Cultural Playing Field

DCMS VCS Forum meeting by Robin Simpson
June 27, 2008, 12:54 pm
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On Wednesday afternoon I attended a meeting of the DCMS Voluntary and Community Sector Forum. With the departure of Alan Davey (to Arts Council England), the Forum has a new chair – Graham Turnock, Director or Programmes and DCMS Third Sector Champion. We heard a presentation on funding for youth culture and the interface between DCMS and the Department for Children, Schools and Families – focusing on the ‘Aiming High’, ‘Myplace’ and ‘Find Your Talent’ programmes. We also heard from Sarah Wilkie of the MLA about the ‘Community Libraries Programme’ and from Steve Mannix of LOCOG about the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Finally we discussed how to involve VCS organisations in the project board overseeing DCMS involvement in the new Government target PSA21 (communities).


Volunteering and the Cultural Olympiad by Robin Simpson
June 27, 2008, 12:51 pm
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On Wednesday I was at the Cabinet Office in London to meet John Knights, Policy Manager- Volunteering at the Office of the Third Sector (OTS) to discuss opportunities for volunteering in relation to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. We talked about how to ensure voluntary arts groups take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Cultural Olympiad, how the Olympic volunteering programme is being co-ordinated between LOCOG, OTS, DCMS etc, and how to realise the aim of the Games to leave a legacy of increased participation in the arts. We also discussed how OTS might be able to help us to work across other Government Departments to improve support for the voluntary arts and help to unlock the potential of the sector.

Launching Amateo by Robin Simpson
June 27, 2008, 12:41 pm
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Last weekend I attended the ‘Amateo’ conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where we agreed the constitution for a ‘European network for active participation in cultural activities’ and elected the first Board for the new organisation. VAN is the UK representative amongst the seven founding members of ‘Amateo’. In launching the network, its first President, Villy Dall from Denmark, emphasised that the idea was not to duplicate what other European organisations already do: the main idea was to convince politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg that the application procedures for European funding schemes need to be made more accessible to amateur cultural groups. Amateo will press for an opening up of European funding to the amateur sector and will then develop support to help groups with the application process. Amateo aims to encompass not just the 27 countries of the European Union but all 47 members of the Council of Europe. Villy said that the most essential argument is that the amateur arts need to be recognised as part of the arts across Europe.

Villy Dall launching Amateo - the European network for active participation in cultural activities - at the Amateo Conference in Ljubljana

The conference was small but friendly and constructive. There were around 40 delegates with Robin Osterley from Making Music and me the only representatives from the UK or the Republic of Ireland. As well as the business of the conference we enjoyed a reception hosted by the Mayor of Ljubljana, a fantastic concert in the medieval coastal town of Piran, featuring choral groups from Slovenia, Estonia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, and the 39th annual Slovenian Outdoor Choral Festival in the village of Sendvit.

39th Annual Slovenian Outdoor Choral Festival, Sendvit, Slovenia

This festival consisted of massed choirs involving nearly 4000 singers from across Slovenia as well as Portugal, Germany, Belgium and Argentina. An amazing event at which we were introduced to the Prime Minister of Slovenia. A very enjoyable conference and hopefully the start of a new chapter for the amateur arts across Europe. For more details see

Meeting the ACE Chief Executive by Robin Simpson
June 12, 2008, 4:15 pm
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On Thursday Reemer and I were at Arts Council England national office in London to meet ACE Chief Executive, Alan Davey. We talked about last week’s seminar on ‘Excellence and the Voluntary Arts’ and the forthcoming VAE/ACE/DCMS joint conference on 2 July. We discussed how we might work better together to secure additional support for the voluntary arts from a range of Government departments. We also looked at the idea of a national campaign to increase participation, building on the experience of the VAE/Media Trust ‘Up for Arts’ campaign last summer. Finally we discussed how to address the need for capacity-building support for the voluntary arts in England. It increasingly feels like we are now past the stage of arguing about the importance of the voluntary arts and beginning to move into the details of how best to support the sector. Roll on 2 July …

Meeting the Minister by Robin Simpson
June 12, 2008, 3:04 pm
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On Wednesday afternoon Reemer and I met the Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge, in her office in the House of Commons. With the debate on 42-day detention going on in the background, we discussed last week’s seminar on ‘Excellence and the Voluntary Arts’ and the forthcoming joint VAE/ACE/DCMS conference, ‘Our Creative Talent’ on 2 July. We focused, in particular, on the need for more explicit recognition by the Government of the voluntary arts sector as an essential part of the wider arts continuum. Margaret Hodge was very keen to ensure that the sector realises it is now highly valued and appreciated by the Government and we agreed a number of ways to get this message across – both on 2 July and beyond. Exciting times ahead – please Gordon, no reshuffles in the next three weeks!!

The future for informal learning for adults by Robin Simpson
June 12, 2008, 3:02 pm
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On Wednesday I was at Smithfield Market in London to attend a seminar on ‘The Future for Informal Learning for Adults’, organised by The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). This was an opportunity to build on ‘Shaping the Way Ahead’ – the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) consultation. A diverse range of around 30 stakeholders from various areas of adult learning (including officials from DIUS) undertook a visioning exercise to answer the question “what should a vibrant and fulfilling adult learning experience be?” I was the only arts representative but I was interested and encouraged that many of the examples of informal adult learning cited by others in my group involved the arts and crafts. We talked a lot about joining up adult learning provision across sectors and disciplines and improved ‘signposting’ to the full range of learning opportunities.

The last breakfast by Robin Simpson
June 10, 2008, 2:18 pm
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This morning I was at The Goring Hotel, Victoria, London, for the final breakfast meeting of the Volunteering Hub Scrutiny Committee. We reflected on the achievements of the Volunteering Hub and the 104 projects we have funded over the past 3 years. We discussed our successes and failures and tried to identify the areas in which the Hub has had the most significant effect. We also heard how the new Volunteering National Support Service is progressing. This will be a much smaller, more focussed partnership programme which will take forward some aspects of the Hub’s work. To ensure continuity, members of the Volunteering Hub Scrutiny Committee have been invited to join a new advisory committee for the National Support Service but I have decided that, after two years, this feels like the right time to bow out and concentrate on other things. I have very much enjoyed the experience of being part of the Scrutiny Committee. I think the model of bringing in external expertise to scrutinise the work of the Volunteering Hub has proved useful and effective. We have certainly been rigorous in our examination of commissioning proposals and project reports – and I think this has been a healthy process for all involved. I’ve gained much insight and confidence myself from being a scrutineer. But I won’t miss getting up at 5 am for the meetings – despite the wonderful breakfasts!

Participating in the participation debate by Robin Simpson
June 10, 2008, 1:12 pm
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On Monday I was at Cecil Sharp House – the magnificent home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – for the inaugural consultation event to develop a Participation Manifesto. Around 50 people from a wide range of arts organisations (including voluntary arts umbrella bodies, local authorities and institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera) spent an intense day discussing a vision for arts participation over the next 10 years.

Participation Manifesto group work

It was fascinating how, over 5 hours on Monday, this large group more or less recreated all the ups and downs of the discussions the small manifesto development group has had over the past 12 months. Starting with the easy-to-agree premise that, if all those organisations involved in getting people to participate in the arts and crafts were able to work together and unite in a single clear message, we would be able to substantially increase and widen participation, the consensus quickly began to fall apart as we argued about definitions of ‘participation’ and whether what we were discussing was truly a ‘manifesto’. By lunchtime it felt like we had definitively established that the dream of agreeing a Participation Manifesto was completely impossible. (And anyone who left the event at this point must have gone away feeling incredibly frustrated.) But in the afternoon, through a combination of working in small groups and then sharing and combining ideas on a wall of post-it notes, a consensus gradually began to emerge. By the end of the afternoon we had agreed the key goals for the manifesto and a series of ways in which these might be met. We had also discussed the process for continuing the development of the manifesto and establishing a steering group.

Participation Manifesto clustering ideas

There is clearly a long way to go – but this event was always intended to be just the start of a thorough participative process. It’s going to be hard work but it feels like we have made a very good start – which is great credit to all those who contributed to Monday’s event. It was an exhausting but absorbing day. And it felt wonderfully counter intuitive, at the home of English folk music, for the day to include a wonderful lunchtime performance of Indian classical music by ‘Ragarasa’.

Participation Manifesto event at Cecil Sharp House

Leadership and governance support by Robin Simpson
June 5, 2008, 2:12 pm
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On Thursday I was at Community Matters in London for a meeting about the new ‘Leadership & Governance’ National Support Service. This programme – funded by Capacitybuilders as one of the replacements for the old ChangeUp national Hubs – is a partnership between NCVO, acevo and the Community Sector Coalition. The meeting I attended was an opportunity for Coalition members to help to plan the parts of the programme which will be delivered by the CSC. The emphasis for the programme (as for the all the national support services) is to help ‘Support Providers’ (including local infrastructure organisations and national membership bodies such as voluntary arts umbrella organisations) to deliver capacity-building to local front-line organisations. In the case of the Leadership & Governance support service there will be a particular focus on small community groups – including voluntary arts groups. The old Governance Hub was very helpful to VAN and enabled us to deliver a programme of governance support to voluntary arts umbrella bodies. It looks like there should be even more potential to improve leadership and governance in local voluntary arts groups through the new national support service.

Excellence and the Voluntary Arts: The Seminar by Robin Simpson
June 4, 2008, 4:08 pm
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This morning I was at Arts Council England in London to take part in the seminar ‘Excellence and the Voluntary Arts’ which looked at the applicability and implications for the voluntary arts sector of Sir Brian McMaster’s report ‘Supporting excellence in the arts – from measurement to judgement’.

Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge, introduced the seminar, describing how it had come about as a result of her meeting with the acevo Arts, Culture & Heritage Special Interest Group in January. She revealed that the research DCMS and ACE had commissioned to scope the voluntary arts sector in England would show an incredible capacity which the Government wants to nurture and grow. She said that a lot of ‘excellence’ in the arts funded by ACE comes up from that voluntary arts activity on the ground. She was particularly interested in the role of culture in strengthening communities and defining place. The Minister challenged the seminar to address how the Government could better recognise the contribution of the voluntary arts sector.

We had a fascinating and wide ranging discussion lasting just over two hours which covered definitions of excellence, the relationship between diversity and excellence in the amateur arts, where amateurs sit with innovation and risk-taking, how new technology and digital media help, the relationship between excellence and the promotion of audience development, how the amateur arts and professional sector support each other and much more.

Some of the key points raised included:

  • for art to be excellent it has to be relevant, rooted in the community in which it is operating
  • the diversity of society is not fully reflected in the publicly funded arts
  • in some cases the amateur performer can be better than the professional
  • the amateur sector tends to judge itself against a variety of factors including engaging with its community – as well as artistic excellence
  • diversity is a key driver of the voluntary arts
  • McMaster’s definition of excellence as that which affects and changes individuals is absolutely what happens in participatory arts
  • McMaster provides the opportunity for joining up – embedding the concept of creativity across every aspect of our lives
  • innovation, risk-taking and excellence are relative not absolute terms
  • DCMS, ACE and local authorities need to look at support for the voluntary arts rather than direct funding
  • we all need to play a leadership role in encouraging innovation and risk-taking in the voluntary arts
  • there is an important role for ACE to play in joining up relevant agendas across Government departments
  • technology has driven the need for the creativity agenda: the skills needed to succeed in life today are creative
  • DCMS and ACE could help to broker a relationship for the voluntary arts with local authorities

(This is just a short extract from a long and detailed debate.)

Summing up, Alan Davey (Chief Executive of Arts Council England, who chaired the seminar) said there is relevance to McMaster for the voluntary arts and it is very clear. He said we need to work together to articulate this more strongly. Alan said the DCMS/ACE voluntary arts research will give a strong research-based platform to develop working plans. Beginning with more explicit recognition for the sector is very important. He concluded by saying that the voluntary arts sector is very important: it goes to the heart of what Arts Council England is about – getting people participating and deepening their interest and engagement.

It felt to me like this seminar represented a very significant milestone in the growing recognition and involvement of the voluntary arts sector by the Government and Arts Council England. Many thanks to everyone involved – and particularly to Robin Osterley for his extensive work in developing and preparing the seminar.

You can read further comments on ‘excellence and the voluntary arts’ and continue the debate by clicking here.