Cultural Playing Field

Our Cultural Commons Conference, Norwich by Robin Simpson
February 25, 2016, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Halls, Norwich

On Tuesday and Wednesday I was at The Halls in Norwich for the Arts Development UK ‘Our Cultural Commons’ conference – presented in association with Voluntary Arts.


Councillor Alan Waters

The conference was opened by Councillor Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council. Councillor Waters is the third Leader of the Council to have culture as part of his brief – emphasising how Norwich sees culture as central. He said “the arts are part of the fabric of Norwich”, and spoke about the city’s networks of parks, play areas, performance spaces etc. He said “culture is an important force for economic, social and political change” and finished his speech by asking “how do we achieve this cultural commons?”.


Jane Wilson

Jane Wilson, Chair of Arts Development UK, gave the first keynote presentation of the conference. She said “arts development is that space where arts people and place intersect – the place where they come together”. She spoke about recognition of the role arts development can play in community development and regeneration. Local authority finances have changed and many councils now face a struggle to maintain their statutory responsibilities. Arts services have been a significant casualty over recent years. This has led to the development of more independent specialist organisations working in arts and health, arts and young people etc. Arts Development had outgrown its purely local authority role. Keeping up with the pace of change is challenging. Jane said Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme is doing valuable work but is a short-term approach. She spoke about the importance of place making and planning and welcomed the work being undertaken by the Cultural Commissioning Programme and ACE’s new Cultural Education Challenge. Jane said we can no longer talk about the lack of evidence to support arts development. Leadership is at the heart of this issue, rooted in local collaboration. We need a combination of light touch high level aspiration with permission to just get on with it on the ground.

On Tuesday I took part in a breakout session about the Knitting Communities Together project organised by Little Bird SOS in Leicester which demonstrated the therapeutic value of taking part in crafts and the impact this can have on mental health. I also attended a session about the Cultural Commissioning Programme in which Tony Witton from Kent County Council showed us the excellent new Arts and Cultural Commissioning Toolkit, see: I was also struck by the extent to which the programme’s Locality Projects are beginning to bring together local cultural organisations in exactly the way suggested by Our Cultural Commons. See the following examples from Birmingham, York, Torbay and Derby:


Visualisation of Baroness Kidron’s speech by conference artist-in-residence Fran O’Hara from Scarlet Designs

On Tuesday morning Voluntary Arts President, Baroness Beeban Kidron, gave the keynote presentation at the Arts Development UK Our Cultural Commons conference. Beeban’s speech was fascinating and inspirational. She spoke about “the weight of the collective behind any act of creativity” rather than insisting on the national of the individual artistic genius. She said “great art is actually made by groups of people” – by active participation of colleagues. We need to take seriously the role of the cultural life of communities. Beeban stated the aim of Our Cultural Commons to stimulate communities to re-imagine the cultural life of their area. Our Cultural Commons encourages people to form new collaborative networks, recognising, valuing, and working with their local cultural assets. Beeban discussed the four practical steps people could take in their local areas to realise the ambitions of Our Cultural Commons:

  • call people together in your local area to talk about what you want to achieve, what the opportunities are, what is missing;
  • identify existing cultural assets, but thinking creatively about spaces and facilities that could be used for cultural activities;
  • ask people to explain how taking part in creative cultural activities improves their learning, health, wellbeing, confidence and quality of life;
  • explore the full diversity of cultural activity in your local area, asking what local cultural activity often gets overlooked or undervalued.

Beeban spoke about intofilm – the charity she founded which uses film in schools to teach and to engage school students aged 5-18. She said “I never tire of the moment when I see that light go on in a child’s eye. The light that goes on first time they own their own understanding, of how form and function work, of metaphor and meaning, of self expression and audience response – of wonder. A light that once on is hard to snuff out.” Asking people to explain how taking part in creative cultural activities ‘improves’ health, wellbeing, confidence and quality of life is an invitation to discuss the lightbulb – to talk about what it is to be human and to participate and feel the connectivity and change that it brings. For those who seek a cultural commons – there is no greater responsibility that reaching out to those who live beyond your own imagination and experience.

Baroness Kidron said that ‘local’, ‘amateur’ and ‘community’ are not worlds that appear endlessly in Government policy. She thought the opportunity of the upcoming Government Culture White Paper is immense. “If they embraced local participation and supported Our Cultural Commons, they would be embracing the small-scale, the grassroots, the unfunded, the voluntary, the everyday creative cultural activity that is an essential part of individual and community wellbeing.” She said “we need places to meet, to put our work, to teach and to learn, to make and to gather – whether the hallway at a local council building or a government HQ, whether free rooms in a library for unfunded organisations, or Government using its muscle to open public (and private) buildings for use by the community to be creative.” Beeban finished by saying “Our Cultural Commons is about making creative participation ordinary. Ordinary and everyday for the millions of extraordinarily creative people of the United Kingdom – so that we can all lead lives that allow for both creativity and cultural contribution in the community, in all of the glorious forms that it can take.”

The final keynote presentation at the Our Cultural Commons conference was given by Bobsie Robinson – Cultural Policy & Strategy Manager at Bradford Council and a member of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel. Bobsie described the demographics of Bradford where nearly a quarter of the population are under the age of 16 and the proportion of Pakistani people is the largest in England. Bradford has the National Media Museum and is the first UNESCO City of Film. Bobsie talked about the development of local Community Arts Networks across Bradford which mirror many aspects of the Our Cultural Commons approach. She gave examples of some amazing projects that had been used to inspire cultural participation and increase civic pride – including the wonderful 75 Dorothys Flashmob (“there’s no place like Bradford”), see: Bobsie also spoke about the work of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel, describing it as a unique group of people and saying how proud she was to be part of it.

On Tuesday afternoon I took part in two breakout sessions showcasing existing examples of Our Cultural Commons in action. Lincolnshire One Venues (LOV) is a network of eleven cultural venues which work together (with the motto “collaborate or die!”). LOV’s Young People’s Programme is empowering young people as leaders, integrated into the venues within the network. Young people are developing governance skills as well as gaining experience in arts management and programming.

Made in Clayton West is an initiative in a village in West Yorkshire which started very simply by asking all residents:

  • What would make it a better place to live?
  • What would you like to make happen?
  • What are you willing to share?
  • What do you want to learn?

Made in Clayton West is a fantastic example of a creative approach to community capacity building and one of the best examples of Our Cultural Commons in practice that we have discovered so far. See:


Jane Wilson closing the conference

The Arts Development UK Conference in Norwich felt like a very successful event. There was a very positive, determined and creative mood amongst the delegates – despite the incredibly challenging environment in which we are all operating. The spirit of Our Cultural Commons appears to be thriving and the learning, ideas and connections from the conference will help us to take the Our Cultural Commons agenda forward.

Robin Simpson.