Cultural Playing Field


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.”



Luminate Festival Parliamentary Reception by Robin Simpson
September 7, 2016, 1:11 pm
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On Tuesday evening I was at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for a formal reception to celebrate the launch of the 2016 Luminate Festival programme. In October Luminate – Scotland’s creative ageing festival, of which I am a founding Trustee – will present its fifth annual national festival with events taking place from Shetland to Gretna Green. On Tuesday the Luminate Board and staff were joined by Festival participants, partners, supporters and MSPs. Festival Director Anne Gallacher introduced speeches by Sandra White MSP, Leonie Bell from Creative Scotland and Brian Sloan from Age Scotland which all emphasised the positive role arts and culture can  play in addressing the challenges of loneliness and isolation in an ageing population.

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Beautiful People from Dundee Rep performing at the Luminate Parliamentary Reception

We were then treated to two excellent performances. Emma Versteeg and Maryam Sherhan from Live Music Now Scotland performed an extract from The Luminate Suite – a commission from the composer Bill Sweeney which was inspired by songs, poems and stories shared with him by older people in the Hebrides. Four performers from Dundee Rep’s Beautiful People – a new company launched during the 2015 Luminate Festival, featuring performers over the age of 55 – gave us an example of their compelling dramatic storytelling. It was a lovely event and I am really looking forward to this year’s Luminate Festival which starts on 1 October, see: http://www.luminatescotland.org/



A Choir in Every Care Home working group meeting by Robin Simpson
May 13, 2016, 2:00 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was at Kings Place in London for a meeting of the working group for the ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ project. This was the final working group meeting, as the initial scoping phase of the project comes to an end. The Baring Foundation, which funded the project, had asked the project partners (led by Live Music Now!, SoundSense and the Sidney de Haan Research Centre) to address two key questions in relation to developing a choir in every care home: what could we do without any more money?; and what could we do if we had limitless money? The project has surveyed 150 care homes and 100 musicians who work in care homes – and Making Music has surveyed amateur music groups about working in care homes. Working papers have been used to document the basic activities within the project and to explore key issues, eg quality. A substantial review of existing research has been completed and 29 case studies have been generated. The resulting project documentation now amounts to 350 pages in total. Stephen Clift reported back to the working group about the research review. He said there had been a remarkable expansion over the last 15 years of projects around singing and health. There is something about singing that is hugely powerful for many people in contributing to their wellbeing. The working group looked at how we might develop a national campaign to encourage singing in care homes, modelled on the Sing Up campaign which reintroduced singing to 80% of primary schools. It was good to talk to David Cutler from the Baring Foundation at Monday’s meeting and I hope this is the just the starting point for a much larger project to turn care homes across the UK into ‘singing homes’.

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Annual Conference 2016 by Robin Simpson
April 20, 2016, 4:19 pm
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Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO Chief Executive

On Monday Louise, Katy and I were among more than 600 delegates at The Brewery in London for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Annual Conference. NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington opened the conference with a ‘State of the Sector Address’ which acknowledged that these have not been easy times for voluntary organisations. Stuart said “too many people seem to have concluded that there is something wrong with charities” and “when we’ve been asked serious questions we haven’t always responded satisfactorily”. He suggested that public trust is the first, and major, challenge: our relationship with the public is by far the most important we have. While it would be too crude to talk about hostility to charities, the veil has slipped and there is an increasing willingness to ask questions. The genie is not going back in the bottle, nor should it: we cannot afford to be seen as less transparent than the public sector. Stuart emphasised the need for openness in relation to fundraising and executive pay. He said the “growing that notion that charities should be seen but not heard would be a huge waste of talent”. He is increasingly concerned about the anti advocacy clause in Government grant agreements, which he said is clearly a breach of the Voluntary Sector Compact. The best voluntary organisations combine the values of legitimacy and authenticity: charities are experts, anchored in their communities. Stuart finished by saying “we will emerge stronger”. He warned that Trustees need to think clearly about everything they are doing: “it makes money” is no longer a sufficient defence. If there are areas you are uncomfortable about, now is the time to do something about them.

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Lord O’Donnell

The second keynote presentation was by Lord O’Donnell who spoke about the positive effects of volunteering on wellbeing. The former Cabinet Secretary said local authorities are likely to see further reductions of around a quarter in this Parliament but austerity is causing more demand for charities. He outlined three steps to rebuild trust in charities:
1. we need to prove we are making the world a better place
2. we need to demonstrate how our funds are spent
3. we should try to put ourselves out of business – remove the problems rather than just solving them.
Gus O’Donnell spoke about the What Works Centre for Wellbeing – of which he was the first Chair – and the importance of articulating the wellbeing impact of charities. He said it is absolutely vital we measure wellbeing at a national level through the Office for National Statistics. He thought we should be measuring the wellbeing of children in schools. He said “these are tough times for many in our society and for many charities. We could reign in our ambitions and wait for better times but it would be disastrous. Focus on impact, be transparent, be proud and passionate about what you do, and put yourselves out of business.”

I attended two conference workshops: the first was a debate titled ‘In a fast changing world strategic plans are useless. Discuss.’ Girish Menon, Chief Executive of Actionaid UK and Srabani Sen, a senior consultant at NCVO, argued for and against the statement. This led to an interesting discussion which highlighted the value of having a clear strategy, the important role the process of developing a strategic plan can play and the danger that, without effective strategy organisations focus more on sustaining themselves rather than what they want to achieve.

The second workshop I attended was ‘Digital will transform your organisation – practical tips for leaders’. Julie Dodd, digital consultant and author of ‘The New Reality’ said digital technology affects everything. Organisations need to develop a culture of experimentation: test, make, learn. She spoke about the Open University which had found itself at a roadblock and created Future Learn, as a separate startup, which is now one of the most successful MOOC (massive open online course) platforms in the world. Helena Raven, Head of Digital at NSPCC, talked about three simple principles for digital leaders:
1. Design using data
2. Put the user first
3. Embrace agility
She said don’t confuse a lack of strategy for agility – being agile means being organised!

Robin Simpson.

 

 



2016 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
April 8, 2016, 9:55 am
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Cardiff Castle

On Saturday I was at Cardiff Castle for the 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony. It was a wonderful event – fantastic venue, great weather and amazing winners and runners-up from across the UK and Ireland. In the afternoon I hosted a seminar at St David’s Hall called ‘Creating Epic Places’ which looked at the effects creative cultural activities have on local communities. This provided an opportunity for the representatives of the groups arriving in Cardiff for the evening ceremony to meet each other and find out more about the various Epic projects. Voluntary Arts Board member, Hamish Fyfe – Professor of Arts and Society at the University of South Wales – led a fascinating discussion about the links between creativity and place.

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The Banqueting Hall, Cardiff Castle

On Saturday evening we assembled in the splendid banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle. John Furnham from Cardiff Castle gave us a brief history of the building and reminded us that the banqueting hall had been used for the 2014 NATO Summit, pointing out which of us was sitting in the seats that had been occupied by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel et al. The Epic Awards Ceremony was slickly compered by Nicola Heywood Thomas from BBC Radio Wales. We began with a performance by the newly appointed Young People’s Laureate Wales, poet Sophie McKeand. Afterwards Sophie wrote a great piece on her blog about the experience of being involved with the Epic Awards Ceremony, calling it “a brilliant light in this liquid blackness” and noting that “some of the UK’s most dedicated, humble and generous people converged in Cardiff Castle’s banquet hall to receive awards and, importantly, recognition for their work” – see: http://youngpeopleslaureate.org/on-beginnings/

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Young People’s Laureate Wales, Sophie McKeand

The Epic Awards certificates and specially commissioned Welsh lovespoons were presented to the winning groups by the Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales, Nick Capaldi, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts Wales, Hamish Fyfe. As always, the winners and runners-up were each amazing stories and their representatives were funny, passionate and incredibly inspiring. You can see full details of all the winners and runners-up at: http://www.voluntaryarts.org/2016/04/02/epic-awards-2016-winners-announced/

People’s Choice Award Winners, Strike a Chord – a South Wales choir for stroke survivors – provided the emotional climax of the evening with one elderly member of the choir in floods of tears as I announced their award at the end of the ceremony. Immediately afterwards we drove two of the choir’s representatives through the night to Salford to appear on the BBC Breakfast sofa, live on BBC1, on Sunday morning. The choir’s conductor, Ali Shone, told the nation “Voluntary Arts, who set up the Awards, they’re fantastic: what they do is brilliant”.

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Cardiff Castle

Epic Awards 2016 has been a huge success and we are indebted to all the applicants and to Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members across the UK and Ireland. I would particularly like to thank Gareth Coles and Damien McGlynn who were both involved in running Epic Awards for the first time and helped to make this one of the best years yet. The 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony at Cardiff Castle is one of the stand-out moments of my ten years at Voluntary Arts.

Robin Simpson.



Our Cultural Commons Conference, Norwich by Robin Simpson
February 25, 2016, 1:28 pm
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The Halls, Norwich

On Tuesday and Wednesday I was at The Halls in Norwich for the Arts Development UK ‘Our Cultural Commons’ conference – presented in association with Voluntary Arts.

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Councillor Alan Waters

The conference was opened by Councillor Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council. Councillor Waters is the third Leader of the Council to have culture as part of his brief – emphasising how Norwich sees culture as central. He said “the arts are part of the fabric of Norwich”, and spoke about the city’s networks of parks, play areas, performance spaces etc. He said “culture is an important force for economic, social and political change” and finished his speech by asking “how do we achieve this cultural commons?”.

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Jane Wilson

Jane Wilson, Chair of Arts Development UK, gave the first keynote presentation of the conference. She said “arts development is that space where arts people and place intersect – the place where they come together”. She spoke about recognition of the role arts development can play in community development and regeneration. Local authority finances have changed and many councils now face a struggle to maintain their statutory responsibilities. Arts services have been a significant casualty over recent years. This has led to the development of more independent specialist organisations working in arts and health, arts and young people etc. Arts Development had outgrown its purely local authority role. Keeping up with the pace of change is challenging. Jane said Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme is doing valuable work but is a short-term approach. She spoke about the importance of place making and planning and welcomed the work being undertaken by the Cultural Commissioning Programme and ACE’s new Cultural Education Challenge. Jane said we can no longer talk about the lack of evidence to support arts development. Leadership is at the heart of this issue, rooted in local collaboration. We need a combination of light touch high level aspiration with permission to just get on with it on the ground.

On Tuesday I took part in a breakout session about the Knitting Communities Together project organised by Little Bird SOS in Leicester which demonstrated the therapeutic value of taking part in crafts and the impact this can have on mental health. I also attended a session about the Cultural Commissioning Programme in which Tony Witton from Kent County Council showed us the excellent new Arts and Cultural Commissioning Toolkit, see: http://www.artscommissioningtoolkit.com. I was also struck by the extent to which the programme’s Locality Projects are beginning to bring together local cultural organisations in exactly the way suggested by Our Cultural Commons. See the following examples from Birmingham, York, Torbay and Derby:

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Visualisation of Baroness Kidron’s speech by conference artist-in-residence Fran O’Hara from Scarlet Designs

On Tuesday morning Voluntary Arts President, Baroness Beeban Kidron, gave the keynote presentation at the Arts Development UK Our Cultural Commons conference. Beeban’s speech was fascinating and inspirational. She spoke about “the weight of the collective behind any act of creativity” rather than insisting on the national of the individual artistic genius. She said “great art is actually made by groups of people” – by active participation of colleagues. We need to take seriously the role of the cultural life of communities. Beeban stated the aim of Our Cultural Commons to stimulate communities to re-imagine the cultural life of their area. Our Cultural Commons encourages people to form new collaborative networks, recognising, valuing, and working with their local cultural assets. Beeban discussed the four practical steps people could take in their local areas to realise the ambitions of Our Cultural Commons:

  • call people together in your local area to talk about what you want to achieve, what the opportunities are, what is missing;
  • identify existing cultural assets, but thinking creatively about spaces and facilities that could be used for cultural activities;
  • ask people to explain how taking part in creative cultural activities improves their learning, health, wellbeing, confidence and quality of life;
  • explore the full diversity of cultural activity in your local area, asking what local cultural activity often gets overlooked or undervalued.

Beeban spoke about intofilm – the charity she founded which uses film in schools to teach and to engage school students aged 5-18. She said “I never tire of the moment when I see that light go on in a child’s eye. The light that goes on first time they own their own understanding, of how form and function work, of metaphor and meaning, of self expression and audience response – of wonder. A light that once on is hard to snuff out.” Asking people to explain how taking part in creative cultural activities ‘improves’ health, wellbeing, confidence and quality of life is an invitation to discuss the lightbulb – to talk about what it is to be human and to participate and feel the connectivity and change that it brings. For those who seek a cultural commons – there is no greater responsibility that reaching out to those who live beyond your own imagination and experience.

Baroness Kidron said that ‘local’, ‘amateur’ and ‘community’ are not worlds that appear endlessly in Government policy. She thought the opportunity of the upcoming Government Culture White Paper is immense. “If they embraced local participation and supported Our Cultural Commons, they would be embracing the small-scale, the grassroots, the unfunded, the voluntary, the everyday creative cultural activity that is an essential part of individual and community wellbeing.” She said “we need places to meet, to put our work, to teach and to learn, to make and to gather – whether the hallway at a local council building or a government HQ, whether free rooms in a library for unfunded organisations, or Government using its muscle to open public (and private) buildings for use by the community to be creative.” Beeban finished by saying “Our Cultural Commons is about making creative participation ordinary. Ordinary and everyday for the millions of extraordinarily creative people of the United Kingdom – so that we can all lead lives that allow for both creativity and cultural contribution in the community, in all of the glorious forms that it can take.”

The final keynote presentation at the Our Cultural Commons conference was given by Bobsie Robinson – Cultural Policy & Strategy Manager at Bradford Council and a member of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel. Bobsie described the demographics of Bradford where nearly a quarter of the population are under the age of 16 and the proportion of Pakistani people is the largest in England. Bradford has the National Media Museum and is the first UNESCO City of Film. Bobsie talked about the development of local Community Arts Networks across Bradford which mirror many aspects of the Our Cultural Commons approach. She gave examples of some amazing projects that had been used to inspire cultural participation and increase civic pride – including the wonderful 75 Dorothys Flashmob (“there’s no place like Bradford”), see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26uex01mrFw. Bobsie also spoke about the work of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel, describing it as a unique group of people and saying how proud she was to be part of it.

On Tuesday afternoon I took part in two breakout sessions showcasing existing examples of Our Cultural Commons in action. Lincolnshire One Venues (LOV) is a network of eleven cultural venues which work together (with the motto “collaborate or die!”). LOV’s Young People’s Programme is empowering young people as leaders, integrated into the venues within the network. Young people are developing governance skills as well as gaining experience in arts management and programming.

Made in Clayton West is an initiative in a village in West Yorkshire which started very simply by asking all residents:

  • What would make it a better place to live?
  • What would you like to make happen?
  • What are you willing to share?
  • What do you want to learn?

Made in Clayton West is a fantastic example of a creative approach to community capacity building and one of the best examples of Our Cultural Commons in practice that we have discovered so far. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBeNJvRYXpc

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Jane Wilson closing the conference

The Arts Development UK Conference in Norwich felt like a very successful event. There was a very positive, determined and creative mood amongst the delegates – despite the incredibly challenging environment in which we are all operating. The spirit of Our Cultural Commons appears to be thriving and the learning, ideas and connections from the conference will help us to take the Our Cultural Commons agenda forward.

Robin Simpson.