Cultural Playing Field


St Helens Arts Network by Robin Simpson
November 27, 2009, 7:38 am
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On Thursday I was in St Helens where Ian Brownbill, Director of Metal (the innovative, multi-disciplinary residency space in Liverpool for artists from the UK and overseas), and I were judging the Voluntary Arts Award nominations in the St Helens Council Cultural Awards. A variety of local voluntary arts organisations had been nominated for the award and we assessed them in relation to their achievements over the past year, quality, ambition and public profile. There were some very strong nominations but we found it surprisingly easy to agree on which stood out. The winners will be announced at a ceremony in February. Ian and I then attended a meeting of the St Helens Arts Network which brings together local arts professionals/ semi-professionals and voluntary arts groups. The idea of the network, which is organised by Owen Hutchings (St Helens Council’s Arts Engagement Officer), is that groups, artists and practitioners working together in St Helens can discuss projects, share good practice, share information, discuss marketing and talk about recruiting and maintaining membership etc. I talked about the history and work of Voluntary Arts and encouraged everyone to sign up for our free e-newsletter. There were about 20 people at the meeting including representatives of a drama group and a breakdance crew, a photographer and a visual artist, an artist working on activities for people with learning difficulties and someone running African drumming, Tai Chi and watercolour sessions for a group of older people, plus the council’s Dance Co-ordinator and the local Find Your Talent officer. It was a really interesting and varied group and is clearly providing some really useful networking opportunities.

Robin Simpson.



2009 Hinton Lecture: ‘The arts and the voluntary sector: friends or distant cousins?’ by Robin Simpson
November 27, 2009, 7:08 am
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On Wednesday evening I attended the AGM of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). 2009 is NCVO’s 90th anniversary and Chief Executive, Stuart Etherington, spoke about the origins of the organisation and how it grew out of a number of regional ‘Guilds of Help’. NCVO now has more than 7,500 member organisations ranging from small community groups to the largest charities. The AGM was followed by the annual Hinton Lecture which, for the first time in its eleven-year history, had an arts theme. Sir John Tusa’s lecture was titled ‘The arts and the voluntary sector: friends or distant cousins?’. Sir John (currently Chair of the University of the Arts, the Clore Leadership Programme and the Wigmore Hall Trust) started by saying that, in a dozen years as Managing Director of The Barbican, he had not consciously been involved with the voluntary sector: it had not occurred to him that it could be useful, necessary or natural. He examined the differences in purposes, relationships, responsibilities, beneficiaries and funding between the arts and the voluntary sector but he also emphasised their commonalities and interdependence. Sir John said “the arts are critical to civil society: they are the conscience of society” and “a civil society uninterested in the arts isn’t much of a civil society”. He thought the voluntary sector was ahead of the arts in the area of assessment and gathering evidence of effectiveness and felt the case for arts funding might be stronger as presented in the wider context of the voluntary sector. Sir John’s conclusion was that the arts and the voluntary sector are “side by side but not yet firm friends”. I was very pleased to hear Sir John Tusa emphasise that the organisations funded by Arts Council England “are only a small part of the whole arts sector” and delighted to hear him quote, as an example, some statistics from the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA). In the question and answer session at the end of the lecture I suggested that arts organisations have much to learn from the wider voluntary sector about best practice in relation to governance, Trustee Boards, volunteering etc. Sir John agreed that there would be substantial benefits to both the arts and the voluntary sector from a closer relationship – presenting a stronger argument for funding and a more powerful lobby on issues of common cause such as tax reform. It was really useful to have the high-profile opportunity created by the Hinton Lecture to discuss how we might encourage closer working between the arts and the rest of the voluntary sector – and to see so many arts organisations represented at an NCVO event.

Robin Simpson.



Use of churches for cultural activities by Robin Simpson
November 27, 2009, 7:06 am
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On Wednesday afternoon I was at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to talk about how we might encourage the use of church buildings for cultural activities. I met Jeremy Dann from DCMS and Rebecca Payne and Ruth Watkinson from the Church of England and we talked about promoting the use of churches to voluntary arts groups. I was interested to learn that churches can now declare themselves ‘partially redundant’ in order to be able to lease part of the building to a community group or other organisation. I was also keen to discuss how we might promote the best practice information and advice available from Voluntary Arts to churches who organise and promote their own arts activities.

Robin Simpson.



ACE national arts engagement campaign by Robin Simpson
November 27, 2009, 7:05 am
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On Wednesday I was in London for a meeting with Clara Goldsmith, who is responsible for Arts Council England’s national arts engagement campaign, and Caroline Diehl, Chief Executive of The Media Trust. Clara updated us on progress with the campaign, which is due to be launched publicly in Spring 2010. We then looked in detail at the role The Media Trust might play by helping people to capture their own stories and documenting the various campaign activities around the country.

Robin Simpson.



Steady State?, Newcastle by Robin Simpson
November 27, 2009, 7:03 am
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I was in Newcastle on Tuesday to take part in the final Mission Models Money/ERA21 ‘Steady State?’ event. This time Charlotte Jones from the Independent Theatre Council and I were joined on the panel by Caroline Routh from The Empty Space, Paul Rubenstein from Newcastle City Council and Godfrey Worsdale from The Baltic. Although equally interesting and wide-ranging, it was quite a different discussion from the first event in London last week. We talked about new buildings and whether we are using existing cultural buildings in the best possible way. There was much discussion of the likelihood of substantial cuts across public sector funding in the near future and several people spoke about the role the arts should be playing in helping to develop a knowledge-based economy. But, as in London, the main themes that emerged were to do with joining-up, collaboration and integration and I was pleased to find considerable agreement for my pleas to start to consider ‘the arts’ as a whole – including local voluntary arts groups as well as publicly subsidised arts organisations.

Robin Simpson.



ACEVO Arts, Culture and Heritage Special Interest Group meeting by Robin Simpson
November 27, 2009, 7:01 am
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On Monday I was in London to attend the ACEVO Arts, Culture & Heritage Special Interest Group meeting. Following the group’s meeting with the then Culture Minister, Barbara Follett, earlier this year, on Monday we were joined by Mick Elliott, Director of Culture at DCMS, which gave us an opportunity to follow-up in more detail some of the issues that had been raised with the Minister. Mick was keen to stress that he wanted to focus on how the department can work together with third sector arts and heritage organisations rather than why – the reasons for which were well established. He spoke about the continued importance DCMS place on working with the third sector and cited the DCMS Third Sector Forum and the work DCMS is undertaking with Arts Council England and Voluntary Arts to follow-through the recommendations of the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research into the voluntary and amateur arts in England. We spoke about threats to public support for the third sector from the rapidly changing commissioning culture in local government and the changes to regional structures following the closure of the Regional Cultural Consortia. We also discussed the need to establish a more robust evidence base to show the effect and value of third sector cultural activities. Mick felt there is a deficit across society that arts and culture are not thought of in the first instance when it comes to addressing agendas through other Government departments.

Robin Simpson.



The Learning Revolution stakeholder communications group by Robin Simpson
November 20, 2009, 3:55 pm
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This afternoon I have been at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for a meeting of what was the Learning Revolution Festival Action Group. Now that the October festival is finished this group is going to continue as a Learning Revolution stakeholder communications group to advise on the vision and direction of strategic Learning Revolution communications activity and to plan major communications activities, including an Expo or similar for 2010.

Robin Simpson.



Steady State? by Robin Simpson
November 20, 2009, 3:53 pm
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This morning I was at the Gulbenkian Foundation in London to take part in ‘Steady State?’ – the first of a series of events hosted by Mission Models Money (MMM) and ERA21 to discuss whether further growth of the arts and cultural sector is sustainable. The event was chaired by Charlotte Jones, Chief Executive of the Independent Theatre Council, and I was joined on the panel by Maurice Davies from the Museums Association, Hilary Gresty from the Visual Arts and Galleries Association, Dave Moutrey from the Cornerhouse and Lyn Gardner from The Guardian. We were asked to talk about whether the arts and cultural sector is too ‘overbuilt’. Do we have too many buildings? Too many organisations?  Does the next decade need a radically different approach in the light of the UK’s deficit, the global recession and the threat to our environment? Inevitably our discussion created more questions than answers but it was an interesting debate and really good to see the voluntary arts treated seriously as an integral part of the wider arts sector. There are two further ‘Steady State?’ events next week in Edinburgh (where Fiona Campbell from Voluntary Arts Scotland is going to be on the panel) and Newcastle (where I will be taking part again).

Robin Simpson.



Heritage Link/Voluntary Arts/NCVO meeting by Robin Simpson
November 19, 2009, 3:28 pm
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On Thursday I was in London for my regular meeting with Heritage Link and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. We were joined by Chris Atkins, Head of Lottery Distribution and Third Sector Policy at DCMS and had a wide ranging discussion about the voluntary cultural sectors. Among many other topics we discussed the progress of the sector coalition on Gift Aid, the Office of the Third Sector’s withdrawal of its Campaigning Fund and Heritage Link’s Cultural Olympiad project, ‘Discovering Places’, which has been awarded £1M from the Olympic Lottery Distributor.

Robin Simpson.



Mapping training for facilitators of informal adult learning by Robin Simpson
November 19, 2009, 3:26 pm
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On Wednesday afternoon I took part in the first meeting of a new strategic advisory group for an informal adult learning research project being run by NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This research project is mapping training and development opportunities for facilitators of informal adult learning. This includes those who consider themselves ‘tutors’ but also a wide range of other people who encourage, organise and inspire informal learning (eg sports coaches, conductors of amateur choirs etc). We had fascinating discussions about how to give people the skills necessary to do this kind of facilitation (which was the subject of our recent ‘Taste for Tutoring’ seminars) and the difficulties of trying to identify standards, training or accreditation that could apply across the whole spectrum of informal adult learning.

Robin Simpson.