Cultural Playing Field

Meeting Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2010, 10:29 am
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On Wednesday morning Mary and I were back in London to meet the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey. We gave the Minister an overview of the voluntary arts sector and started to explore ways in which voluntary arts groups might support the development of the Big Society. Ed Vaizey spoke about the support he had given to a brass band in his constituency and was impressed and fascinated by the scale and diversity of the voluntary arts sector. It was a very cordial and positive first meeting and the Minister asked Voluntary Arts to work with DCMS on two specific initiatives he is developing. We also talked about Voluntary Arts England’s EPIC Awards and invited Ed Vaizey to attend our winners’ reception at the House of Lords in January.

Robin Simpson.



‘The craft so long to lerne: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain’ by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2010, 10:22 am
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On Tuesday evening I was at the RSA to hear the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, John Hayes, deliver a speech titled ‘The craft so long to lerne: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain’. John Hayes wanted to stress the importance of practical skills and the need for greater parity of esteem between academic learning and practical craft. This was not just about the economic need for a better skilled nation. The Minister said “there’s plenty of evidence to show that raising skills levels brings social as well as economic benefits, like better public health, lower crime-rates and more intensive engagement by individuals in the sorts of voluntary and community activities that improve everyone’s quality of life”. He spoke passionately about the “power of learning for the common good” and said he was proud that the Adult & Community Learning budget had been protected in the Comprehensive Spending Review. The Minister said “we must not forget the role that informal learning also plays in teaching skills. Acquiring skills make our lives, not necessarily wealthier, but definitely fuller. It raises our self-esteem and often also the esteem in which others hold us”. He finished by saying “skills, craft and dexterity give our lives meaning and value. They are at the heart of our society. Craft should be honoured and those who master it revered. So while we work to encourage the learning of practical skills, we must also work to build demand for and recognition of them.” John Hayes is a passionate advocate of learning for learning’s sake. He was even more eloquent once he departed from his script and started answering questions from the floor, stressing the effect that informal learning has on health, mental health, civic engagement and much more. Though ‘craft’ in the context of this speech encompassed a broad range of practical skills, from carpenter to software engineer, it was clear that developing skills in the arts and crafts is very definitely something that the Minister is keen to encourage.

Robin Simpson.


Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme meeting by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2010, 9:49 am
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On Tuesday Mary and I were at Arts Council England in London for the final meeting of the Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme steering group. This group, which brings together Voluntary Arts, ACE, DCMS and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was established by ACE Chief Executive Alan Davey in 2008 to respond to the conclusions and recommendations of the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research. We developed an ongoing action plan for this work and have been pursuing ten broad actions over the past two years, making considerable progress in many areas. One of the most tangible outcomes of the steering group’s work has been the development of Amateur Arts Forum meetings to bring together representatives of national voluntary arts umbrella bodies with ACE senior staff on a regular basis. On Tuesday we agreed that we have now established specific ways of taking forward all ten actions resulting from ‘Our Creative Talent’ and that it would be more productive to pursue these separately rather than continuing these overview meetings. This is a reflection of how the voluntary and amateur arts has become integrated into the work of Arts Council England: the steering group’s work has had significant influence on ACE’s new 10-year strategy ‘Achieving Great Art for Everyone’ which is going to be launched next week and several of our key actions will now be taken forward as part of that strategy. Voluntary Arts will continue to work with ACE, DCMS and DBIS both separately and collectively and we have agreed that the Amateur Arts Forum meetings with ACE will continue. The end of the Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme reminds us how far we have come since 2008 and we are very grateful to everyone who has played a part in this process.

Robin Simpson.


Voluntary arts involvement in the London 2012 ceremonies by Robin Simpson
October 21, 2010, 2:28 pm
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On Wednesday morning I was at the St Bride Foundation in London for our seminar on voluntary arts involvement in the London 2012 ceremonies. The seminar gave 20 representatives of national voluntary arts umbrella bodies the opportunity to talk directly to Martin Green, Head of Ceremonies at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Martin gave a fascinating and inspiring presentation about the opportunities for voluntary arts groups to take part in the various ceremonies. The Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies are the most watched television shows in the world. But these are only one part of a range of events being organised by the LOCOG ceremonies team. There will be 771 victory ceremonies for the presentation of medals and 120 welcome ceremonies over 7 days to welcome the athletes to the Olympic village. Perhaps most significantly for voluntary arts groups the torch relay will see the Olympic torch carried across the UK. Martin said that 95% of the UK population will be within one hour’s journey on public transport to see the torch. 8,000 people will get the opportunity to run with the torch and these people will be selected through a nomination process. From 18 May 2011 you will be able to nominate someone who you feel has achieved their ‘personal best’ (not just in a sporting sense): it would be fantastic to see some representatives of voluntary arts groups among the torch bearers. The torch relay will also be the key tool to celebrate regionality and the individual nations of the UK within the London 2012 programme. All local authorities on the torch relay route will be responsible for developing celebrations to coincide with the torch passing through. Of these, the 70 locations where the torch relay will stay overnight will be creating a full evening show (on a travelling stage) which will provide a high profile opportunity to showcase local cultural activity. These 70 locations have yet to be decided: Martin urged voluntary arts groups to contact their local authorities at the beginning of 2011 to register their interest in being part of these local celebrations. For the four opening and closing ceremonies (for the Olympic and Paralympic Games) Martin was adamant that these shows are not going to be ‘designed by committee’. LOCOG will entrust each of the opening and closing ceremonies to a single artistic director. Danny Boyle has been appointed to direct the Olympic Games opening ceremony and is due to produce a draft concept by March 2011. LOCOG is about to announce the artistic directors for other 3 main ceremonies. Until the artistic concept for each show has been decided there is little point in voluntary arts groups lobbying to be involved but Martin said that the majority of the casts were likely to be skilled volunteers and assured us that when LOCOG knows what sort of performers are required he will come back to Voluntary Arts and the relevant national umbrella bodies to publicise the opportunities to their members. Martin Green spoke passionately about the need for these ceremonies to showcase the ‘best British artists’ but emphasised that he definitely did not use ‘excellence’ or ‘best’ to mean professional.

Robin Simpson.


Points of Contact seminar by Robin Simpson
October 21, 2010, 11:33 am
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On Monday I was at the Southbank Centre in London for the Points of Contact seminar, the culmination of the cultural exchange programme between the UK and Brazil that started with our visit to Brazil in March. Over the past couple of weeks representatives of 18 Brazilian arts organisations, together with a group of Brazilian policymakers, have been visiting the UK to compare practice and discuss what the UK could learn from the Brazilian Pontos de Cultura programme. Opening Monday’s seminar Juana Nunes from the Brazilian Ministry of Culture explained that Pontos de Cultura is “a natural, organic network of living production” which sought “to recognise cultural groups and what they were already doing in their communities”. She said it was “more about the flux of what people do rather than cultural structures or institutions”, “to recognise and reinforce the cultural energies in communities that were invisible to society”.

The main part of the seminar comprised presentations from several of the twinned pairs of British and Brazilian artists about what they had learned from each other. The seminar finished with the launch of a declaration created by the UK arts organisations involved in the project which included the following calls to action:

  • We propose a clear mission for government and civil society to promote and protect cultural rights for all UK citizens
  • We want a strategic move from arts policy to cultural policy
  • We need a vision and language for the arts that includes a strong recognition of cultural rights, combined with actions which develop the creative and expressive lives of citizens and communities
  • We argue for a vision of culture that connects our expressive lives with all aspects of the enrichment, health, security and development of civil society
  • We recognise that cultural participation builds the autonomy and protagonism of individuals and communities – we need policies that stimulate new models of dynamic citizenship

In the final plenary session Mick Elliott, Director of Culture at DCMS, said it was important for us to “listen to the voices of communities and find ways of empowering them”. Former Secretary of State for Cultural Citizenship in the Brazilian Government, Celio Turino, (who devised the Pontos de Cultura programme) explained that the construction of a Point of Culture is a mathematical game, based on the equation: autonomy plus protagonism to the power of network equals a Point of Culture. I suggested that we have all the components of this equation in the UK but we don’t tend to put them together, all too often working in separate boxes. The voluntary arts sector clearly demonstrates its autonomy and is extensively networked within the confines of particular artforms but is not so effective at connecting with the wider communities in which voluntary arts groups exist and has not yet found a way of channelling its protagonism to develop communities and civil society. There is much we can learn from the Brazilian model and the end of the Points of Contact project (organised by People’s Palace Projects and supported by the British Council, DCMS, Arts Council England and the Brazilian Ministry of Culture) feels like just the start of a much longer debate.

Robin Simpson.

Meeting BBC Outreach by Robin Simpson
October 15, 2010, 3:53 pm
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On Friday Laraine and I were at White City in London to meet Alec McGivan, Head of BBC Outreach. We talked about the success of our Up for Arts project with BBC Radio Merseyside and the possibility of developing similar projects with other BBC local radio stations across the North of England. We also discussed how we might be able to work together more generally to help BBC Outreach to fulfil the six BBC Public Purposes: sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; reflecting the UK’s nations and regions, and communities; bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK; and supporting emerging communications technologies. It was a very encouraging meeting and we identified a number of potential collaborations to focus on initially.

Robin Simpson.


NCVO Members’ Assembly meeting by Robin Simpson
October 15, 2010, 3:51 pm
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On Thursday I was in Birmingham to take part in a meeting of the NCVO Members’ Assembly. The theme of the day was whether the Big Society is likely to be a help or a hindrance to the future of civil society. Our conclusion, unsurprisingly, was both: while there is still a lack of clarity and significant cynicism around the Big Society agenda, it undoubtedly represents an opportunity for the voluntary and community sector. We agreed that it was important for civil society organisations to seize the initiative. In the ongoing search for a decent definition of what ‘Big Society’ means, I was impressed with the three-part description offered by NCVO’s Head of Policy, Belinda Pratten, who said Big Society is about: localism (devolving power from central Government to individuals, neighbourhoods and local councils); rights (the right to buy community assets, the right to challenge local government and the right to bid to run local services); and support for voluntary action (including initiatives to encourage volunteering, encouraging philanthropy, the Big Society Bank, support for grassroots organisations and making it easier to set up and run voluntary and community organisations). In relation to this last point it was interesting to have the opportunity to hear directly yesterday from Lord Hodgson, NCVO’s President, who is chairing the ‘Reducing Red Tape Task Force’. He emphasised that the Task Force, which is looking at how to reduce the regulatory burden on voluntary and community organisations, is particularly keen to hear about specific regulatory problems being experienced by small, grassroots groups. In the Big Society small is important!

Robin Simpson.


Craft Club by Robin Simpson
October 15, 2010, 3:50 pm
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On Wednesday I was at Arts Council England in London to meet Phil Cave and Clara Goldsmith from Arts Council England and Amanda Jones from the Crafts Council to talk about Craft Club – a Crafts Council project in association with the UK Handknitting Association and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. Craft Club is a three-year programme to develop craft in schools. It focuses on yarn-based activities: knitting, sewing and weaving. We discussed the possible development of the Craft Club programme within Arts Council England’s Arts Nation campaign, extending the activity beyond schools to families groups.

Robin Simpson.


Voluntary arts umbrella bodies meeting by Robin Simpson
October 15, 2010, 3:49 pm
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I was back in London on Tuesday to chair a meeting of voluntary arts umbrella bodies organised by Voluntary Arts England. This was a discussion amongst some of our biggest and best resourced membership organisations about how we might work more closely together to support each other’s lobbying and advocacy. We also talked about encouraging voluntary arts groups to use School of Everything ( to seek new members, using the NCVO Value of Infrastructure Programme to help measure the performance of umbrella organisations (see and using the Community Learning Champions scheme ( to link voluntary arts ambassadors and regional representatives.

Robin Simpson.


The amateur arts in the UK and Brazil by Robin Simpson
October 15, 2010, 3:45 pm
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On Monday afternoon Mary and I were at the South Bank Centre in London to meet Juana Nunes and Alexandre Santini from the Brazilian Ministry of Culture who are visiting the UK as part of the Points of Contact exchange programme organised by People’s Palace Projects. We joined Juana, Alex, Paul Heritage, Rosie Hunter and Fabricio Ramos for a discussion about the amateur arts in the UK and Brazil. It was fascinating to compare notes on a wide range of issues including education, community development, social exclusion and the right to cultural expression. Our Brazilian guests were particularly impressed by the scale of amateur arts activity in the UK: “in Britain you seem to have a real tradition of people ‘just doing’ arts and crafts”.

Robin Simpson.