Cultural Playing Field

What Next? Conference 2013 by Robin Simpson
May 3, 2013, 1:25 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , , ,

I was in London on Monday to take part in the What Next? conference. What Next? is “a national conversation on new ways to champion the arts and culture”. It started in 2001 as a weekly one-hour meeting of the leaders of arts organisations who felt there was a need to make a stronger case for the arts and culture. David Lan from the Young Vic, who chairs the weekly meetings, explained at the conference on Monday that “What Next? has no structure, nor do we want it to. It’s an experiment. Someone called it a movement. It seems to respond to what people bring to it. Together we’ve found a style of meeting that creates a kind of ethos that takes us forward. What Next? barely exists and it has no point of view – we all speak for ourselves.”

The audience at What Next? 2013

The audience at What Next? 2013

Monday’s conference attracted 650 delegates from a wide range of cultural organisations. The first half of the day saw 20 roundtable meetings following the What Next? format taking place in venues across central London. Each of these meetings featured a guest speaker and the range of guests emphasised the pulling power that What Next? has developed as they included: James Purnell, Shami Chakrabarti, Peter Bazalgette, Ed Vaizey, Baroness McIntosh, Baroness Bakewell and Dan Jarvis. I attended the meeting at King’s College, chaired by Deborah Bull from the King’s Cultural Institute. Our guest speaker was Sue Hoyle, Director of the Clore Leadership Programme, which led to an interesting discussion about links between the arts and culture and higher education.

In the afternoon, all 650 delegates assembled at the Palace Theatre for a series of short presentations followed by an extended question and answer session. My presentation about the need to consider the full cultural ecology – including the amateur and commercial as well as the subsidised – seemed to go down well and there was an encouraging response on Twitter (#WN2013). You can watch the afternoon sessions at: (I’m in the ‘First half’).

The conference finished with a series of suggested ‘actions’ around three themes – MPs, unlikely alliances and engaging with our audiences. You can find the full list of actions, and much more about What Next? and the conference at

The panel at the What Next? 2013 conference

The panel at the What Next? 2013 conference

The What Next? conference was a fascinating occasion. The scale of the event and the range of people in the room was incredibly impressive. There was much enthusiasm, determination and the sense of the beginnings of a real movement. I was particularly pleased with the openness I found to the need to involve the voluntary and amateur arts. At the same time, much of the debate felt quite basic and for many people there was a sense that we have been here before, or that the suggested actions were all things that we are already doing. It was also a very England-centric conversation. Nevertheless I was pleased to be part of the What Next? conference and I am looking forward to seeing what happens next …


There were some interesting responses to the conference on the Arts Professional website, see:

And there is a very good piece by Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian (‘We know spending on the arts makes big money for Britain. So why cut it?’) – see: – good to see her referring to “10 million people are involved in voluntary arts groups”.

Robin Simpson.

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