Cultural Playing Field

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.

Keeping an eye on Olympic funding by Robin Simpson
May 1, 2008, 4:04 pm
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At my regular meeting with our informal voluntary cultural sector alliance partners Heritage Link and the Central Council for Physical Recreation, we were joined by Pete Moorey from NCVO who worked with us on our joint campaign over the diversion of Lottery funds to the 2012 Olympics. We talked about the latest select committee reports on the funding of the Olympics and agreed to write a joint letter to the Secretary of State, Andy Burnham, to remind the Government of the commitments that it made to us at the beginning of the year. We also discussed the Cultural Olympiad, the draft Heritage Protection Bill, the development of a European voluntary sector ‘compact’ and much more.

Research into small community organisations by Robin Simpson
May 1, 2008, 4:00 pm
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On Wednesday morning I was in London for the penultimate meeting of the Volunteering Hub Scrutiny Committee. As well as agreeing the process for the final evaluation of the Volunteering Hub, we heard a presentation on some of the research commissioned by the Hub from the Institute for Volunteering Research. This included two studies of particular relevance to the voluntary arts sector: ‘The impact of public policy on Volunteering in Community-based organisations’ which concluded that small, community-based organisations are increasingly being ‘molded’ by the external forces of legislation, regulation and funding; and ‘Volunteering to lead: a study of leadership within small volunteer-led groups’ which included some interesting observations about succession issues in small organisations. Both these studies also referred to the tendency of small, community-based organisations to link to specific specialist infrastructure organisations (such as artform umbrella bodies) rather than generic voluntary sector support organisations or the volunteering infrastructure. This seems to reinforce my view that, to support the mass of very small community organisations effectively, specialist infrastructure organisations need to be better resourced and the generic support organisations need to work more closely with these specialist bodies. You can read the research summaries at