Cultural Playing Field

Excellence and the voluntary arts – join the debate by Robin Simpson
May 30, 2008, 9:06 am
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Thanks to everyone who has posted comments on excellence and the voluntary arts ahead of the DCMS seminar on Wednesday 4 June. There is still time to join the debate – click here to read the latest comments and add your own thoughts.

Volunteering and the voluntary arts by Robin Simpson
May 21, 2008, 4:08 pm
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On Wednesday I was back in London to meet Justin Davis-Smith at Volunteering England. This was my first one-to-one meeting with Justin since he succeeded Christopher Spence. We talked about how to promote best practice in volunteering and volunteer management within voluntary arts groups and how to develop volunteering within VAN – identifying a couple of potential projects in these areas which Volunteering England might help us with. We also discussed the idea of discounted membership of Volunteering England for voluntary arts umbrella bodies. I was particularly pleased to find Justin very amenable to considering arts participation as ‘volunteering’ – opening up the possibility of local volunteer centres playing a role in ‘signposting’ people to opportunities to participate in the arts.


The full value of the voluntary arts by Robin Simpson
May 20, 2008, 3:47 pm
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I was in London again on Tuesday to meet Richard Piper and Jake Eliot from the Performance team at NCVO. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about performance, effectiveness and impact in the voluntary arts. Richard was keen to explore the application of NCVO’s ‘Full Value’ model (see in a voluntary arts context. We talked in detail about the forthcoming government seminar on excellence and the voluntary arts (on 4 June) and looked at examples and learning from the wider voluntary and community sector that might prove helpful to this debate.

Informal adult learning and the voluntary arts by Robin Simpson
May 20, 2008, 3:45 pm
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On Monday I was in London to take part in a third sector round-table event as part of the informal adult learning consultation being undertaken by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. This was the last of six round table events consulting different groups of stakeholders. I was one of a dozen representatives of the voluntary and community sector given the opportunity to discuss issues around informal adult learning directly with the Minister for Skills, David Lammy. I strongly encouraged the Minister to work with the existing voluntary and community sector infrastructure organisations, including the voluntary arts umbrella bodies. I was also keen to link the need to help people find informal learning opportunities with our desire to develop better ‘signposting’ to opportunities to participate in the arts and crafts – not through some giant top-down government IT solution but by developing links between existing networks to create an organic and sustainable web of information. The informal adult learning consultation deadline has been extended to 12 June – full details at

Developing the Participation Manifesto by Robin Simpson
May 13, 2008, 3:52 pm
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On Monday I was in London for a meeting of the Participation Manifesto initial development group. This was our first chance to meet Hardin Tibbs, the consultant who is going to facilitate the first major Participation Manifesto consultation event in London on 9 June. We discussed the format of the day in detail and looked at how to focus on how the 170 organisations that have already expressed an interest in the development of a manifesto might be able to support each other to increase and widen participation – rather than risk the message of the manifesto becoming simply about the need for more funding. Hardin grasped the issues quickly and had some inventive ideas about making the most effective use of the consultation event. I’m really looking forward to 9 June …

Make the artists’ parliament inclusive by Robin Simpson
May 12, 2008, 4:15 pm
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Writing in The Guardian today Mark Ravenhill proposes establishing an “artists’ parliament”. In order to stand for a place in this parliament “all candidates would need is proof that a significant part of their income came from work in the arts”. Why? The vast majority of the artists creating and performing in this country are not paid to do so. One of the major disappointments with Arts Council England has been its lack of connection with the overwhelming majority of arts organisations. If he really wants his parliament to “raise public awareness of ongoing cultural debates and help foster a sense of ownership and involvement in the arts” Ravenhill should be truly revolutionary and include equal representation for the amateur arts.

Rising to the Inspire Mark challenge by Robin Simpson
May 9, 2008, 10:42 am
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Yesterday morning I was at Canary Wharf in London at the offices of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to meet the UK Cultural Programme Advisor, Francesca Canty. Francesca told me that, since the ‘Inspire Mark’ for non-commercial projects inspired by the 2012 Games was launched on 11 March they have had 30 applications. She is very keen to ensure that the first few projects granted the Inspire Mark include some from voluntary arts groups in order to reinforce the message that the Cultural Olympiad is open to all groups – regardless of scale. We talked further about how the Voluntary Arts Network could work with the regional and national Creative Programmers to ensure that voluntary arts groups maximise the opportunities presented by the Cultural Olympiad to achieve recognition at a national and international level. We discussed the possibility of a series of LOCOG roadshows around the country specifically for voluntary arts groups. Francesca emphasised that to achieve the Inspire Mark, projects will have to embrace the Cultural Olympiad criteria and values and be new and innovative – “like never before”. I assured her that voluntary arts groups were more than capable of rising to this creative challenge.

Excellence in the voluntary arts – some starting points by robinosterley
May 9, 2008, 8:52 am
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The post above gives some background to the seminar that DCMS is hosting on June 4th. The purpose of this post is to start a debate about the kinds of discussions that might take place at the seminar.

A few years ago, Francois Matarasso defined quality in the arts in the following way. I hope he doesn’t mind me recycling this material: hopefully he will contribute to this blog if he has changed or refined any of his views:

  • Firstly, technical competence. Not brilliance, note, nor virtuosic extravagance, but competence, in other words the ability to translate accurately the creator’s wishes into a performance.
  • Secondly, originality. Something about the performance needs to be different from what has gone before.
  • Thirdly, ambition. The performers must have a need to improve their performance and to constantly aspire to something better.
  • Fourthly, a quality performance requires relevance. It must be something that has a shared meaning with its audience – he sometimes refers to this as resonance.
  • And fifthly, which he admits is a bit of a cop-out, he requires “magic” – self-explanatory I guess.

OK these are by no means perfect, but might be a interesting place to start. How can voluntary arts be excellent (we all know it can be) without the degree of technical excellence displayed by professional artists? What does this mean? Is it simply about contextualising artistic activities within their community or is it about something else? Can we have excellent art without technical excellence? If so how? Does technical excellence always mean excellence (not many would subscribe to that one I suspect)? Indeed should we be debating this at all, or simply say that there are enough examples of technical excellence in the voluntary arts for this not to be a problem? These are the issues we want to explore – let’s get the debate going now.

Voluntary arts excellence seminar – background by robinosterley
May 9, 2008, 8:51 am
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The DCMS is hosting a seminar on the subject of excellence in the Voluntary Arts on June 4th. This post is to give some background to the seminar and to kick off a debate amongst delegates to inform the seminar’s discussions.

The background is that some of us having been thinking for a while about the issues of quality and excellence as they apply to the Voluntary Arts. The publication of the McMaster report has been widely accepted as a vitally important contribution to the debate about how the arts should be regarded in terms of excellence; and yet a search of the report yields no instances of the words “voluntary” or “amateur”. Thus our concern that excellence could simply be construed as the province of the professional arts sector was only exacerbated by reading McMaster, and our fears grew as it became clear that DCMS was taking McMaster very much to heart.

At a meeting of the arts, culture and heritage special interest group of ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) some of us mentioned this point to Margaret Hodge. She seemed quite taken with the thought and suggested creating a seminar on the subject. Since this time, Robin Simpson and I have been working with Paul Blaker, Head of Arts Development at the DCMS, to make the seminar happen and it promises to be an interesting occasion. My next post gives some ideas about how we might proceed – please comment widely, frankly and interestingly!

Local authority cultural services improvement strategy by Robin Simpson
May 1, 2008, 4:15 pm
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On Wednesday afternoon I was at the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers Executive meeting. There was a lot of discussion of the new local authority cultural services improvement strategy, ‘A Passion for Excellence’, which had been launched at the Local Government Association conference. Not sure I completely understood all this but the most important thing seemed to be to strive to get the arts included in Local Area Agreements. Around 2000 national indicators for local government in England have been reduced to just 198 but these do include an indicator around engagement with the arts (NI11 – which is currently the 70th most popular in terms of take-up by local authorities). Local authorities were urged, however, not to “disappear into the vortex of indicators” – cultural services improvement is much more than just targets.