Cultural Playing Field


Culture UK launch
April 4, 2017, 2:39 pm
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On Tuesday Damien and I were in the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House in London for the launch of Culture UK – a new partnership between the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland.

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BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, said the aim of Culture UK is “to excite the nation about the arts, opening up funding to a range of arts organisations to make content which can be shown on the BBC, developing UK-wide cultural festivals that can reach new audiences, creating opportunities to showcase emerging and diverse talent, and making the most of technology to inspire new experiences in the arts.”

Tony Hall said “culture makes us believe in the future”. He spoke about the importance of inspiring people about the arts, saying “there are communities we simply don’t engage with: that has to change”. Culture UK will have a development team from across the UK (modelled on that created for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) which will work towards three big landmark moments a year. Culture UK was launched with the announcement of 26 new commissions. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/culture-uk?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_press_office&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=corporate
Robin Simpson.



2017 Epic Awards Ceremony
March 24, 2017, 1:05 pm
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On Sunday I was at Sage Gateshead for the 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony, hosted by BBC Radio 3 as part of the Free Thinking Festival. The Voluntary Arts England team were supporting the Free Thinking Festival throughout the weekend, with local voluntary arts groups running a range of participatory activities in the foyer of the Sage, including calligraphy and lace-making. Centre of attention was our giant Paint by Numbers – a picture by the artist Geoff Tristram reflecting the Speed of Life (the theme of this year’s Free Thinking Festival) which drew a constant stream of participants painting the numbered sections to produce a stunning final image. Many thanks to Geoff, Laraine, Jennie and everyone who helped with our contribution to the Free Thinking Festival.

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On Sunday evening we held the Epic Awards Ceremony in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Representatives of the Epic Award winners and runners-up had travelled from across the UK and Ireland to receive their awards. The ceremony was compèred by the poet and BBC Radio 3 presenter, Ian McMillan. He was a brilliant host – funny, passionate and genuinely awestruck by the stories of the winning groups. The ceremony also featured performances by 2016 England Epic Award runners-up Harps North West and local Northumbrian pipers Robson Choice.

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All of this year’s Epic Award winners and runners-up were inspiring examples of the extraordinary achievements of local volunteer-led arts organisations. It was great to have the Patron of Voluntary Arts, our former Chair Peter Stark, present the new Epic Award for Celebrating Diversity to Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance for the Love is Louder project which worked with people from across Rotherham and engaged with over 75 different organisations to challenge intolerance and division through creativity. It was also wonderful to see the Peer Award for Excellence, which is voted for by all the groups shortlisted for Epic Awards, go to the RE-Tune Project from Glasgow – the brainchild of David McHarg, a social worker for almost 20 years who became disillusioned with the impact his profession was having and set up the project to help those suffering from mental health difficulties, experiencing isolation and loneliness – and in particular, ex-service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Run by volunteers, The RE-Tune Project offers people with mental health difficulties the chance to make, and then play, their own stringed instrument. For a third year running the winners of the Epic People’s Choice Award, which is voted for by the public via the Epic Awards website, appeared on the Breakfast programme on BBC1 the morning after our ceremony. This year’s winner, Roscommon Solstice Choir, is a 120-strong community choir which has raised hundreds of thousands of Euros for charities.

You can see full details of all the 2017 Epic Award winners at: https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/epic-awards-2017-winners-announced and you can get a flavour of the ceremony by watching this video filmed by the England Epic Award winners South Devon Players: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXNd8l49WTE

The 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony was a very special occasion and I think everyone present had an incredibly enjoyable and inspirational evening. Many thanks to all the Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members who helped with this year’s Epic Awards – but particular thanks to Laraine, Damien and Kelly for making the ceremony such a successful event.

Robin Simpson.

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Power Through Diversity
December 15, 2016, 11:52 am
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On Monday I was at Contact Theatre in Manchester for the Arts Council England event, ‘Power Through Diversity’. ACE Chief Executive, Darren Henley, delivered the opening keynote speech saying “we have to break down the barriers to participation” and “I want us to do more to address socio-economic disadvantage”. He emphasised the need to have a two way relationship with those who think the arts is not for them – an approach that doesn’t impose ideas of culture. Darren launched ACE’s annual report on the state of diversity across the arts and culture sector in England: ‘Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: 2012-15’. The report includes analysis of workforce, programming, participation and audiences and access to funding and examines the diversity of ACE’s own workforce. You can download the report from: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/equality-diversity-and-creative-case-2015-16. Darren finished by saying “diversity is an opportunity that all of us must embrace … diversity matters now more than ever”. You can read his full speech at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Darren_henley_speech_diversity_event_2016.pdf

David Bryan (Chair of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel) then chaired a panel session which looked at a range of diversity issues. I loved the introduction provided by Contact Trustee, Reece Williams, who said the best way he could describe David Bryan was “I want to be him when I grow up”. David urged arts organisations to tackle diversity, saying “don’t get in a state of seizure and defer that moment of change”.

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In the afternoon, rather than the usual breakout discussions, Power Through Diversity featured a series of ‘TED-style talks’. These short, very personal, inventive and incredibly entertaining presentations were the highlight of the day. The presenters included: the artist, director and trans creative, Kate O’Donnell; the historian, broadcaster and film maker, David Olusoga; artist and theatre maker, Jackie Hagan; and writer/comedian Mawaan Rizwan. All the presentations are available to watch online at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/diversity/power-through-diversity



AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group meeting
November 18, 2016, 1:38 pm
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On Monday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group. The Arts & Humanities Research Council has now confirmed that the Connected Communities programme, which funds innovative collaborative research undertaken by partnerships involving academic institutions and community organisations, will continue until 2020. In Monday’s meeting we discussed the ‘Utopias’ programme of activities supported by Connected Communities to link to ‘Utopia 500’ – which commemorates five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (see: http://www.utopia500.net/). The Utopia Fair at Somerset House in June showcased the creative outcomes from 25 AHRC-funded projects. These projects brought together local community groups, researchers, activists and artists across the UK to explore how utopian ideals can be used to benefit the environmental and social future of our communities. Representatives from contemporary Utopian movements from all over the UK took up stands in Somerset House’ courtyard, celebrating the pockets of utopia that are flourishing around the country from Newcastle to Merthyr Tydfil, Sheffield to Scotland, Brighton to Doncaster plus a range of London sites. There is a video summary of the Utopia Fair at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2k8U_fYJGw. I was interested to learn about links developed by the Utopias programme to ‘Like Culture’ – a cultural network of European cities and regions: http://www.likeculture.eu/. In Monday’s meeting we also heard about ‘Common Cause’ – the new Connected Communities BAME project which aims to strengthen and extend the existing network of university and BAME community collaborators working in the arts and humanities. Common Cause is an 18 month project, supported by Arts Council England and the Runnymead Trust, and I was delighted to learn that Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel Chair, David Bryan, is now part of the team delivering the project for Connected Communities.

Robin Simpson.



People Place Power – the Creative People and Places conference, Doncaster
September 29, 2016, 3:00 pm
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On Tuesday and Wednesday I was at Cast in Doncaster for ‘People Place Power’ – the third Creative People and Places conference. Creative People and Places is the Arts Council England programme to increase engagement in the arts and culture in some of the areas of England that currently fall within the 10% least engaged (as measured by the Active People Survey). ACE has funded 21 consortia including local arts organisations, voluntary and public sector agencies and other partners to develop innovative approaches to increasing engagement. Voluntary Arts is a member of the Peterborough CPP consortium (‘Peterborough Presents’) and is working in partnership with several other CPPs. We have also been contracted by the national network of CPPs to provide and advice and support to help all CPPs work with local voluntary and amateur arts groups.

Opening the conference, CPP National Steering Group Chair, Holly Donagh, reflected on changes in the engagement debate over recent years. She said “we’ve got initiatives like 64 Million Artists and Everyday Creativity, the BBC’s Get Creative campaign, Fun Palaces, the work of Voluntary Arts, Paul Hamlyn’s Artworks programme, just to name a few national initiatives. And in some ways those questions of reach, audience engagement and democracy have become the most interesting questions about the arts and really central to the debate now, where perhaps once they were more marginal.” Holly also suggested that “business as usual is not sufficient for the challenges of the future and ignoring fault lines and inequalities that existed for generations will serve all communities poorly in the long run”.

Giving the opening keynote presentation, ACE Chief Executive Darren Henley talked about the need for a creativity revolution: “a change in how we think about and use our natural everyday creativity and how we need to recognise the importance of making and participating art and culture in all aspects of our lives”. He said: “This means listening to people and working with them to help develop their ideas about what a local culture might mean. While the concept of strong national culture should offer confidence, opportunity and inclusivity to all, a local culture provides the primary sense of belonging and participation the sharing and self belief that all successful communities need and which is crucial in all our lives young and old. And it’s what makes us special as a community and that’s very precious.” Darren Henley spoke about the importance of the democratisation of culture and building sustainable local infrastructure.

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The second keynote speaker, on Wednesday morning, was the Guardian journalist Lynsey Hanley who gave a brilliantly entertaining and provocative presentation, drawing on her new book about class and culture, ‘Respectable’. She talked about doing culture the ‘right way’ vs doing it the way you want to, saying “feeling extremely uncomfortable to the point of thinking ‘I just can’t do this’ is not unusual for a socially mobile person”. She asked whether the Internet really widens access to knowledge when acronyms rule and discussed the ‘canalisation of television’, asking “why is there a BBC4?” And she completely won her audience over when, in response to a question from the floor, she suggested we should “find out what people are doing already and invest in that”.

Also on Wednesday morning I chaired a conference breakout session titled ‘What is quality and how do we measure it?’ Kathryn Goodfellow and Juliet Hardy from bait (the South East Northumberland CPP) spoke about the development of the bait quality evaluation framework. Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester discussed the Culture Counts quality measurement tools and learning from the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. And Mark Robinson from Thinking Practice reported on the CPP national evaluation. After these presentations we had a very interesting and engaged conversation about measuring quality and excellence which grappled with how to capture the ‘magic’ element of cultural activities.

Over the past couple of months, the Voluntary Arts Up for Arts team (Helen Randle, Helen Jones and Jennie Dennett) have been interviewing voluntary and amateur arts groups across the country about their experiences of working with CPPs, in order to produce a series of five-minute audio case studies. On Wednesday afternoon Helen Randle and I presented a conference breakout session in which we played some of the recorded interviews to provoke a discussion about the challenges of working with voluntary arts groups. It was great to have some CPP representatives in the room who personally knew some of the interviewees and the recordings proved to be a very effective way to generate a rich conversation – as well as ensuring that some genuine participant voices were heard at the conference. Many thanks to Helen, Helen and Jennie for their work on the case studies.

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The final conference session on Wednesday afternoon was a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian Theatre Critic, Lyn Gardner, looking at the relationship between excellence of art and excellence of engagement. The speakers included Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists. My final memory of a really interesting and provocative conference was Lyn Gardner’s comment: “What is Great Art anyway? Maybe it’s just an Arts Council construct.”



Luminate Festival Parliamentary Reception
September 7, 2016, 1:11 pm
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On Tuesday evening I was at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for a formal reception to celebrate the launch of the 2016 Luminate Festival programme. In October Luminate – Scotland’s creative ageing festival, of which I am a founding Trustee – will present its fifth annual national festival with events taking place from Shetland to Gretna Green. On Tuesday the Luminate Board and staff were joined by Festival participants, partners, supporters and MSPs. Festival Director Anne Gallacher introduced speeches by Sandra White MSP, Leonie Bell from Creative Scotland and Brian Sloan from Age Scotland which all emphasised the positive role arts and culture can  play in addressing the challenges of loneliness and isolation in an ageing population.

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Beautiful People from Dundee Rep performing at the Luminate Parliamentary Reception

We were then treated to two excellent performances. Emma Versteeg and Maryam Sherhan from Live Music Now Scotland performed an extract from The Luminate Suite – a commission from the composer Bill Sweeney which was inspired by songs, poems and stories shared with him by older people in the Hebrides. Four performers from Dundee Rep’s Beautiful People – a new company launched during the 2015 Luminate Festival, featuring performers over the age of 55 – gave us an example of their compelling dramatic storytelling. It was a lovely event and I am really looking forward to this year’s Luminate Festival which starts on 1 October, see: http://www.luminatescotland.org/



A Choir in Every Care Home working group meeting
May 13, 2016, 2:00 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was at Kings Place in London for a meeting of the working group for the ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ project. This was the final working group meeting, as the initial scoping phase of the project comes to an end. The Baring Foundation, which funded the project, had asked the project partners (led by Live Music Now!, SoundSense and the Sidney de Haan Research Centre) to address two key questions in relation to developing a choir in every care home: what could we do without any more money?; and what could we do if we had limitless money? The project has surveyed 150 care homes and 100 musicians who work in care homes – and Making Music has surveyed amateur music groups about working in care homes. Working papers have been used to document the basic activities within the project and to explore key issues, eg quality. A substantial review of existing research has been completed and 29 case studies have been generated. The resulting project documentation now amounts to 350 pages in total. Stephen Clift reported back to the working group about the research review. He said there had been a remarkable expansion over the last 15 years of projects around singing and health. There is something about singing that is hugely powerful for many people in contributing to their wellbeing. The working group looked at how we might develop a national campaign to encourage singing in care homes, modelled on the Sing Up campaign which reintroduced singing to 80% of primary schools. It was good to talk to David Cutler from the Baring Foundation at Monday’s meeting and I hope this is the just the starting point for a much larger project to turn care homes across the UK into ‘singing homes’.

Robin Simpson.