Cultural Playing Field

State of the Arts Conference 2012 by Robin Simpson
February 16, 2012, 7:44 am
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The Lowry, Salford

The Lowry, Salford

On Tuesday I was at The Lowry in Salford for Arts Council England’s ‘State of the Arts’ Conference. I was fairly critical of last year’s ‘State of the Arts’ Conference, saying here that “the main conference sessions were disappointingly lacking in creativity in terms of their format”. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a much more creative approach this year, with the plenary sessions beautifully staged (and stage-managed) in The Lowry’s massive Lyric Theatre. I spent all day rather cheekily taking credit for this improvement which was clearly a response to my stinging criticism, only to find that when I bumped into ACE Chief Executive, Alan Davey, in the afternoon and congratulated him on the more theatrical style of the conference he said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “well you made such a fuss last year we had to do something!”.

One of the best things about the conference this year was that it was chaired by Kirsty Wark: she was a wonderful chair – listening carefully to the speakers, understanding the issues, keeping everyone to time and being incredibly fierce when necessary. She was part of a strong BBC presence, emphasising the developing partnership between ACE and the BBC and the proximity of Media City UK, just across the water from The Lowry. We were welcomed by Peter Salmon, Head of BBC North, and in the afternoon the BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, interviewed the choreographer Arlene Phillips about whether TV does great art. This was a session that seemed to divide the audience – while many were impressed by Arlene Phillips’ passion and enthusiasm and welcomed this very different voice as a challenge to the usual suspects at an arts industry conference, there was also some very audible muttering about her views on the differences between the arts and entertainment and her sometimes self-contradictory statements about the need for a populist approach.

Opening the conference ACE Chair Liz Forgan suggested that this is “a golden age for the arts”, even if it is on the edge of the unknown. The Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, said “the arts are more important than ever before” and “the arts are their own justification, in and of themselves”. He was clear that “we believe Government should provide the core funding for the arts”. He said “we support the mixed economy model for funding the arts – something that is almost unique to this country” and “we support, absolutely, the arm’s length principle”. As David Brownlee from the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) started to ask the Minister a question, Ed Vaizey interjected to ask when the TMA Awards were going to be held. He said he had tried to find this out on the TMA website but it wasn’t up to date and went on to criticise arts organisations that don’t keep their websites up to date. A little later in the session, Kirsty Wark read out a tweet that had appeared on the computer screen in front of her (from @MarcusRomer) which pointed out that Ed Vaizey’s own blog hasn’t been updated for nearly 2 years!

State of the Arts Conference delegates in the foyer of The Lowry, Salford

State of the Arts Conference delegates in the foyer of The Lowry, Salford

Away from the plenary sessions, I attended the two ‘Artists and Communities’ breakout sessions. Apart from the inevitable digression into terminological issues (what do we mean by ‘Artists’? what do we mean by ‘Communities’ why not ‘Artists in Communities’ or ‘Artists of Communities’? etc.) these were interesting discussions about participation, engagement and community arts. The four speakers, Dan Thompson, Rosie Kay, Peter Jenkinson and Ruth Little, were all entertaining and thought-provoking.

State of the Arts is a big conference, this year attracting around 500 people: the delegate list is more likely to be in the running for the Booker Prize than the BBC Short Story Award. Whatever you think of the conference sessions it’s a wonderful networking opportunity: I managed to talk to a host of old and new contacts – including Alan Davey, Jim Tough, Richard Russell and Cluny Macpherson from ACE and Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales.

Robin Simpson.

Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton by Robin Simpson
February 10, 2012, 11:08 am
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Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton

Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton

Last Friday evening I was in Northampton to attend the Quilts 4 London presentation event. Quilts 4 London is working to create an A3-sized pennant as a gift for each of the 14,000 athletes taking part in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton

Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton


The project has volunteer organisers across the country: when Shirley Wiblin-Hales took on the role for Northamptonshire she promised to ensure that at least 25 pennants were made. On Friday, in the beautiful setting of the Guildhall, Northampton, Shirley and her team of volunteer helpers formally handed over to the national organisers of Quilts 4 London an incredible total of 1,561 pennants made by children and adults from Northamptonshire as gifts to the Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Every one of these pennants has been photographed for the official Northampton Council archive and the display in the Guildhall was spectacular.

The Northamptonshire contribution brings the project’s national total to approximately 13,400 pennants – very close now to what seemed like an impossible target, thanks to the determination, enthusiasm and dynamism of Shirley and volunteers like her across the country. See:

Robin Simpson.

Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton

Quilts 4 London presentation at The Guildhall, Northampton

Epic Awards 2011 Winners’ Reception by Robin Simpson
February 3, 2012, 11:14 am
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On Monday evening I was at the Royal Overseas League in London for the Epic Awards Winners’ Reception. Representatives of the four winners of the Epic Awards 2011 – Phizzfest from Dublin, Buddy Beat from Paisley, Third Floor Gallery from Cardiff and Peterborough Male Voice Choir plus the Ireland runners-up, Ballymena Arts Partnership – were presented with their awards by Voluntary Arts President, Lord Luce. We were joined by an audience including representatives of Arts Council England, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Audiences UK, the Theatrical Management Association, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and People’s Voice Media as well as Voluntary Arts staff and Board members. It was a lovely evening: all the winning groups had compelling stories to tell and gave passionate and inspirational speeches. The aim of the Epic Awards is to showcase excellence and innovation in the amateur arts and the 2011 winners are a credit to our sector and proved to be wonderful advocates for Voluntary Arts.


Accepting the England award, Peterborough Male Voice Choir Musical Director Will Prideaux said:

“Voluntary arts organisations transform lives and build stronger communities. I love the stories of friendships created and enthusiasm rediscovered or of depression beaten, horizons broadened or prejudices cast aside; of hope, of trust, of a sense of belonging or simply giving people something to look forward to – the list is endless and endlessly amazing.”


Tina Robinson accepted the Ireland award on behalf of Phizzfest, the Phibsborough Community Arts Festival, and said:

“Our experience to date has shown us the importance of the arts as a community development tool forging links and creating channels of communication within the many diverse groups in our area. Phizzfest is run entirely by volunteers and this award is a huge validation of our efforts and has given us great encouragement to continue with this project.”


Tom Chalmers from Scottish drumming group The Buddy Beat said:

“With the film we want to inspire people to get out there and get involved and if anybody’s got a mental health condition they should never let that hold them back because there’s so much out there that they can participate in – it helps you improve your mental health and your self-worth.”


Wales winners Third Floor Gallery gave a very entertaining speech about their humble beginnings and thanked all the photographers who entrusted their images to the gallery and endorsed their unique way of presenting exhibitions.


Watch Epic Winners 2011: The Movie at


The Government Culture Ministers in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all sent messages of congratulation to the Epic Award winners:


Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Republic of Ireland Government said:

“Phizzfest is a wonderful example of local volunteers and business interests working in tandem for the benefit of the wider community.  The festival was a resounding success with something for people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy.  Through art and arts related events new experiences were shared by all the participants.”


Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland Executive:

“In many cases arts begins at grass-roots level and wouldn’t be successful without the support of the many voluntary and amateur arts organisations across the island.   Many congratulations to Phizzfest from Dublin, this year’s winners of the Ireland Award, and also to Ballymena Arts Partnership who were runners up and the People’s Champion for Ireland for receiving over 3,500 votes online.  These are great examples of arts in the community and are truly deserving of this recognition.”


Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Scottish Government:

“Congratulations to Buddy Beat on winning the first Epic Award for groups in Scotland. This is a truly amazing group which demonstrates the power of the arts to change people’s lives for the better. Scotland is a creative nation with a thriving cultural community and our voluntary groups play an important part in that. This project is a worthy winner of an Epic Award in the Year of Creative Scotland 2012.”


Huw Lewis, Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Welsh Government:

“The work of Voluntary Arts and here in Wales, Voluntary Arts Wales, in supporting and encouraging the voluntary arts sector is fully acknowledged. They are to be commended in bringing forward the Epic Awards to recognise the work and commitment of this sector. Third Floor Gallery is an excellent example of the ingenuity and creativity of the amateur arts in Wales, harnessing the enthusiasm and energy of local volunteers to create excellent opportunities and facilities for the local community. Their innovative way of working in attracting exhibitions of contemporary photography by world renowned photographers, is to be applauded. Here in Wales we have a long tradition of amateur arts and are very proud of their accomplishments.  I am therefore delighted to congratulate Third Floor Gallery as the winners of the first Wales Epic Award.”


Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, UK Government:

“It was an honour to attend the first ever Epic Awards last year, and I’m delighted to see the ceremony return, and announce a new raft of winners in 2012. The story of Peterborough Male Voice Choir shows just what a group of committed and dedicated local volunteers can achieve, not only in terms of raising tremendous amounts of money for good causes but also – from what I’ve heard – putting on excellent concerts in the process. I’d like to wish them hearty congratulations on receiving their award. They are another excellent example of the wonderful amateur arts activity that goes on in communities across England all year round, and forms the bedrock of the arts in this country.”

Robin Simpson.