Cultural Playing Field

Living Together Giving Together by Robin Simpson
February 25, 2011, 5:45 pm
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On Friday I was at Stormont in Belfast to take part in ‘Living Together Giving Together’ – a Celebration of Volunteering in Sports, Arts and Faith-based Organisations, organised by Voluntary Arts Ireland. This event was the culmination of ‘Another Way In’, Voluntary Arts Ireland’s two-year cross-border project in partnership with the Gaelic Athletic Association, Church of Ireland and City Church Belfast, which was funded jointly by the Northern Ireland Assembly Department for Social Development and the Republic of Ireland Government Department for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Opening the event, the Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development, Alex Attwood, said he was sorry that the Republic of Ireland Minister, Pat Carey, was unable to be present because of the general election. Alex Attwood stressed that the project had been jointly funded by the Belfast and Dublin administrations and was working across the border, “bringing organisations from different backgrounds together to demonstrate the wider potential of volunteering”. The Minister commended the work that Voluntary Arts Ireland and the other partner organisations are doing. The keynote speaker, cultural broker Peter Jenkinson, spoke about the need to be “bigger than self” and urged organisations to “make friends with strange people”. He said it is increasingly important to make connections, break down barriers and put people together. Don Sexton, from the Department for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs in Dublin, said there was now “a recognition that the Third Sector is part of the solution” and that “the infrastructure has to be protected”. At the end of the event Maeve Walls, from the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development, announced that “in recognition of the work done, the Minister is encouraging the partner organisations to make an application for funding for another year of this project”. This was excellent news at the end of a great event and what has been a fantastic project. Congratulations to Kevin and Tony for organising the celebration and to Isobel for all her work on ‘Another Way In’. And many thanks to the members of Larne Youth Arts Co-operative who spent the day recording vox pops interviews with many of the delegates (including the Minister) – I look forward to seeing these on the website and Facebook shortly.

Robin Simpson.



Audiences UK Summit 2011 by Robin Simpson
February 25, 2011, 9:09 am
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On Wednesday and Thursday I was at The Quad in Derby to take part in the Audiences UK ‘Changing Times’ Summit. This event was an attempt to broaden the discussion about audience development by involving not just the 12 audience development agencies that Audiences UK represents but a range of other relevant organisations including the National Campaign for the Arts, Arts Marketing Association, National Association of Local Government Arts Officers and Voluntary Arts. Audience UK Chief Executive David Brownlee worked us hard with 7 key note presentations and 3 breakout conversations in quick succession. There was a lot to take in but quite a few points linger in my mind. Consultants Tim Gardom and Alison Grey demonstrated, by looking at a range of arts organisations’ public-facing websites and taking the first image of people you come across and the first description of what the organisation does, that our websites are often constructed with funders in mind rather than audiences. Charlotte Wilson from Culture Sparks presented the results of research into digital audiences which showed that, generally, those engaging with the arts online are those who engage with the arts as a live experience. Online spending is very much restricted to ticket purchases. Arts online is now mainstream but is a complement rather than a substitute for live arts. Jane Wilson from NALGAO recommended ‘The decentralisation and localism bill – an essential guide’ (available from as the best way to understand the Government’s localism agenda. She quoted 6 key points from the guide: lifting the burden of bureaucracy; empowering communities; increasing local control of finance; diversifying the supply of public services; opening up local government to public scrutiny; and strengthening accountability to local people. MLA Chief Executive, Roy Clare, gave a positive, optimistic presentation about museums, libraries and archives and their audiences after the MLA’s responsibilities are taken over by Arts Council England, stressing the need to join up strategies but finding a number of reasons to be cheerful. The final session of the Summit looked at proposals for a national arts benchmarking system being developed by Audiences UK. It was a very interesting two days and it was great to meet a mixture of old and new friends – particularly nice to see former VAI Chief Officer Brenda Kent who was there in her capacity as a Board member of Audiences Northern Ireland.

Robin Simpson.


Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Reference Group meeting by Robin Simpson
February 18, 2011, 5:19 pm
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On Friday afternoon I took part in the second meeting of the Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Reference Group at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The focus of this meeting was to plan a series of ‘policy roundtable’ consultation events which will take place over the next few weeks. These events will look in detail at specific aspects of informal adult and community learning, including: funding, infrastructure, access, Big Society, impact, progression and quality.

Robin Simpson.


Parliamentary Processes Explained by Robin Simpson
February 18, 2011, 5:14 pm
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I was in London again on Friday for the Voluntary Arts England Parliamentary Processes Explained course at Portcullis House. This training event for voluntary arts umbrella bodies was delivered by the Parliamentary Outreach team and covered the ways in which Parliament and Government work and how groups can best seek to influence Parliament. We looked in detail at topics including how legislation is developed and amended, the use of questions to Ministers, Parliamentary debates, Select Committees, the Backbench Business Committee, Early Day Motions and All Party Parliamentary Groups. It was a fascinating event with lots of extremely practical tips and advice – and it great to be running this training right at the heart of Parliament.

Robin Simpson.


Evidencing the impact of infrastructure organisations by Robin Simpson
February 18, 2011, 5:13 pm
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I was back in London on Thursday to attend the NCVO Value of Infrastructure Programme Evidencing Impact course. The Value of Infrastructure Programme (VIP) has developed a set of tools to help voluntary sector infrastructure organisations (including umbrella bodies, membership organisations and support networks) to measure the impact of their work. As well as providing a standardised approach to describe the activities and impacts of infrastructure bodies, VIP will provide opportunities for infrastructure bodies to benchmark their performance against aggregate scores for the sector as a whole. The Evidencing Impact course introduced us to the tools and enabled us to think through how we might apply them to our own organisations. A further course, in May, will provide training on the online versions of the tools. The VIP tools look fantastic and I could immediately see how they will be useful in helping Voluntary Arts to measure impact in relation to the objectives of our new 3-year Strategic Plan.

Robin Simpson.


The role of grassroots arts activity in communities by Robin Simpson
February 11, 2011, 4:05 pm
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I was in Cardiff on Friday to meet members of the steering group for our Connected Communities research study into ‘the role of grassroots arts activity in communities’. Daniel and I had a fascinating conversation with Hamish Fyfe from the University of Glamorgan, Jane Milling from the University of Exeter and Hilary Ramsden who has been appointed as the Research Assistant for our project. The study is looking at the impact that amateur arts activity has on the communities in which it happens. At this meeting we provided a range of relevant ‘grey literature’, including newsletters and magazines produced by some of the national voluntary arts umbrella bodies, to add to the academic reports and articles that Hilary is gathering.

Robin Simpson.


State of the Arts 2011 by Robin Simpson
February 11, 2011, 10:10 am
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On Thursday I was at the Park Plaza Riverside Hotel on the Albert Embankment in London for the Arts Council England/RSA conference ‘State of the Arts 2011’. ‘State of the Arts’ is a big conference, attracting around 400 delegates, and it was a great networking opportunity. It was lovely to see people I hadn’t seen for years and to make plenty of new acquaintances. It’s a fairly expensive, corporate event and though it was good to see the alternative parallel ‘flash conference’ going on elsewhere in the hotel and online, the main conference sessions were disappointingly lacking in creativity in terms of their format. That said, there was an impressive array of speakers which included Deborah Bull, Sandy Nairne, Ekow Eshun, Phil Redmond, Ruth McKenzie, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Jonathan Mills, John Knell and Mark Wallinger.

The Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP started his speech by talking about “the importance of the creative ecology – an alliance between the subsidised and commercial arts; the professional and the voluntary arts; and the arts and the creative industries”. He said “great strength of the arts is its ecology – subsidised arts feeding the commercial arts, the voluntary arts and the amateur arts ensuring the creative spirit is present in every corner of the nation”. The Minister said he wants Arts Council England “to be an organisation that is a source of advice and expertise for everyone who works or participates in the arts – not just for the organisations it funds, but right the way across the creative ecology”. He explained “Our strategy for the arts is very simple.  We want to help all the arts – those that receive subsidy, those that are purely commercial, those that are voluntary and amateur”.

The conference also provided my first opportunity to hear from the new Labour Party culture team with the Shadow Secretary of State, Ivan Lewis MP, speaking in the final plenary session and the Shadow Culture Minister, Gloria de Piero MP, taking part in an earlier ‘Cultural Question Time’ session alongside Don Foster MP, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat back bench committee for Culture, Media and Sport. In the afternoon I attended a breakout session on ‘The Big Society’ which included Caoimhin Corrigan from ILEX talking about the ‘edge to centre’ approach being used by Derry City of Culture 2013 and Andrew Dixon, Chief Executive of Creative Scotland, praising the Feisan movement for bringing together so many people in communities and creating a sense of place. I particularly liked what Gavin Stride from Farnham Maltings said: “professional and amateur are not opposites – they are both constituents of great art”. Gavin spoke about the value of “the things people are prepared to do for free that they wouldn’t do if you paid them”. He said “participation and excellence belong hand in hand”.

It was an interesting day and it was very encouraging to see a number of references to the amateur arts – from the Minister’s speech onwards.

Robin Simpson.

Voluntary cultural sector alliance meeting by Robin Simpson
February 4, 2011, 3:11 pm
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On Friday morning I was in London for my regular voluntary cultural sector alliance meeting with the Heritage Alliance and the Sport and Recreation Alliance (formerly the Central Council for Physical Recreation). As usual we compared notes on a host of topics including the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s review of regulatory burdens (‘Red Card to Red Tape’) which is due to be published on 22 March, the Localism bill, the Giving green paper, the national planning framework (consultation to be launched in April), Gift Aid and lifetime legacies.

Robin Simpson.


Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Advisory Group by Robin Simpson
February 4, 2011, 3:09 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to take part in the first meeting of the new Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Advisory Group (catchy title?!). This group, which includes representatives of a wide variety of types of informal adult learning, is to advise the Minister, John Hayes, on how best to encourage learning to take place in local communities and to reach disadvantaged people. In the Comprehensive Spending Review last October, John Hayes and Vince Cable successfully defended the existing £210M budget for informal adult and community learning (known as the ‘adult safeguarded budget’). With the replacement of the Learning & Skills Council by the new Skills Funding Agency, changes to local adult education provision and the publication of the Government white paper, ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is about to embark on a consultation process to decide the best way to use the adult safeguarded budget. In Tuesday’s meeting we started to plan a series of roundtable consultation meetings that will take place in February and March. John Hayes joined us towards the end of the afternoon to thank us for our work and reiterate his passionate belief in the importance of informal adult and community learning.

Robin Simpson.


Lord Wei at The Arts, Heritage and The Big Society by Robin Simpson
February 4, 2011, 3:06 pm
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On Tuesday morning I was back in London to attend the National Campaign for the Arts/Culture Forum seminar on ‘The Arts, Heritage and The Big Society’. This was my first opportunity to see the Government Adviser for Big Society, Lord Wei – and his first opportunity to talk to an audience from the arts and heritage sectors about The Big Society. Lord Wei said “Big Society is something we have to create together: the idea itself is a creative endeavour. Like the arts, Big Society is an evolving and personal way of solving the problems we face together.” He said that Big Society is about supporting citizens to take more control over their lives and is based on an unshakeable belief that people can often solve problems in their communities. Lord Wei explained that Big Society comprises three things:

  • opening up public services (the public services reform bill)
  • community empowerment (the localism bill)
  • social action – encouraging and enabling people to play a more active role in society (including the white paper on giving and changes to regulations relating to vetting & barring, health & safety etc)

Lord Wei suggested “it might take a generation to see the shift we are looking for”. He thought there are were many connections between the emerging policy framework and the arts and heritage. He identified three particular developments to look out for:

  • the role the arts and heritage can play in building social capital
  • a move to more diversified funding for the arts and heritage sector (such as the opportunity to bid for contracts relating to health, re-offending, education etc)
  • social investment (including the Big Society Bank – a “Bank of England for the social sector”, bonds and peer-to-peer funding)

Lord Wei said “we mustn’t underestimate the continued role for Government: Big Society will not solve everything on its own”. But he thought that “Big Society and the arts and heritage are fighting on the same side – encouraging people to watch a little less TV and get involved in participating.”

It was fascinating to see Lord Wei in person. It’s clear that the Big Society agenda still has some way to go in developing a greater clarity and focus but the voluntary arts definitely has the potential to play a major role.

Robin Simpson.