Cultural Playing Field

NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015 by Robin Simpson
November 11, 2015, 12:08 pm
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Sir John Major delivering the NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015

Sir John Major delivering the NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015

On Tuesday evening I was at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London to see Sir John Major deliver the annual NCVO Hinton Lecture. The former Prime Minister’s speech, titled ‘A Nation at Ease with Itself?’, focussed on inequality, poverty, fairness and social mobility. Addressing a voluntary sector audience, John Major reminded us that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced Gift Aid and as Prime Minister he launched the National Lottery, 21 years ago. He had observed that it had become increasingly difficult for charities to compete for Treasury funds with pensions, social security, health spending etc. He saw the National Lottery as “money from the public for the public”, “to protect the independence of charities”. To date the Lottery has distributed over £34 billion to good causes and “as intended, most of this money has gone to small local schemes”. But John Major said he worries for the future of the Lottery. It was designed as a national lottery, in effect a monopoly, to maximise returns for the designated good causes but its success has attracted rivals, such as the increasing number of ‘society lotteries’ who pay a far smaller proportion of their income back to worthy causes. John Major also spoke about the importance of small charities, at a time when there is much emphasis on charity mergers. He said small charities “offer small, anonymous acts of kindness, vital to the recipient, that may be overlooked by their larger brethren”. He thought it would be wise to expand the remit and funding of the charity commission. He talked about the poverty of loneliness, saying it is not the responsibility of government to create communities. Rather this is something that has to involve government and charities and faith groups. He said the rise in single person households is a major risk to loneliness and “the community will deal with this issue best”. You can read the full transcript of Sir John Major’s speech at:

Robin Simpson.

Culture Guides Conference, Budapest by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2015, 1:48 pm
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On Monday and Tuesday I was in Budapest, Hungary, with Laraine and Daniel for the final conference of our EU Culture Guides project. Culture Guides was a two-year project that started in October 2013 under the Grundtvig strand of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme. Six partners from five countries aimed to investigate the possibility of a European framework to recruit, train and manage volunteers to act as mentors or guides to introduce and help marginalised social groups to participate in local art and culture activities, either as audience members or as active participants. Voluntary Arts ran pilot Culture Guides schemes in four locations – St Helens and Swale & Medway in England, and Torfaen and Wrexham in Wales.

Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture

Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture

The conference was opened by Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture. I chaired the first panel session in which the six partner organisations summarised how the project had worked in each of the participating countries. The conference included a range of group sessions in which we looked at the learning from the Culture Guide pilots and shared our experiences of working with different socially marginalised end-users. There were also practical participatory sessions in which we learned some circus skills and Hungarian folk songs. The Keynote speech was given by Professor Sandor Striker from ELTE, the University of National Excellence in Hungary, who spoke about ‘Art and culture policies for the socially marginalised’. We also had a presentation from Dr Cees van den Bos, from the Netherlands, comparing volunteering in different countries. The conference brought together partner organisations, volunteers, other cultural organisations, civil society and volunteering organisations from across Europe. It was a really enjoyable couple of days and a nice way to bring this excellent project to an end.

For more details please see Daniel’s excellent Culture Guides Handbook at:

Robin Simpson.

Evocative Objects by Robin Simpson
June 18, 2015, 1:37 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I was at The Questors Theatre in Ealing to speak at the Evocative Objects workshop – part of the AHRC research project ‘Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space’. Amateur theatre practitioners from across England had gathered to explore the effect amateur dramatics has on lives and communities. I spoke about the work of Voluntary Arts and our involvement in RSC Open Stages. It was particularly interesting to hear from Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK, who spoke about the work of this unique community theatre group. See:

Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK

Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK

Evolve 2015 – the NCVO annual conference by Robin Simpson
June 18, 2015, 1:33 pm
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David Moorcroft speaking at Evolve 2015

David Moorcroft speaking at Evolve 2015

On Monday Kat and I were at The Brewery in London for Evolve 2015 – the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). The conference opened with a session on volunteering in sport. NCVO President, Tanni Grey-Thompson, was joined by David Moorcroft, Director of Sport at Join In (and still the proud holder of the 3000m world record he set in 1982) and Daisy Robinson – a Join In local leader. David Moorcroft said every successful athlete at London 2012 could trace their success back to volunteers. He said volunteering is part of the fabric of this country, but almost always doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Join In has used the latest valuation techniques in the economics of wellbeing to reveal that one volunteer in sport creates wellbeing worth £16,032, for themselves and for those they help play sport, see:

I then attended three breakout sessions:

  • NCVO analysis of the 2015 election: The implications for your organisation, with Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of Politics, University of Southampton, and Andrew O’Brien, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Charity Finance Group
  • Influencing and Campaigning, Post Election, with Emily Robinson, Deputy Chief Executive, Alcohol Concern, and Jonathan Ellis, Head of Policy, Research and Advocacy, British Red Cross
  • Measuring impact is a waste of time: discuss, with Fazilet Hadi, Group Director Inclusive Society RNIB, Sally Cupitt, Head of NCVO Charities Evaluation Services, and Sarah Mistry, Director of Effectiveness and Learning, Bond.

The conference concluded with an entertaining discussion about the likely political landscape for the next five years, with Andrew Pierce, Consultant Editor of The Daily Mail and Kevin Maguire, Associate Editor of The Daily Mirror, chaired by NCVO Chair, Martyn Lewis.

NCVO CHair, Martyn Lewis, at Evolve 2015

NCVO CHair, Martyn Lewis, at Evolve 2015

A Choir in Every Care Home steering group meeting by Robin Simpson
June 2, 2015, 4:01 pm
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On Tuesday I was in London for the first meeting of the steering group for the new project ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’. A Choir in Every Care Home is an ambitious new initiative to explore how singing can feature regularly in care homes across the country. Funded and initiated by the Baring Foundation, it is a unique collaboration between 28 leading national organisations from the worlds of adult social care, music and healthcare research. It is being led by three major organisations in the field: Live Music Now, which provides national leadership for musicians working in the care sector; Sound Sense, the UK professional association for community music; and the Sidney De Haan Research Centre, providing cutting edge research on the medical and social impacts of singing. Most of the 28 partners were represented at Tuesday’s meeting and it was fascinating to hear the range of experience and expertise in relation to singing in care homes that the project has gathered together. David Cutler from the Baring Foundation spoke about his hopes for the project and Professor Stephen Clift from the Sidney de Haan Research Centre outlined the results of his recent Randomised Control Trial which showed that regular group singing (weekly over three months) had measurable positive health and wellbeing outcomes compared to the control group. Evan Dawson from Live Music Now and Kathryn Deane from Sound Sense facilitated a series of creative discussions which began to scope and plan the project. See:

Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium by Robin Simpson
April 24, 2015, 2:06 pm
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On Thursday I was at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester to take part in the ‘Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium’. This event was part of the Understanding Everyday Participation research project, being led by Dr Andrew Miles from the University of Manchester. The symposium reported on the project’s progress in relation to ‘Work Package 1: Histories of Participation, policy and practice’ and will lead to a book about Histories of Participation. A series of engrossing presentations explored a wide range of aspects of everyday participation.

We heard from Dr Mark O’Neill, Director of Policy & Research at Glasgow Life about the traditions of cultural participation in Glasgow. Mark noted that “we are now reinventing the link between culture and health, which the Victorians thought was obvious.”

Dr Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick spoke about ‘Policy Discourse, Cultural Value and the Buzzwords of Participation’, asking how and why a certain understanding of cultural participation has become so dominant and central to policy making in England. Eleonora looked back at the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain after the Second World War and how support for the amateur arts was progressively squeezed out of its work.

Andrew Miles spoke about ‘Locating the Contemporary History of Everyday Participation’ and the assumption that those who didn’t participate in standard forms of culture were somehow in deficit.

Dr Jane Milling from the University of Exeter delivered a paper titled ‘The Usefulness of the Stage: Eighteenth-century cultural participation and civic engagement’ which suggested that, in the 1760s, every theatre goer was an omnivore: audiences could not distinguish between high and low art.

Andrew Miles presented a paper by Catherine Bunting – ‘Calling participation to account: a recent history of cultural indicators’ – which looked the effect the PSA3 target about increasing participation had had on policy during the New Labour governments. Dr Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester then spoke about regional and local cultural strategies in the early 2000s, including the creation of Regional Development Agencies and Regional Cultural Consortia in England. Abigail looked at the development of the Taking Part and Active People surveys.

Dr Lisanne Gibson from the University of Leicester gave a presentation on ‘Governing Place Through Culture’ which focussed on the research she has been doing in Gateshead as part of the Understanding Everyday Participation project.

Other presentations looked at the relationship between wellbeing and culture, the role public parks have played in everyday participation, the British tradition of clubs and societies (dating back to the 16th century), and the politics of community in community theatre practice. It was great to hear so many perspectives on everyday cultural participation and we had some great discussions of the issues throughout the day – both within the conference sessions and during the breaks. You can read more about the Understanding Everyday Participation research project at:

‘Cultural Hubs – The Arts in Libraries Conference’, St Helens by Robin Simpson
March 20, 2015, 4:25 pm
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On Thursday I was at the magnificent Victorian Town Hall in St Helens for ‘Cultural Hubs – The Arts in Libraries Conference’. Around 100 delegates from across the North West gathered to discuss examples of libraries being used for arts activities. Sue Wilkinson, Head of Library Services for St Helens Council spoke about Cultural Hubs, a 2-year project supported by Arts Council England to increase participation in the arts in libraries in St Helens. I then gave a presentation about Our Cultural Commons and the role that libraries can play in a more collaborative approach to sustaining and developing local cultural infrastructure. I spoke about our Up for Arts projects in Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria, the work Voluntary Arts is doing with Heart of Glass (the St Helens Creative People and Places consortium) and our Culture Guides project in St Helens, led by the indefatigable Gary Conley who was helping to facilitate the conference on Thursday. I quoted William Sieghart’s ‘Independent Library Report for England’ (published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in December 2014: which says “Libraries are, let us not forget, a golden thread throughout our lives. Despite the growth in digital technologies, there is still a clear need and demand within communities for modern, safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free, supported by the help and knowledge of the library workforce” and calls for us to “make the library a vibrant and attractive community hub”.

Later in the day, Jane McElvey from Manchester City Council spoke about the refurbishment of Manchester Central Library and the programme of Library Live events there, supported by Arts Council England. We also heard from Paul Kelly of Lancashire County Council about the strategic approach to the arts within the wider cultural offer of libraries across Lancashire. HOST is a coordinated arts programme across Lancashire County Council cultural venues and its focus is on creating new arts organisations and supporting the arts infrastructure.

It was a really interesting conference and there was both an enthusiastic interest in Our Cultural Commons and a sense that many libraries are already beginning to realise the kind of innovative local cultural collaboration that Our Cultural Commons seeks to promote.

Robin Simpson.


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