Cultural Playing Field

NCVO Hinton Lecture – Shirley Williams by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2011, 10:45 am
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On Thursday I was at the Institution of Civil Engineers, just off Parliament Square in London, for the annual NCVO Hinton Lecture. The hall was packed this year to hear Baroness Williams of Crosby, The Rt Hon Shirley Williams, speak about ‘Beyond the State and the Market – what kind of society in the 21st Century?’. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see her and she did not disappoint. Shirley Williams is now 81 years old and her list of achievements is incredible. She was the Secretary of State for Education who replaced grammar schools with comprehensives. She was one of the ‘Gang of Four’ rebels who left the Labour Party to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. More recently she co-drafted the constitutions of Russia, Ukraine and South Africa. And, as the NCVO Chair – the former BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis told us – she has appeared more times than any other guest on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ programme. Shirley Williams is tiny (particularly next to the very tall Martyn Lewis). Entering the hall almost unnoticed while the audience were still deep in conversation, she suddenly broke away from the official welcoming party and strode quickly and purposefully onto the stage, keen to start her lecture with the minimum of fuss. She spoke eloquently and articulately with only minimal glances at her notes – until the poor lighting made it difficult for her to see some of the statistics she wanted to quote and she came a little unstuck. This only served to prove, however, how little of her speech had been read. Her sharp mind, vast experience, clear thinking and articulacy was particularly demonstrated in her answers to questions from the audience at the end of her lecture. Her speech ranged across a mass of topics, from the fall of communism and the peace dividend to the Arab Spring, the banking crisis, the expenses scandal, Occupy Wall Street, mobile technology, the rise of social networking, the loss of trust in politicians, poverty reduction in Lula’s Brazil and George Clooney’s new film ‘The Ides of March’ (“brilliantly made … and as cynical as anything I’ve seen”). Baroness Williams said that “our deliberative politics is going to be hard to maintain”. Politicians are already being bypassed in some ways and these changes could create huge opportunities for the voluntary sector. She warned, however, that a number of charities seem to play power games against each other and get caught up in selfish forms of politics. She urged the voluntary sector to “be a bit humble and realise that a lot of you can learn from those you serve”. Kevin Curley, the Chief Executive of NAVCA, asked Baroness Williams whether that flagship policy of the Government she supports, the Big Society, will deliver social justice? “No” she replied – how refreshing to hear a straightforward answer from a politician!

Robin Simpson.


Arts and Civil Society Symposium, Cork by Robin Simpson
October 21, 2011, 12:08 pm
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On Thursday and Friday I have been in Cork for the Creat and Voluntary Arts Ireland Arts and Civil Society Symposium. The event was held at Christchurch, Triskel Arts Centre – a converted church in the heart of Cork City’s shopping area. An audience of artists, arts organisations, academics, students and funders from across Ireland gathered to discuss how arts and culture can be reaffirmed at the heart of civic engagement. I chaired a breakout session looking at Measuring Artistic and Social Impact which was a practical and positive discussion about evaluation. It was particularly interesting to be talking about impact measurement again so soon after our Growing the Grassroots event in London. It was good to hear the debate about civil society and the arts in a Republic of Ireland context and to meet a wide range of people from the Irish arts sector.

Unfortunately the symposium was somewhat overshadowed for many of us by a fire that broke out just after midnight on Thursday at the hotel at which many of the delegates were staying. A large blaze in the car park behind the hotel was extinguished before it spread to the hotel building and thankfully no-one was hurt, but the hotel was filled with smoke and we were not allowed back to our rooms until 4.30 am. It was a difficult and exhausting experience and I felt sorry for the speakers on the symposium agenda on Friday morning who faced a largely shattered and drained audience.

On Friday the Carnegie UK Trust sponsored a challenge debate as part of the symposium which saw speakers from Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Italy, England and Spain discuss ‘Arts, Civil Society and Crisis’. This looked at economic, social and political change across Europe and its impact on arts and civil society.

Robin Simpson.

Growing the Grassroots by Robin Simpson
October 21, 2011, 8:01 am
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On Tuesday I was at Cecil Sharp House in London for our ‘Growing the Grassroots’ event. This was a seminar to launch the initial findings of our Connected Communities research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, which has been looking at ‘The Role of Grassroots Arts Activities in Communities’. This project is a collaboration between Voluntary Arts, the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, the University of Exeter and the University of Glamorgan. On Tuesday our initial findings were announced by Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The Minister started by saying:

“In 2008 my Department, along with the Arts Council, decided to commission research to gain a clearer understand of just what the scale of national voluntary and amateur arts activity truly was. The publication of that research – Our Creative Talent – gave an excellent insight into what was happening and where. In fact, it provided some pretty impressive stats in terms of just how many individuals were getting involved in voluntary arts. It revealed that there were more than 49,000 amateur arts groups in England with an estimated 5.9 million members.  Then, add to that the further 3.5 million people volunteering as extras or helpers. Which isn’t bad going for a sector that had sometimes struggled to be noticed in terms of its influence. So we know this is not about a few people dabbling here and there, but about a serious commitment by a considerable number of individuals. People who are involved in the voluntary arts come to it with a great deal of passion, with no financial reward … The result of all the enthusiasm and commitment people put into these groups is often really terrific work. So given that their efforts and achievements are not surrounded by the award brouhaha often associated with the professional arts, I was delighted to attend the first Voluntary Arts Epic Awards earlier in the year. Those Awards I felt, really provided an opportunity for hard working and dedicated people in the voluntary arts world to receive some well-deserved plaudits, and also to raise the profile of what they are doing.”

Ed Vaizey then read a summary of the initial findings of our research:

“1.    The voluntary arts impact on the individual, through such benefits as improved health and well-being, increased self-esteem and friendships.

2.    They impact on the wider community – helping to provide a collective identity, improving areas in which people live and aiding social cohesion.

3.    They impact on educational attainment, with some participants experiencing an increase in literacy, verbal, technical and communication skills.  Participation can also broaden people’s cultural horizons and encourage experimentation and innovation.

4.    They impact on the local and wider economy, for example through people coming to local areas to attend voluntary arts events and the purchase from local businesses of materials and equipment.

5.    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the amateur arts are about having fun. The study so far shows that many participants viewed their arts activity as much more than a hobby. Engagement gave them – or gives them – personal fulfilment. Amateur arts enables people to discover new sides to their personality, to be creative, take risks and try new mediums.”

The Minister’s speech was followed by a presentation about the resarch by Jenny Phillimore from the Third Sector Research Centre and Jane Milling from the University of Exeter. This set the scene for a series of detailed discussions as we used the day to explore the validity of our initial conclusions and to develop our thinking about how to collect evidence of the impact of grassroots arts activity. The event was attended by representatives of voluntary arts groups and umbrella bodies as well as the Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Carnegie UK Trust, Department for Communities and Local Government, Royal Shakespeare Company and a range of other policymakers, academics and funders.

We also enjoyed wonderful performances by the Cecil Sharp House Community Choir and Dance Around the World and heard about the amazing Quilts 4 London project. It was a great day and the research team went away with masses of notes to assimilate before we write our final report. Congratulations and many thanks to Lindsey and Daniel for a very well organised event. You can see photos from Growing the Grassroots at:

Robin Simpson.





Arts Development UK Conference by Robin Simpson
October 14, 2011, 3:38 pm
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I’ve been in Blackpool on Thursday and Friday attending the Arts Development UK Conference. This is the first conference since the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers rebranded itself as Arts Development UK and it was good to see the slightly broader range of people now involved in the organisation but disappointing that numbers attending the conference seemed significantly lower than in previous years. This was a practical demonstration of the extent of cuts to local government arts services over the past 12 months. We were encouraged by the staunch support for the arts and culture expressed by Simon Blackburn, the Leader of Blackpool Council. The conference saw the election of Jane Wilson as the new Chair of Arts Development UK, succeeding Lorna Brown who has seen NALGAO/AD:uk through its major transition and rebranding.

The conference keynote speaker was Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013. Shona arrived in Blackpool on Wednesday, then on Wednesday night a pipe bomb detonated outside the City of Culture offices in Derry. No-one was hurt and there was very little physical damage. In an emotional and inspiring speech Shona said the City of Culture offices had been targeted “because we are a positive force for change and forward thinking. City of Culture is the highest profile initiative in the island of Ireland at the moment. This action was taken by an ever decreasing minority with no mandate and no support.” Shona reported that all her staff had been back at their desks on Thursday morning. They had received support and a renewed commitment from people across Derry and across the UK. She said that a local joiner had written to her on Thursday offering to fix the damage for free and she suggested that the Big Society is alive and well in Derry. Derry is the first UK City of Culture and Shona told us to “be in absolutely no doubt that we will set a wonderful precedent and a high benchmark for those cities that follow”. Derry City of Culture is an incredible alliance between all the strategic agencies across Derry and Northern Ireland: it represents a single major strategy for the development of the city. Shona said there has already been a huge demand to be involved with more than a thousand proposals received so far, even before any formal call for ideas has been issued. It was wonderful to hear Shona’s determination and passion and she got a rousing reception from the conference.

Robin Simpson.

Below the Radar reference group meeting by Robin Simpson
October 7, 2011, 3:59 pm
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On Thursday I was at the University of Birmingham to take part in a meeting of the Third Sector Research Centre’s ‘Below the Radar’ reference group. The Below the Radar research stream was established by the Third Sector Research Centre to explore the role, function, impact and experiences of small community action groups or organisations. The Below the Radar research is informed by a reference group which brings together practitioners from national community networks (including Voluntary Arts), policy makers, researchers and others who bring particular perspectives from the sector. On Thursday we heard the details of the Third Sector Knowledge Portal, a new online database, bringing together research and information on the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors, which is to be launched by the Third Sector Research Centre next week, see: We also discussed possible topics for future Below the Radar research, recognising that community groups are probably the least researched part of the third sector.

Robin Simpson.