Cultural Playing Field

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.

Voluntary Arts England Epic Awards 2010 winners’ reception by Robin Simpson
February 3, 2011, 6:58 pm
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On Monday evening I was in the Attlee Room at the House of Lords for the Voluntary Arts England Epic Awards winners’ reception where the awards were presented by two Government Ministers, John Hayes MP, the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, and Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The Epic Awards were devised by Mary Lowe in response to the challenge issued to Voluntary Arts by Arts Council England Chief Executive, Alan Davey, at the Our Creative Talent conference at The Barbican in July 2008. Alan challenged us to develop a scheme to showcase and encourage excellence and innovation in the amateur arts. I was particularly pleased, therefore, that Alan Davey was able to join us on Monday to meet the four award-winning groups. The reception, hosted by the President of Voluntary Arts, Lord Luce, was attended by representatives of each of the winning groups, MPs from the winners’ constituencies and representatives of the Epic Awards sponsors. In welcoming everyone to the reception, Lord Luce talked about the origins of Voluntary Arts:

“Almost my last act as a Minister, in 1990, was to say that I think the amateur arts ought to have something that will give them inspiration and encouragement in the work that they do and that needed some kind of a parent body who could provide them with advocacy, support, information and advice. My budget was very small but I managed to find a very small sum of money as a kind of seedcorn fund which I said should be used for the creation of support for amateur arts. When I left the Government of my own volition in 1990 after 5 years as a Minister … I then joined a small group that helped to set up what has now emerged as a highly successful organisation. I am very proud of it and very proud to be the President of Voluntary Arts.”

Engagement and Partnership Award winners

John Hayes presents the Engagement and Partnership Awards to Apsara Arts and Milton Keynes Islamic Arts Heritage and Culture Organisation

The Further Education Minister, John Hayes, who presented the Engagement and Partnerships Awards, said:

“I believe in all of the virtues that art brings – the way that it can inspire, the way it can ignite, the passions that it can engender, the things it can communicate, the touch of the sublime brought to lives of people in all kinds of ways and all kinds of forms, through artistic endeavour … I celebrate what you’re doing in these Epic Awards. I celebrate the joy of all those people associated with amateur arts across the country and I am just pleased and proud to be a very small part of that joy.”

Innovation and Creativity Award winners

Ed Vaizey presents the Innovation and Creativity Awards to the Cobweb Orchestra and UC Crew

Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, who presented the Innovation and Creativity Awards, said:

“It’s delightful to be here for a number of reasons. First of all to be reminded again how important voluntary arts are to the arts world … I will work with Arts Council England to make sure we continue to remind the world that the world of the arts extends far beyond those organisations that simply receive funding from the Arts Council. I’m glad to see these awards are supported by Arts Council England and I will continue to work with the Arts Council to make sure that the message goes out that the Arts Council is there for everyone … Just as we talk about innovation coming from some of our leading arts organisations, those arts organisations that regard themselves, as it were, at the top of the pyramid could certainly learn from many of the voluntary arts organisations who are also pushing to innovate.”

The representatives of the award-winning groups were great – lovely people with inspiring stories to tell. Apsara Arts from Croydon won the Engagement Award for their Story of London project which explored the history of Asians in London. Milton Keynes Islamic Arts, Heritage and Culture Organisation received the Partnerships award for their Islamic Art Banner – a project that enabled local students to explore Islamic culture through contemporary and traditional art. The Innovation award was won by the Cobweb Orchestra for their Undercover Orchestra Bolero – a flash-mob rendition of Ravel’s Bolero at Newcastle’s Eldon Square bus station that became a YouTube sensation. Breakdance group UC Crew from St Helens took the Creativity Award for their anti-smoking project. In their brief acceptance speeches, several of the winners warned about the damage being inflicted on the arts by public funding cuts, making their case firmly but politely. Andy Jackson from the Cobweb Orchestra said:

“With all the cutbacks, everybody knows that the professional arts are in for a really tough time, but this is our moment people. This is when us voluntary artists are really going to make the big difference.”

It was a wonderful evening, at which the excellence and innovation of the amateur arts was recognised at the highest level. The presence of two Government Ministers was an indication of the way amateur arts activity contributes to a range of agendas and recognition of the current high profile our sector has achieved in England. Many congratulations to Mary Lowe and the Voluntary Arts England team and our considerable thanks to Lord Luce.

We plan to run the Epic Awards again in 2011 and to expand the scheme to be UK-wide. You can read case studies of the winning groups and other entrants at:

Robin Simpson.