Cultural Playing Field


Visit to London by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Community Cultural Foundation by Robin Simpson
July 21, 2017, 4:19 pm
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This week Voluntary Arts hosted the first visit to the UK by representatives of the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Community Cultural Foundation. In 2014 the Korean Government introduced the ‘Regional Culture Promotion Law’ which states that central and regional government should support everyday cultural activity and create community cultural space. The law makes it clear that the main unit of everyday cultural activity is voluntary ‘cultural clubs’ organised by amateur artists – ordinary citizens who love arts and culture. The Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism established three main policies: creating space for voluntary cultural clubs and community cultural activity; promoting collaboration between voluntary cultural clubs (locally and regionally); and expanding opportunities for everyday creative activity and voluntary participation. To deliver these policies, in 2016 the Ministry created a new Community Cultural Foundation. The Foundation is a government agency (similar to our Arts Councils) but focussing specifically on everyday creativity and participation. It has created 110 Community Cultural Centres across South Korea and supports approximately 32,000 local voluntary cultural clubs. This week six representatives from the South Korean Ministry of Culture and the Community Cultural Foundation came to London to learn more about Voluntary Arts, UK Government policy and to see how UK people take part in the voluntary arts in everyday life.

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Damien and I had arranged a series of meetings and visits for our South Korean guests. Most of the meetings took place at Cecil Sharp House in Camden – the historic home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Over three days we were joined at Cecil Sharp House by Katy Spicer (Chief Executive of EFDSS and Vice Chair of Voluntary Arts) and by Barbara Eifler (Executive Director of Making Music), Jo Hunter (Chief Executive of 64 Million Artists and one of the authors of the ‘Everyday Creativity’ report), Keith Nichol and Chris Marnoch (from the Cultural Diplomacy team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Phil Cave (Director, Audiences and Engagement at Arts Council England) and by Nick Wilson and Jonathan Gross from King’s College, London (two of the authors of the ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ report).

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On Monday afternoon we visited Broadcasting House where Stephen James-Yeoman and Hannah Lambert talked to our Korean visitors about the Get Creative campaign. We also had a tour of the BBC newsroom and introduced our guests to the new BBC World Service Korean team – who were, coincidentally, at Broadcasting House for day one of their training before returning to Seoul to start this new Korean-language radio service.

On Monday evening we visited a rehearsal of an amateur choir – London City Voices in Soho – where conductor Richard Swann taught us his four-part arrangement of ‘One Day Like This’ by Elbow.

On Tuesday afternoon we visited the headquarters of the Crafts Council in Islington where Crafts Council Chief Executive, Rosy Greenlees, and Chair, Geoff Crossick, described to our Korean visitors the transition the Crafts Council has undertaken in recent years. Rosy explained that the original role of the Crafts Council had had been purely to support professional makers but that now around 40% of its work is on ‘education’ – both in schools and with amateurs and everyday creativity. Geoff Crossick also spoke about the AHRC Cultural Value Project and his resulting report ‘Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture’ which broadens the scope of the discussion on cultural value to include, alongside the subsidised cultural sectors, the commercial sector, and amateur and participatory arts and culture, which are how most people engage – emphasising the way they are part of a single ecology.

Finally, on Wednesday afternoon we visited Questors Theatre in Ealing where Maggie Turner and Andrea Bath gave our Korean guests a backstage tour of the theatre, explaining how this amateur theatre company managed to raise funds to build and manage a magnificent new theatre. It was a lovely way to finish our three days with the South Korean representatives.

It was fascinating to find out more about the new South Korean Government support for everyday creativity but it was also incredibly interesting to reflect on our progress in this area in the UK in recent years. Explaining what you do to foreign visitors – through a translator – is a remarkably good way of thinking more carefully about things you usually take for granted. Looking back at the presentation I gave to the World Culture Clubs Conference in South Korea in 2009, I was struck by how far we have come since then, particularly the explosion in UK academic research into the amateur arts and everyday creativity and the developments in media coverage of voluntary and amateur arts in this country.

Many thanks to everyone who helped to make the South Korean visit such a success. Particular thanks to Katy for hosting us at Cecil Sharp House and to Damien for managing the programme of meetings and visits which all went incredibly smoothly.



‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ by Robin Simpson
June 22, 2017, 7:47 am
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At the end of 2014, at the weekly meetings I took part in to develop the Get Creative campaign with the BBC, Deborah Bull from King College, London, was adamant that we must build in a robust evaluation of the campaign from the start. Jointly funded by the BBC and the Cultural Institute at King’s College London, the Get Creative Research Project ran alongside the Get Creative campaign from its launch in February 2015. The research was led by Dr Nick Wilson from King’s College and had two overarching aims. Firstly, to provide a rigorous evaluation of the Get Creative campaign; and secondly, to investigate key questions raised by the campaign regarding the ‘landscape’ of arts practice and participation.

In May 2016 the Get Creative Research Project’s interim report, ‘Get Creative: Opening Our Eyes to Everyday Creativity’ celebrated the successes of the first year of the Get Creative campaign but also surfaced a number of underlying problems and issues and made a series of recommendations. This led directly to a clarification of the aims and objectives of Get Creative and the establishment of a Get Creative Steering Group with formal Terms of Reference.

This week the Get Creative Research Project published its final report, ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’, written by Nick Wilson, Jonathan Gross and Anna Bull. ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ uses the learning from the Get Creative campaign to call for a radical but pragmatic new approach to understanding and enabling cultural opportunity. It argues that cultural opportunities are comprised of a far broader range of freedoms than access to already existing publicly funded arts – the primary focus of current cultural policy. Everyone has cultural capability – by ensuring there are more cultural opportunities for people to realise their own creative potential it would be possible to move towards cultural democracy: “an achievable future in which the substantive freedom to co-create versions of culture is enjoyed by all”.

Towards Cultural Democracy’ makes 14 recommendations, starting with the suggestion that “Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone (cultural democracy) needs to be made an interlinked policy objective, across a range of national government departments and agencies” and including a recommendation to “Develop mutually beneficial relationships with local radio as a key channel for the promotion of everyday creativity” which specifically references Voluntary Arts’ Up for Arts projects.

On Wednesday afternoon I was at Somerset House in London for a workshop to explore the recommendations from ‘Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’. Discussing the background to the research, Jonathan Gross talked about the conclusions of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, which recommended celebrating everyday arts, and the critiques of the traditional ‘Deficit Model’ which had emerged from the Get Creative Research Project. He spoke about the rising interest in everyday creativity in recent years, indicated by the rise of Fun Palaces, 64 Million Artists, and Get Creative itself. Jonathan also referred to the increase in academic research in this area, citing studies including the Understanding Everyday Participation Research Project being led by the University of Manchester and Helen Nicholson’s research into amateur theatre.

Nick Wilson stressed that everyday creativity is not new but suggested that the ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ shows how we are now understanding the interconnections with the subsidised arts much better. He described the idea of thinking about cultural opportunities and cultural capabilities, rather than just mapping existing cultural assets and restricting debates to access to publicly funded arts. Nick called for reframing of decision-making across cultural policy to recognise the role played by creative citizens and pillar organisations.

Our workshop also included seven short presentations about how we enable cultural opportunities, featuring speakers including Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists, Kunle Olulode from Voice for Change and me.

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On Wednesday evening Damien and I attended the formal launch of ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ at King’s College, London. Inspirational speeches from Deborah Bull, Nick Wilson, Stella Duffy and Lizzie Crump emphasised the importance of the report and the momentum that appears to be gathering towards a significant shift in policy to recognise the importance of everyday creativity. The evening concluded with a cultural opportunity to allow us all to demonstrate our cultural capabilities as Alex and Flo – featured in the report as one of the portraits of people co-creating their own distinctive versions of culture – taught us all some the basics of ‘breaking’ (better known to the uninitiated as break-dancing). The sight of many of the most influential cultural leaders, activists and policy-makers spinning around on the floor of King’s College will live long in my memory!

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You can download the report ‘‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ from: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/Cultural/-/Projects/Towards-cultural-democracy.aspx

Robin Simpson.



Culture UK launch by Robin Simpson
April 4, 2017, 2:39 pm
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On Tuesday Damien and I were in the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House in London for the launch of Culture UK – a new partnership between the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland.

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BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, said the aim of Culture UK is “to excite the nation about the arts, opening up funding to a range of arts organisations to make content which can be shown on the BBC, developing UK-wide cultural festivals that can reach new audiences, creating opportunities to showcase emerging and diverse talent, and making the most of technology to inspire new experiences in the arts.”

Tony Hall said “culture makes us believe in the future”. He spoke about the importance of inspiring people about the arts, saying “there are communities we simply don’t engage with: that has to change”. Culture UK will have a development team from across the UK (modelled on that created for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) which will work towards three big landmark moments a year. Culture UK was launched with the announcement of 26 new commissions. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/culture-uk?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_press_office&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=corporate
Robin Simpson.



2017 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
March 24, 2017, 1:05 pm
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On Sunday I was at Sage Gateshead for the 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony, hosted by BBC Radio 3 as part of the Free Thinking Festival. The Voluntary Arts England team were supporting the Free Thinking Festival throughout the weekend, with local voluntary arts groups running a range of participatory activities in the foyer of the Sage, including calligraphy and lace-making. Centre of attention was our giant Paint by Numbers – a picture by the artist Geoff Tristram reflecting the Speed of Life (the theme of this year’s Free Thinking Festival) which drew a constant stream of participants painting the numbered sections to produce a stunning final image. Many thanks to Geoff, Laraine, Jennie and everyone who helped with our contribution to the Free Thinking Festival.

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On Sunday evening we held the Epic Awards Ceremony in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Representatives of the Epic Award winners and runners-up had travelled from across the UK and Ireland to receive their awards. The ceremony was compèred by the poet and BBC Radio 3 presenter, Ian McMillan. He was a brilliant host – funny, passionate and genuinely awestruck by the stories of the winning groups. The ceremony also featured performances by 2016 England Epic Award runners-up Harps North West and local Northumbrian pipers Robson Choice.

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All of this year’s Epic Award winners and runners-up were inspiring examples of the extraordinary achievements of local volunteer-led arts organisations. It was great to have the Patron of Voluntary Arts, our former Chair Peter Stark, present the new Epic Award for Celebrating Diversity to Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance for the Love is Louder project which worked with people from across Rotherham and engaged with over 75 different organisations to challenge intolerance and division through creativity. It was also wonderful to see the Peer Award for Excellence, which is voted for by all the groups shortlisted for Epic Awards, go to the RE-Tune Project from Glasgow – the brainchild of David McHarg, a social worker for almost 20 years who became disillusioned with the impact his profession was having and set up the project to help those suffering from mental health difficulties, experiencing isolation and loneliness – and in particular, ex-service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Run by volunteers, The RE-Tune Project offers people with mental health difficulties the chance to make, and then play, their own stringed instrument. For a third year running the winners of the Epic People’s Choice Award, which is voted for by the public via the Epic Awards website, appeared on the Breakfast programme on BBC1 the morning after our ceremony. This year’s winner, Roscommon Solstice Choir, is a 120-strong community choir which has raised hundreds of thousands of Euros for charities.

You can see full details of all the 2017 Epic Award winners at: https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/epic-awards-2017-winners-announced and you can get a flavour of the ceremony by watching this video filmed by the England Epic Award winners South Devon Players: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXNd8l49WTE

The 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony was a very special occasion and I think everyone present had an incredibly enjoyable and inspirational evening. Many thanks to all the Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members who helped with this year’s Epic Awards – but particular thanks to Laraine, Damien and Kelly for making the ceremony such a successful event.

Robin Simpson.

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Power Through Diversity by Robin Simpson
December 15, 2016, 11:52 am
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On Monday I was at Contact Theatre in Manchester for the Arts Council England event, ‘Power Through Diversity’. ACE Chief Executive, Darren Henley, delivered the opening keynote speech saying “we have to break down the barriers to participation” and “I want us to do more to address socio-economic disadvantage”. He emphasised the need to have a two way relationship with those who think the arts is not for them – an approach that doesn’t impose ideas of culture. Darren launched ACE’s annual report on the state of diversity across the arts and culture sector in England: ‘Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: 2012-15’. The report includes analysis of workforce, programming, participation and audiences and access to funding and examines the diversity of ACE’s own workforce. You can download the report from: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/equality-diversity-and-creative-case-2015-16. Darren finished by saying “diversity is an opportunity that all of us must embrace … diversity matters now more than ever”. You can read his full speech at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Darren_henley_speech_diversity_event_2016.pdf

David Bryan (Chair of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel) then chaired a panel session which looked at a range of diversity issues. I loved the introduction provided by Contact Trustee, Reece Williams, who said the best way he could describe David Bryan was “I want to be him when I grow up”. David urged arts organisations to tackle diversity, saying “don’t get in a state of seizure and defer that moment of change”.

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In the afternoon, rather than the usual breakout discussions, Power Through Diversity featured a series of ‘TED-style talks’. These short, very personal, inventive and incredibly entertaining presentations were the highlight of the day. The presenters included: the artist, director and trans creative, Kate O’Donnell; the historian, broadcaster and film maker, David Olusoga; artist and theatre maker, Jackie Hagan; and writer/comedian Mawaan Rizwan. All the presentations are available to watch online at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/diversity/power-through-diversity



AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
November 18, 2016, 1:38 pm
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On Monday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group. The Arts & Humanities Research Council has now confirmed that the Connected Communities programme, which funds innovative collaborative research undertaken by partnerships involving academic institutions and community organisations, will continue until 2020. In Monday’s meeting we discussed the ‘Utopias’ programme of activities supported by Connected Communities to link to ‘Utopia 500’ – which commemorates five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (see: http://www.utopia500.net/). The Utopia Fair at Somerset House in June showcased the creative outcomes from 25 AHRC-funded projects. These projects brought together local community groups, researchers, activists and artists across the UK to explore how utopian ideals can be used to benefit the environmental and social future of our communities. Representatives from contemporary Utopian movements from all over the UK took up stands in Somerset House’ courtyard, celebrating the pockets of utopia that are flourishing around the country from Newcastle to Merthyr Tydfil, Sheffield to Scotland, Brighton to Doncaster plus a range of London sites. There is a video summary of the Utopia Fair at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2k8U_fYJGw. I was interested to learn about links developed by the Utopias programme to ‘Like Culture’ – a cultural network of European cities and regions: http://www.likeculture.eu/. In Monday’s meeting we also heard about ‘Common Cause’ – the new Connected Communities BAME project which aims to strengthen and extend the existing network of university and BAME community collaborators working in the arts and humanities. Common Cause is an 18 month project, supported by Arts Council England and the Runnymead Trust, and I was delighted to learn that Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel Chair, David Bryan, is now part of the team delivering the project for Connected Communities.

Robin Simpson.



People Place Power – the Creative People and Places conference, Doncaster by Robin Simpson
September 29, 2016, 3:00 pm
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On Tuesday and Wednesday I was at Cast in Doncaster for ‘People Place Power’ – the third Creative People and Places conference. Creative People and Places is the Arts Council England programme to increase engagement in the arts and culture in some of the areas of England that currently fall within the 10% least engaged (as measured by the Active People Survey). ACE has funded 21 consortia including local arts organisations, voluntary and public sector agencies and other partners to develop innovative approaches to increasing engagement. Voluntary Arts is a member of the Peterborough CPP consortium (‘Peterborough Presents’) and is working in partnership with several other CPPs. We have also been contracted by the national network of CPPs to provide and advice and support to help all CPPs work with local voluntary and amateur arts groups.

Opening the conference, CPP National Steering Group Chair, Holly Donagh, reflected on changes in the engagement debate over recent years. She said “we’ve got initiatives like 64 Million Artists and Everyday Creativity, the BBC’s Get Creative campaign, Fun Palaces, the work of Voluntary Arts, Paul Hamlyn’s Artworks programme, just to name a few national initiatives. And in some ways those questions of reach, audience engagement and democracy have become the most interesting questions about the arts and really central to the debate now, where perhaps once they were more marginal.” Holly also suggested that “business as usual is not sufficient for the challenges of the future and ignoring fault lines and inequalities that existed for generations will serve all communities poorly in the long run”.

Giving the opening keynote presentation, ACE Chief Executive Darren Henley talked about the need for a creativity revolution: “a change in how we think about and use our natural everyday creativity and how we need to recognise the importance of making and participating art and culture in all aspects of our lives”. He said: “This means listening to people and working with them to help develop their ideas about what a local culture might mean. While the concept of strong national culture should offer confidence, opportunity and inclusivity to all, a local culture provides the primary sense of belonging and participation the sharing and self belief that all successful communities need and which is crucial in all our lives young and old. And it’s what makes us special as a community and that’s very precious.” Darren Henley spoke about the importance of the democratisation of culture and building sustainable local infrastructure.

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The second keynote speaker, on Wednesday morning, was the Guardian journalist Lynsey Hanley who gave a brilliantly entertaining and provocative presentation, drawing on her new book about class and culture, ‘Respectable’. She talked about doing culture the ‘right way’ vs doing it the way you want to, saying “feeling extremely uncomfortable to the point of thinking ‘I just can’t do this’ is not unusual for a socially mobile person”. She asked whether the Internet really widens access to knowledge when acronyms rule and discussed the ‘canalisation of television’, asking “why is there a BBC4?” And she completely won her audience over when, in response to a question from the floor, she suggested we should “find out what people are doing already and invest in that”.

Also on Wednesday morning I chaired a conference breakout session titled ‘What is quality and how do we measure it?’ Kathryn Goodfellow and Juliet Hardy from bait (the South East Northumberland CPP) spoke about the development of the bait quality evaluation framework. Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester discussed the Culture Counts quality measurement tools and learning from the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. And Mark Robinson from Thinking Practice reported on the CPP national evaluation. After these presentations we had a very interesting and engaged conversation about measuring quality and excellence which grappled with how to capture the ‘magic’ element of cultural activities.

Over the past couple of months, the Voluntary Arts Up for Arts team (Helen Randle, Helen Jones and Jennie Dennett) have been interviewing voluntary and amateur arts groups across the country about their experiences of working with CPPs, in order to produce a series of five-minute audio case studies. On Wednesday afternoon Helen Randle and I presented a conference breakout session in which we played some of the recorded interviews to provoke a discussion about the challenges of working with voluntary arts groups. It was great to have some CPP representatives in the room who personally knew some of the interviewees and the recordings proved to be a very effective way to generate a rich conversation – as well as ensuring that some genuine participant voices were heard at the conference. Many thanks to Helen, Helen and Jennie for their work on the case studies.

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The final conference session on Wednesday afternoon was a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian Theatre Critic, Lyn Gardner, looking at the relationship between excellence of art and excellence of engagement. The speakers included Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists. My final memory of a really interesting and provocative conference was Lyn Gardner’s comment: “What is Great Art anyway? Maybe it’s just an Arts Council construct.”