Cultural Playing Field

What Next? Cardiff by Robin Simpson
October 31, 2014, 2:01 pm
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I was in Cardiff on Wednesday morning to address the What Next? Cardiff meeting. The weekly meeting of the Cardiff chapter of What Next?, chaired by our old friend Laura Drane, brings together representatives of a range of arts and cultural organisations to find new ways of engaging with “the ever-expanding millions who value and take part in the cultural work that happens day-in, day-out”, across Wales. I gave a general introduction to Voluntary Arts and the voluntary arts sector and stressed the importance of understanding and articulating the interconnectedness of the whole cultural ecology. I also spoke about Epic Awards and Our Cultural Commons and encouraged everyone to join in the conversation about innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure at

Robin Simpson.


Arts Council England Research Grants Programme by Robin Simpson
October 31, 2014, 1:59 pm
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On Tuesday I was at Arts Council England in London for a meeting about ACE’s new research grants. From April 2015, ACE will be launching a £2.5M three-year research grants programme to build and improve the evidence base around the impacts of arts and culture. ACE will invite arts and cultural organisations, higher education institutions, consultants, think tanks, foundations and trusts, and consortia/partnerships of these bodies, to develop fundable research proposals that will improve the evidence base. On Tuesday Andrew Mowlah, ACE’s Senior Manager, Policy & Research, led a roundtable discussion to get feedback on the overall delivery of the programme and to influence and help shape how ACE will manage the fund. Andrew’s presentation outlined the aims of the programme which include furthering knowledge, increasing capacity, working in partnership, influencing and making the case. The programme will open in April 2015 and all projects will need to report by March 2018. ACE anticipates making 10-15 awards per year with a typical grant being between £50k and £100k. Research projects must be a collaboration between an arts or cultural organisation and a research partner – with the arts or cultural organisation being the lead partner. There will be one funding round each year with decisions being announced in June. The funding can only be used for research, not to support artistic activity. Applications will be judged on the originality and importance of the research, the strengths of the partnership, research methods and quality, outputs, dissemination, knowledge transfer and impact. In our discussions there was a general consensus that the allocated funds were relatively small and that it might be important for ACE to identify particular themes or areas of research it wishes to encourage rather than relying on an open call. We also talked about the need to be clear exactly what the funding can be spent on: there was concern that, if most of the grant is used in fees for the research partner there may be little incentive for arts organisations to lead projects. There was also a feeling that larger arts organisations might find it easier to connect to potential research partners and we discussed the possibility of a matching to process to bring together arts organisations and research partners. Andrew and his team listened carefully to our feedback and promised to consider these points before the programme is launched next year.

Robin Simpson.

The Creative Industries Federation by Robin Simpson
October 22, 2014, 1:00 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I was at the University of the Arts/Central St Martins in London to meet John Kampfner, Director of the new Creative Industries Federation. The Federation was the idea of Sir John Sorrell who felt that the public arts and commercial creative industries work in silos and, in recent years, have failed to make the case for the civic value of the arts. Having started in March this year, the Creative Industries Federation now has a team of nine staff, plus a range of pro bono support, and is working to create a single UK voice for the public arts, commercial creative industries and cultural education. The Federation will undertake advocacy and research and will seek to develop a national network (both physical and digital). John said he hoped the Federation would encompass everyone from individual potters to gaming companies to Time Warner. He wants the membership to include companies, organisations, trade bodies, small organisations and thousands of individuals across the UK. The Federation will be formally launched on 24 November and plans a dozen large roadshows around the country next year. I spoke to John Kampfner, and his colleagues Eliza Easton and Tim Moore, about the importance of looking at the whole cultural spectrum, including the voluntary arts, subsidised arts and the commercial sector.

Robin Simpson.

53 Million Artists update by Robin Simpson
October 22, 2014, 12:58 pm
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On Tuesday I was in London to meet David Micklem to discuss the ’53 Million Artists’ campaign. Since I last met David, and Jo Hunter, at the beginning of August, they have refined the language they are using to explain the four stages of the 53 Million Artists process (Make time; Do stuff; Think about it: Share it). David said they are aware that their work to date has been very London-focussed and focussed on their friends in the arts. They are now keen to make 53 Million Artists a genuinely national campaign. 53 Million Artists has secured further funding from Arts Council England for a second stage of research and development. David wants the 53 Million Artists website to be an aggregator of other similar sites rather than a competitor, with more of a ‘magazine’ feel to it. The most important part of the process for 53 Million Artists is getting people to reflect on their creative experiences. We agreed to continue speaking regularly about the campaign and the potential for 53 Million Artists and Voluntary Arts to work together.

Robin Simpson.

Arts Development UK annual conference, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
October 17, 2014, 10:50 am
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Peter Stark giving the keynote speech at the Arts Development UK Conference in Cardiff

Peter Stark giving the keynote speech at the Arts Development UK Conference in Cardiff

On Thursday I was at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to attend the Arts Development UK annual conference where Voluntary Arts Chair, Peter Stark, gave the opening keynote speech. Peter spoke about his formative cultural experiences with the People’s Theatre youth theatre in Newcastle, saying that the work of Arts Development UK and Voluntary Arts is in his ‘structural DNA’. The fact that other people did not have the advantages he had has been his driving force. He described his career in the UK and his work in South Africa. On returning to England in 2012, he felt the country and the arts sector had changed in some fundamental way. Referring to the recent reports he has published with Christopher Gordon and David Powell (GPS Culture), Peter said:

“I realised that we had become, in a way that was far more true than I had ever experienced before, not one nation but two, geographically and by wealth and by class and by investment. So I had a set of numbers on the one hand, and a growing sense of disjunction with the structure that was dealing with culture and the arts on the other. That’s why we started doing our work. We started doing it out of a feeling that things were wrong.”

Peter emphasised the importance of valuing the creation of artistic value as much as we value the creation of instrumental effects. And he said that the key to wellbeing in the arts is participation.

Looking at the current challenges facing local cultural infrastructure, Peter said “I don’t see any way other than to start again from the bottom”. He quoted Jack Dixon saying “Noah was an amateur. The Titanic was built by professionals.”

He said the heart of how local government works is changing and “if ever there was a challenge to national bodies in our country, it is to ensure culture becomes a competence of combined authorities.”

Peter quoted Sue Isherwood’s first piece of research for the Our Cultural Commons initiative in which she says: “I have read the words and listened to the voices of committed, passionate and thoughtful people, none of whom are nationally known names; all of whom deserve to be heard in the courts of the cultural elite.”

Peter finished by launching Our Cultural Commons – a joint initiative of Voluntary Arts and Arts Development UK which will:
– collect evidence of existing innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure and then promote best practice
– provide a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure and organisation and the debate on the nature of the cultural commons that we aspire to in the future
– empower and support the voice of those ‘local’ ambitions in debates on future national cultural policies, structures and funding.

You can read the full description of Our Cultural Commons and join the debate at:

Developing community choirs in care homes by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2014, 3:05 pm
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At the end of last year, Voluntary Arts undertook an initial research project, supported by The Baring Foundation, on arts participation for older people in residential and day-care settings. We looked at the potential for voluntary arts groups to support arts activities in care homes, identified a number of ways in which this is already happening and suggested a range of ideas for developing further activity. In my subsequent discussions with David Cutler, Director of The Baring Foundation, we agreed to focus initially on choirs and singing, in order to try to achieve a step change in the level of arts activity in care homes across the UK. David and I planned a roundtable discussion about the potential for developing community choirs in care homes, which took place at The Baring Foundation in London on Wednesday. This meeting brought together representatives of choirs and choral conductors with experts from the care sector, including the Chief Executive of Care England and the Executive Director of the National Care Forum. We were joined by Janet Morrison, the Chair of Trustees of The Baring Foundation, who is also the Chief Executive of Independent Age – a charity for older people. David Cutler chaired a fascinating discussion which looked at the evidence for the benefits of choirs and singing in care homes, the scale and pattern of current activity, different models of provision and the barriers to increasing this activity. We talked about the need for some mapping of current levels of activity, developing case studies to illustrate the ways in which choirs are effectively engaging with care homes and the importance of suggesting a range of possible models of engagement. We reached a surprising degree of consensus about a possible national approach to increasing the number of choirs working with, or based in, care homes. The Baring Foundation will now consider how to take this forward.

Robin Simpson.