Cultural Playing Field


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: www.everydayparticipation.org.



‘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: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/388989/Independent_Library_Report-_18_December.pdf) 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.



Arts Development UK Southern Regions Mass Meeting by Robin Simpson
March 20, 2015, 4:23 pm
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On Tuesday I was at Lift in Islington for the first Arts Development UK Southern Regions Mass Meeting. This event, for ADUK members from the Southern regions of England, was intended to bridge a gap between the regular ADUK regional meetings and the annual national conference. Around 50 delegates from across the South of East of England gathered for a day of presentations, discussions and networking. I spoke about Our Cultural Commons, as part of the opening panel session, and then facilitated two discussion groups to explore Our Cultural Commons in more depth. It was good to hear some more examples of innovative local cultural collaboration, including the Cattlemarket in Skipton, the Share Network of museums in the East of England, and the Social Sustainability Group model used by cities across Sweden (and often led by the cultural sector).

Robin Simpson.



Our Cultural Commons roundtable, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
March 6, 2015, 3:34 pm
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On Friday I was at the beautiful setting of the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for the second of the Our Cultural Commons high-level national policy roundtables. This event was co-hosted for us by Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales and included representatives of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Literature Wales, Creu Cymru, Cadw (Welsh Government’s historic environment service), National Theatre Wales, Wrexham Borough Council, Rhondda Cynon Taff Council, Disability Arts Cymru, the Adult Learning and the Culture Sector Consultancy and others.

Nick Capaldi opened the discussion by saying he thought Our Cultural Commons “a very interesting proposition in these very challenging times – what it is to sustain and promote local arts and creativity, continuing to make things happen despite difficult circumstances”. He asked what needs to happen to create the environment for this activity to take place. Nick pointed out that if “our cutural life, first and last, is local” this presents an interesting challenge to the Arts Council of Wales as a national organisation. He said “I can think of no better organisation than Voluntary Arts to be working with on this”.

Voluntary Arts Wales Chair, Hamish Fyfe, outlined the concept of Our Cultural Commons, saying “partnership is necessary for us to carry on doing what we do”.

Lee Corner, Convener of Our Cultural Commons, then chaired the debate. It was a fascinating discussion which looked at community asset transfer, volunteering, partnerships, networking, capacity building, sharing of control and power and much more.

John McGrath from National Theatre Wales spoke about three models – the participatory arts model, the amateur arts model and the voluntary sector training volunteers to fulfil roles. I emphasised the need to develop better connections between these three models – and the difficulty of doing so. I spoke about how Voluntary Arts supports the creative citizens who run voluntary arts groups and the work we are doing (through the Putting Down Roots project funded by the Arts Council of Wales and our Spirit of 2012 project) to connect professionally-led participatory arts initiatives to local amateur arts groups, and our work (also through the Spirit of 2012 project) to connect amateur arts groups to Volunteer Centres.

In summing up the discussion I asked: 1. if everyone agrees that we need the kind of collaborative approach suggested by Our Cultural Commons, why are not doing more of this already?; 2. how do we gather together a broader range of cultural partners, beyond the people we already know?; 3. is the need to sustain and develop the local cultural infrastructure a sufficient incentive to bring people together or do we also need to look at collaborating on cultural activity?

I urged everyone to continue the conversation, by signing up to the Our Cultural Commons newsletter, joining the growing set of partner organisations listed on the Our Cultural Commons website and writing provocations or think-pieces about Our Cultural Commons for the website. Further roundtables are planned in Belfast, Dublin and London over the coming weeks. More details at: http://www.ourculturalcommons.org



Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:40 pm
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I was in London on Thursday for a meeting about AHRC research project ‘Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space’ – the first academic study of amateur theatre in the UK. This project is being led by Professor Helen Nicholson (Royal Holloway, University of London) with Professor Nadine Holdsworth (University of Warwick) and Dr Jane Milling, (University of Exeter). I took part in the first advisory group meeting for this project in October 2013, so it was great this week, 18 months into the project, to hear details of the researchers’ interim findings. Helen said people from the amateur theatre scene have been overwhelmingly generous. The research team have been writing case studies about members of the Little Theatre Guild and the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. Nadine has been looking at how amateur theatre is archived and the ways in which the theatres themselves are archives. She spoke about the ‘hard economics’ of amateur theatre and the labour necessary to attract audiences, maintain turnover, keep buildings open, hire space and costumes and sell adverts in the programme. You can read the project’s interim report at: http://issuu.com/amateurdramaresearch/docs/amateur_theatre_report_1ef015e9eca65c/1

Robin Simpson.



What Works Centre for Wellbeing panel meeting by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:38 pm
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On Wednesday I was in London to take part in the What Works Centre for Wellbeing panel meeting. We assessed applications made by research teams from across the country to run the four evidence programmes that will form the bulk of the work of the new What Works Centre. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing will be one of a number of What Works Centres which have been established to synthesise evidence to improve public and policy decisions. The Wellbeing Centre will build on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) national measurement programme. The Centre has initial funding of £4.3 million over three years. The Centre will comprise a central hub and four evidence synthesis programmes. The primary customers for the outputs of the Centre will be service commissioners, decision makers, practitioners and policymakers working both locally and nationally using evidence to ensure the best results for their localities. The four evidence programmes will look at wellbeing in relation to: work & learning; culture & sport; community; and cross-cutting themes. I was asked to assess applications for both the culture & sport and the community programmes. On Wednesday we agreed which applicants will now be called to interview. It was a really interesting day and it was great to have the chance to make the point that the Centre should be looking at wellbeing in relation to grassroots participation in creative, cultural activities.

Robin Simpson.



Ed Miliband by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:36 pm
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Ed Miliband speaking about the arts and culture at Battersea Arts Centre
Ed Miliband speaking about the arts and culture at Battersea Arts Centre

On Monday evening I was at Battersea Arts Centre in South London to hear a speech about arts, culture and creativity by the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband MP. This event was organised by the new Creative Industries Federation and the Federation’s Director, John Kampfner, introduced Ed Miliband, saying “[The arts] is our superpower. We need to nurture it through innovation, entrepreneurialism and joined up working. We need to do far better, as the Warwick Commission reported, in making the arts accessible to all and yes, we need a body politic that is proud to invest in what makes this country great.”

Ed Miliband started by saying: “I care about you and your success because I think the arts, culture and creativity define who we are as a nation, because you make an incredible contribution to our economic success and because I think government policy has to make a difference and help you succeed as an industry and a sector. And I’m conscious that by making a speech [about the arts] I’m venturing into relatively uncharted, not to say risky, territory.”

He said all of us will have our first memories of what moved us as children. Publicly funded art and culture is vital to our dynamism. Access to the arts and culture is not an optional extra, it is essential. He thought the findings of the Warwick Commission should worry us all.

Ed Miliband outlined three parts to Labour’s plan in relation to the arts and culture: increasing creativity in schools; improving access to culture; and encouraging people to work in the arts and creative industries. While it was wonderful to hear a party leader speaking so enthusiastically about the arts so close to a general election, I was disappointed that he did not say anything about the importance of participation in creative cultural activities – particularly as this was such a significant theme of the Warwick Commission report.

Ed Miliband said “I come with an offer, a different offer to put policy for the arts, culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour Government mission. Of course we should keep the Department of Culture: it says something about our country that that should even be a question. But I want to go further. I don’t believe culture belongs just to one Department, because what you do matters across our whole society and we can only achieve the vision of a society that I believe in, based on equality and social justice, if we recognise the value of the arts and culture across every part of Government.”

He said he would make a permanent change to how the arts and culture are represented in Westminster, creating a Prime Minister’s Committee. There would be a focus on equality of access across the country and further devolution of resources. He spoke about the significance of the 50th anniversary of Jennie Lee’s 1965 White Paper on Wednesday and said “tonight I rededicate myself to making that mission our own” and we should “hold my feet to the fire over this”.

Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband

Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband

In the questions that followed the speech, Stella Duffy, Co-Director of Fun Palaces, asked Ed Miliband: “If we only look at funnelling people into education, into buildings and into institutions, we are forgetting those people in community who need our support around the arts and culture too.”

Ed Miliband replied: “Stella, where does that take you to in particular?” and Stella responded: “It takes us to Voluntary Arts, it takes us to 64 Million Artists, it takes us to Fun Palaces, it takes us to the Cultural Learning Alliance. There are hundreds of organisations, many of us quite small, quite new, who are looking at the arts in a completely different way. We are saying there are millions of people in the country who are scared to go into the buildings, even in the very beginning. They haven’t had it in schools for the past 5 years, they haven’t had what Jennie Lee promised, and what we are saying is we need to be asking those people in their communities. Stop flying in experts and as the community what they want.”

Ed Miliband said “I think it’s important what you’re saying but isn’t the key to this (and there are a lot of people in the room who would know more about this than me) what we said about education. The reason I talked a lot about education is it is so crucial, because if you don’t necessarily have it in your family background where else are you going to discover culture creativity and the arts?”

Stella replied: “Totally – I am that girl. I didn’t have it in my family either. But it’s also in community. Unfortunately we have an attitude of behaving as if the arts only belong in big buildings at the moment, and there are hundreds of thousands of arts centres that also need our support just now.”

Ed didn’t seem to fully understand the point Stella was making and spoke again about the importance of cultural education in schools.

David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, summing up at the end of the evening, said: “Last Thursday the BBC and What Next launched the Get Creative campaign across the country, and to Stella’s point about how more people become involved in art and culture, if everyone in this room can go out and get involved in that Get Creative campaign, with your organization, your resources, that would be terrific.”

Robin Simpson.




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