic that Arts Council England will identify health and wellbeing as a key element of its new 10-year strategy. He spoke about Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s speech to the King’s Fund in November 2018 as a landmark moment. The Secretary of State had said he wants the NHS to move from patient-centred care to person-centred care. He had emphasised the importance of personal creativity and said he saw social prescribing as central to prevention, and prevention as central to the NHS. Lord Howarth said we need to do all we can to ensure this is not a flash in the pan and that social prescribing is firmly established and embedded in the overall culture across government and across health providers. He said it will not be edicts from on high but a change of culture that will make the difference and it will be the health and social care professionals who will ultimately determine whether this opportunity is taken. Alan Howarth also spoke about the need for a Creative Health Centre, led by the sector, to take on responsibility for driving progress. He said “we are at a tipping point for arts, culture and health” and noted a “growing realisation that to pathologise unhappiness doesn’t work”.

Robin Simpson.



Continuity and change in an era of instability by Robin Simpson
February 15, 2019, 9:42 am
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BVSC Chief Executive, Brian Carr, opening the event

On Thursday I was at BVSC, The Centre for Voluntary Action, in Birmingham for an event organised by the Third Sector Research Centre and BVSC to mark the tenth anniversary of TSRC. ‘Continuity and change in an era of instability: developing a shared agenda for voluntary action research and practice’ brought together academics and voluntary sector leaders to look at the state of the third sector and the role research can play.

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Dan Corry

Dan Corry, Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, gave the keynote presentation, emphasising that a strong civil society is crucial to a successful society and a successful economy, not least in relation to generating social capital. He described civil society as what people in local communities choose to do and looked at where civil society is weak and what we can do about it. Looking at the research data he noted that more prosperous areas have a higher density of charities (though this only counts registered charities) and volunteering rates are higher in more prosperous areas. He talked about a growing spilt between professional charities and volunteer-led ones. Dan Corry finished by saying we need more academics looking at the voluntary sector – and this requires a dedicated funding stream. He said charities want easy access to longitudinal data and noted there is often an anti-academic bias in charities. A lot of what academics study is of no use to the average charity or funder, and they can’t get access to it. The What Works Centres play an important role in pulling together research and making it more accessible.

We then had a series of short ‘lightning talks’ by researchers Rob McMillan, John Mohan and Angela Ellis Paine from TSRC and James Rees, the Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the Open University. They looked at trends in the voluntary sector over recent years and the current challenges facing civil society.

In the afternoon I took part in a workshop looking at whether communities can make place-based change happen, led by Mandy Wilson and our old friend Angus McCabe from TSRC. We discussed hyper-local community action and I spoke about the work Voluntary Arts has been doing on Making Common Cause.

Robin Simpson.



Cultural Democracy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Robin Simpson
April 6, 2018, 3:08 pm
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On Thursday I was at the Martin Harris Centre at the University of Manchester to take part in ‘Cultural Democracy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ – a symposium organised by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty to mark the launch of their new book ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: the British Community Arts Movement’. Opening the symposium Alison Jeffers suggested that the term ‘cultural democracy’ “seems to be having a bit of a moment”. It is a term that seems to have come back into fashion.

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In the first panel session we looked at what we can learn from the histories of cultural democracy. Cathy Mackerras, Sophie Hope, Stephen Hadley and Owen Kelly reflected on UK culture policy’s close encounters with cultural democracy from the 1930s to the 1980s. There was much discussion of moving beyond deficit models of participation and the democratisation of culture toward a more direct engagement with cultural democracy. Owen Kelly talked about the development of the 1986 Community Arts Culture and Democracy Manifesto, noting that “we thought cultural democracy meant equal access to the means of cultural production” but that “the means of production turns out to mean the means of distribution”.

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The second panel session asked ‘What is the current state of cultural democracy and what are the possibilities for the future?’. Andrew Miles discussed some of the early findings of the Understanding Everyday Participation research project and asked “why are some activities valued a culture whilst others are not?” He suggested “there is no such thing as a cultural non user” and that “there is nothing special about the arts”, saying most participation is about the social aspect rather than the particular cultural activity. Andrew also noted that the Brexit vote demonstrates the clear ways that social and cultural divisions have re emerged. Nick Wilson and Jonathan Gross spoke about the Get Creative Research Project and their report ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’, explaining their evolving Human development and capabilities approach in which they use ‘cultural opportunities’ to mean “the freedom to give form and value to our experiences”. Finally Steve Vickers, Project Manager for The Agency – a leadership programme developed by Contact in Moston and Harpurhey in Manchester, gave some practical examples of working with cultural democracy.

It was a fascinating day which provided much food for thought and it was encouraging to see so many people engaging with the issue of participation and cultural democracy.

Robin Simpson.



National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement ‘Engage’ Conference 2017 by Robin Simpson
December 7, 2017, 5:15 pm
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On Thursday I was in Bristol for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s ‘Engage’ Conference. The theme of the conference was ‘Exploring Collaboration’ and delegates included representatives of community organisations, universities, charities, policy makers and funders from all around the world. Professor Eleonora Belfiore from Loughborough University and I led a workshop on ‘Collaboration and policy-sensitive research’, drawing on our experience of the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. We discussed the challenges of trying to effect policy change through collaborative research. I highlighted three risks: that the community partners just want the research to justify what they already think they know; that the academic research partners end up merely presenting back to the community partners the information they provided; and that, even if the research goes well, the final glossy report and its recommendations lie forgotten in a drawer a few months later without having achieved any policy change. We had a lively and thoughtful debate with our workshop participants which surfaced many examples of both good and bad practice in relation to policy-sensitive research.

Robin Simpson.



Greater London Volunteering Charity Leadership Conference 2017 by Robin Simpson
November 10, 2017, 4:11 pm
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On Friday I was at City Hall in London for Greater London Volunteering’s annual Charity Leadership Conference. The conference was presented in partnership with Team London and supported by Reach. The main plenary session, in the GLA Council Chamber, included presentations by Ruth Lesirge, Chair of the Association of Chairs who spoke about Board functions and the duties of Trustees, and Rosie Chapman, Chair of the Charity Governance Code Steering Group, who outlined the new version of the Charity Governance Code that was published in July 2017. I then gave a presentation about Voluntary Arts’ experience of diversifying governance, including the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel and the Open Conversations report (https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/open-conversations) which led to us winning the Board Diversity and Inclusivity Award in the 2017 Charity Governance Awards.

Robin Simpson.



Luminate Reception 2017 by Robin Simpson
October 27, 2017, 1:28 pm
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On Wednesday evening I was at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh for the Luminate Reception. A range of artists and organisers involved in Luminate Festival events had been invited to celebrate Luminate’s 5th birthday and to launch a new publication about creative ageing in Scotland. ‘Late Opening: Arts and Older People in Scotland’ was commissioned jointly by The Baring Foundation and Luminate, and written by Andrew Eaton-Lewis. Through 16 case studies the report explores what ‘creative ageing’ means in Scotland and makes recommendations for long term strategic thinking and investment, stronger partnerships between the arts and healthcare sectors and more support for older emerging professional artists. Speaking at the Luminate Reception, Jeane Freeman MSP, Minister for Social Security in the Scottish Government said “there isn’t an age limit on creativity” and praised Luminate for its work in encouraging older people to be creative. Graham Reid from Creative Scotland emphasised the importance of Luminate’s focus on “arts for, by, with and about older people”. Keith Robson from Age Scotland welcomed the ‘Late Opening’ report’s focus on “frequently challenged stereotypes about what kind of art older people should be into”. David Cutler, Director of the Baring Foundation, said that since Baring started to focus on arts and older people in 2010, Luminate was “one of the best ideas we had”. David hoped the ‘Late Opening’ report would be an inspiration to arts organisations across Scotland. The Luminate Reception finished with performances by The Flames – a theatre group for participants aged fifty and over established by Tricky Hat Productions, whose debut performance I saw in the 2016 Luminate Festival – and the Vintage Chorus choir which is based at the Festival Theatre.