Cultural Playing Field


Creative People and Places – Arts Council England East briefing session in Thurrock by Robin Simpson
March 23, 2012, 10:29 am
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On Thursday afternoon I was in Purfleet in Essex for an Arts Council England East Creative People and Places briefing session. Thurrock is in the lowest 20% of local authority areas in terms of arts engagement. Hannah Fouracre from ACE East said that only 33% of adults who live in Thurrock engaged with arts activity 3 or more times in 2010 – which means that 110,000 adults in the area did not engage significantly with the arts. We met at High House Production Park, a 14 acre site which is aiming to be a centre of excellence for creative industries, offering high class facilities and state of the art technology. The site includes Grade II listed High House Farm buildings and a Scheduled Ancient Monument and now houses the Royal Opera House Workshop. Representatives of a range of local arts and community organisations took part in an interesting and challenging discussion about how to engage people throughout Thurrock and how to build a vision for culture in the area in 10 years’ time.

Robin Simpson.

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National Participatory Arts Summit by Robin Simpson
March 23, 2012, 10:27 am
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On Thursday I was at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London to attend ‘Because we’re worth it!’ – a national summit exploring and celebrating the value of participatory arts. The event was organised by Connected Culture and Mailout. Connected Culture is a network dedicated to adult participatory arts and Mailout is the national online resource for participatory arts. Welcoming us to the ICA, Arti Prashar of Spare Tyre and Rob Howell from Mailout said they had been overwhelmed by the positive response to the summit: they said they could have sold it out twice over and there was clearly a massive interest in participatory/community arts. Rob Howell said that Mailout has calculated that only 7.5% of Arts Council England’s core funding goes to participatory arts: he challenged the sector to work to increase this to 15% by the next round of ACE National Portfolio Organisation funding. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, delivered the keynote ‘thought for the day’, suggesting that the arts sector “had it pretty good” under New Labour but he didn’t think the sector as a whole had exploited the opportunities as much as it should have. Too many arts organisations are too dependent on arts grant funding. Matthew Taylor asked us whether we could make a new case for the arts. He said “the arts sector should not be afraid of instrumentalism but it should be our instrumentalism” and he felt this “would lead to a shift in arts funding towards participation”. But he warned that we need to be able to distinguish between good and bad practice: “the Achilles heel of the arts is that we are all too polite to each other”. During the questions and answers at the end of the opening plenary session, Matthew Taylor used a sporting analogy, talking about his son’s involvement in football and cross-country running. When you take part in amateur football you never encounter a professional: the professional and amateur football worlds are very far apart, with most of the money heading towards the elite professional end of the spectrum. But in cross country running the beginner can find himself competing alongside someone who runs for the national team. And, even if you finish 15 minutes behind that international athlete, you all sit down together and have a cup of tea afterwards. Matthew Taylor asked us whether the arts is more like football or cross country running. He pointed to the answer by referring to a session he chaired in the ACE/RSA State of the Arts Conference in 2011 when John Hope-Hawkins from the Society for All Artists – a national voluntary arts umbrella body – spoke about the work the SAA’s amateur members were doing in old people’s homes to encourage people to paint. No-one at that massive arts industry conference seemed to take any interest.

Robin Simpson.



The amateur arts and civil society by Robin Simpson
March 23, 2012, 10:23 am
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I was at NCVO in London on Wednesday where Jenny Phillimore from the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham and I presented a research seminar on amateur arts and civil society. We discussed the results of our AHRC Connected Communities research project into The Impact of Grassroots Arts Activities on Communities with a group of representatives of third sector and arts organisations. Jenny described the three levels and seven areas of impact identified by our study and said how struck she had been, in particular, by the emphasis that had emerged on the importance of beauty, fun and laughter. It was an interesting discussion which reinforced the need for further research in this area.

Robin Simpson.



Arts Development UK National Committee meeting by Robin Simpson
March 16, 2012, 5:04 pm
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I was in London on Friday afternoon to attend the Arts Development UK National Committee meeting. AD:uk Chair, Jane Wilson, updated us on progress following the change of name and status of the organisation (which was formerly the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers). She said that officers leaving local authorities, for whatever reason, were now remaining members of AD:uk and the organisation is starting to get a good body of non-local authority arts organisations in membership. The new AD:uk fellowship scheme has made more than 50 awards in its first round – which is more than 20% of the organisation’s membership. AD:uk has also just launched its new knowledge and skills bank – asking members to commit a minimum of 10 hours per year to share their skills with other members. Jane emphasised that both these schemes are open to members of Voluntary Arts.  I used my slot on the agenda to ask AD:uk to encourage voluntary arts groups across the country to sign-up for our Running Your Group online services. I also explained the role we are hoping that local government arts officers will play in relation to Voluntary Arts Week 2012. We want local authorities to promote the Week to voluntary arts groups and to consider running their own local showcase events during the Week. Voluntary Arts Week is 12 – 20 May 2012, more details at: http://www.voluntaryartsweek.org.

Robin Simpson.



The voluntary arts and regeneration in Wales by Robin Simpson
March 16, 2012, 1:39 pm
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On Friday morning Hamish and I met Chris Warner from the Regeneration Directorate in the Department for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage at the Welsh Government offices in Cardiff. Chris is the Head of Regeneration Policy for the Welsh Government. Now that regeneration is part of the same ministerial portfolio as culture the Minister, Huw Lewis, is keen to look at developing better links between the arts and regeneration. The Minister has recently launched a review of the Government’s approaches to regeneration and Chris was keen to talk to us about the role that voluntary arts groups might be able to play in relation to regeneration. We discussed a number of possible approaches and agreed to try to develop some pilot activity in certain parts of Wales.

Robin Simpson.



Welsh Assembly Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee inquiry into participation in the arts by Robin Simpson
March 16, 2012, 1:37 pm
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I was at the Senedd in Cardiff on Thursday afternoon to give evidence to the Welsh Assembly Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into participation in the arts. The inquiry was launched to look at whether budget cuts in the arts sector may be having a negative effect on participation in the arts among some groups of people. You don’t get the chance to say much in these sessions: I was one of three witnesses in a 30 minute slot. It was good to be alongside Maggie Hampton from Disability Arts Cymru and Leanne Rahman from the Black Voluntary Sector Network – together we were able to stress the need for funding, support and collaboration to encourage disabled people and BME communities to participate in the arts. I said I felt questions about the relationship between the Welsh Government and the Arts Council (the arm’s length principle) and whether we need greater scrutiny of the Arts Council were red herrings in relation to how we address gaps in arts participation. Most participation happens through organisations that are not funded by ACW. I made the point that the amateur arts is largely self-sufficient and sustainable and the overall levels of participation were almost the same in 2010 as they were 10 years before (according to the ACW Omnibus Survey). You could get rid of the Arts Council and not affect the overall levels of participation. But the effect of cuts in arts funding is to further disenfranchise those parts of the population who tend not to participate in the arts and need support and encouragement to do so. So arts participation as a whole always survives funding cuts but is likely to become less diverse and favour people from more affluent, cohesive communities. Finally I stressed the need for a more radical approach to raising the levels (and diversity) of arts participation by developing collaboration and links between professional participatory/community arts and the amateur/voluntary arts sector.

Robin Simpson.



World Shakespeare Festival partners’ day by Robin Simpson
March 16, 2012, 1:35 pm
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I was at the National Theatre in London on Tuesday to take part in the World Shakespeare Festival partners’ meeting. This event, chaired by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Director of Communications, Liz Thompson, brought together marketing and communications officers from organisations including the National Theatre, Barbican, Sage Gateshead, Royal Opera House, British Museum, National Theatre Wales, Birmingham Rep, Northern Stage, Shakespeare’s Globe and Brighton Festival. Our Open Stages project and the way amateur theatre groups are getting involved in the World Shakespeare Festival got prominent attention (it was the first item we discussed!). Ian Wainwright from the RSC outlined the progress of Open Stages and representatives of three of the Open Stages partner theatres (Contact in Manchester, Questors in London and the National Theatre of Scotland) described the plans for their forthcoming Open Stages showcase events. It was also fascinating to hear about the multitude of other World Shakespeare Festival productions in preparation across the UK – from Simon Russell-Beale in ‘Timon of Athens’ at the National Theatre to ‘Forests’, a new work based around the forest and heath scenes from a variety of Shakespeare plays which is being directed by Calixto Bieito at Birmingham Rep, to a new Welsh language translation of ‘The Tempest’ by Gwyneth Lewis which will be performed at the National Eistedfodd. There is so much going on within the World Shakespeare Festival it is very difficult to grasp all the details. But that is nothing compared to the mass of events under the wider Festival 2012 banner: we had a presentation from Claire Hutchinson from LOCOG, Head of Marketing for Festival 2012, which was mind boggling in terms of the scale and variety of activity due to take place around the country over the coming months. The World Shakespeare Festival starts on 23 April (Shakespeare’s birthday), full details at: http://www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk/

Robin Simpson.