Cultural Playing Field


Visit to London by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Community Cultural Foundation by Robin Simpson
July 21, 2017, 4:19 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This week Voluntary Arts hosted the first visit to the UK by representatives of the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Community Cultural Foundation. In 2014 the Korean Government introduced the ‘Regional Culture Promotion Law’ which states that central and regional government should support everyday cultural activity and create community cultural space. The law makes it clear that the main unit of everyday cultural activity is voluntary ‘cultural clubs’ organised by amateur artists – ordinary citizens who love arts and culture. The Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism established three main policies: creating space for voluntary cultural clubs and community cultural activity; promoting collaboration between voluntary cultural clubs (locally and regionally); and expanding opportunities for everyday creative activity and voluntary participation. To deliver these policies, in 2016 the Ministry created a new Community Cultural Foundation. The Foundation is a government agency (similar to our Arts Councils) but focussing specifically on everyday creativity and participation. It has created 110 Community Cultural Centres across South Korea and supports approximately 32,000 local voluntary cultural clubs. This week six representatives from the South Korean Ministry of Culture and the Community Cultural Foundation came to London to learn more about Voluntary Arts, UK Government policy and to see how UK people take part in the voluntary arts in everyday life.

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Damien and I had arranged a series of meetings and visits for our South Korean guests. Most of the meetings took place at Cecil Sharp House in Camden – the historic home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Over three days we were joined at Cecil Sharp House by Katy Spicer (Chief Executive of EFDSS and Vice Chair of Voluntary Arts) and by Barbara Eifler (Executive Director of Making Music), Jo Hunter (Chief Executive of 64 Million Artists and one of the authors of the ‘Everyday Creativity’ report), Keith Nichol and Chris Marnoch (from the Cultural Diplomacy team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Phil Cave (Director, Audiences and Engagement at Arts Council England) and by Nick Wilson and Jonathan Gross from King’s College, London (two of the authors of the ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ report).

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On Monday afternoon we visited Broadcasting House where Stephen James-Yeoman and Hannah Lambert talked to our Korean visitors about the Get Creative campaign. We also had a tour of the BBC newsroom and introduced our guests to the new BBC World Service Korean team – who were, coincidentally, at Broadcasting House for day one of their training before returning to Seoul to start this new Korean-language radio service.

On Monday evening we visited a rehearsal of an amateur choir – London City Voices in Soho – where conductor Richard Swann taught us his four-part arrangement of ‘One Day Like This’ by Elbow.

On Tuesday afternoon we visited the headquarters of the Crafts Council in Islington where Crafts Council Chief Executive, Rosy Greenlees, and Chair, Geoff Crossick, described to our Korean visitors the transition the Crafts Council has undertaken in recent years. Rosy explained that the original role of the Crafts Council had had been purely to support professional makers but that now around 40% of its work is on ‘education’ – both in schools and with amateurs and everyday creativity. Geoff Crossick also spoke about the AHRC Cultural Value Project and his resulting report ‘Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture’ which broadens the scope of the discussion on cultural value to include, alongside the subsidised cultural sectors, the commercial sector, and amateur and participatory arts and culture, which are how most people engage – emphasising the way they are part of a single ecology.

Finally, on Wednesday afternoon we visited Questors Theatre in Ealing where Maggie Turner and Andrea Bath gave our Korean guests a backstage tour of the theatre, explaining how this amateur theatre company managed to raise funds to build and manage a magnificent new theatre. It was a lovely way to finish our three days with the South Korean representatives.

It was fascinating to find out more about the new South Korean Government support for everyday creativity but it was also incredibly interesting to reflect on our progress in this area in the UK in recent years. Explaining what you do to foreign visitors – through a translator – is a remarkably good way of thinking more carefully about things you usually take for granted. Looking back at the presentation I gave to the World Culture Clubs Conference in South Korea in 2009, I was struck by how far we have come since then, particularly the explosion in UK academic research into the amateur arts and everyday creativity and the developments in media coverage of voluntary and amateur arts in this country.

Many thanks to everyone who helped to make the South Korean visit such a success. Particular thanks to Katy for hosting us at Cecil Sharp House and to Damien for managing the programme of meetings and visits which all went incredibly smoothly.

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

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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?”.

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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: http://www.artscommissioningtoolkit.com. 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:

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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26uex01mrFw. 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBeNJvRYXpc

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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.



The Changing Face of Infrastructure by Robin Simpson
July 3, 2013, 4:22 pm
Filed under: meetings, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,
Big Assist Conference at The British Library

Big Assist Conference at The British Library

On Wednesday I was in London to take part in the first annual Big Assist Conference – The Changing Face of Infrastructure – at the British Library. Big Assist is a major new programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund and administered by NCVO, which supports voluntary and community sector infrastructure organisations across England. Justin Davis-Smith, Executive Director of Volunteering & Development at NCVO, opened the conference with the suggestion that we might be at the end of a golden age of Government support for voluntary sector infrastructure and that infrastructure seems to have become a much maligned concept. He thought we are not making our case strongly enough and outlined a 6-point ‘manifesto’ to address this. Dharmendra Kanani, England Director for the Big Lottery Fund, said rapid and significant change is taking place in communities. The Big Assist programme is rethinking how best to support infrastructure. Dharmendra said that Big Lottery Fund is keen to fund learning within networks and was placing support, learning and capacity-building at the heart of what it does. Later in the day I took part in workshops on ‘marketisation’ and ‘partnerships’. It was an interesting conference and a great chance to meet people from a wide variety of local, national, specialist and generic voluntary sector infrastructure organisations.

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Members’ Assembly meeting by Robin Simpson
May 23, 2013, 1:55 pm
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On Thursday I was in Leeds to take part in the NVCO Members’ Assembly meeting. The focus of the meeting was on preparing for the next general election. NCVO Deputy Chief Executive Ben Kernighan explained that NCVO would be consulting its members between June and December 2013, asking what they would want the voluntary sector to be in 2020. Ben spoke about the likelihood of another coalition government after the next election and said this showed the importance of trying to influence all the political parties.

NCVO Chair Martyn Lewis said Prime Ministers love to put their stamp on the voluntary sector by creating some new initiative or agency but he would rather they did something about helping the structures that are there already. NCVO Director of Policy Karl Wilding spoke about the rise of the smaller parties as the vehicle for people’s protest and disaffection with the political system. At the next general election the electorate will be older than it has ever been. This will also be a social media election. It is probably going to be a messy election: the chances of a hung parliament are high.

Judy Robinson, Chief Executive of Involve Yorkshire & Humber, proposed three issues to try to get into the party manifestos: economic policy for the regions; poverty and welfare; and prevention. She suggested that, at this election, the only agenda for the political parties will be the economy and jobs (“it’s the economy, stupid”). Judy also exploded some popular myths about the voluntary sector relating to contracting and procurement, loans, volunteering and IT solutions. She stressed that place matters and spoke about the disproportionate hit on the North, the urban and the poor and the resulting effect on the voluntary sector.

The new NCVO President, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson spoke inspiringly and practically about how to influence the political process. She said it is really important to understand how the smaller parties work and explained the effective role that the House of Lords can play. She also agreed that social media has become very important and explained how jokes fail to come across well in Hansard!

Robin Simpson.



The Cultural Value Project by Robin Simpson
April 5, 2013, 10:22 am
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On Thursday 21 March I was at the Southbank Centre in London for a reception to launch the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s new Cultural Value Project. The project seeks to establish a framework that will advance the ways in which we define and think about the value of cultural engagement as well as the methods by which we evaluate it. Professor Rick Rylance, the Chief Executive of AHRC, said “while we might feel we instinctively understand the value of culture and its importance to our lives, defining and expressing that value is surprisingly difficult, let alone the challenge of persuading others of its importance. But it is vital for us all, and for the future, that we do.” Each of the speakers at the reception, who also included the Universities Minister David Willetts, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre Jude Kelly and the Director of the Cultural Value Project Professor Geoffrey Crossick, made it clear that this project is about helping to make the case to Government (and particularly to the Treasury) about why culture needs public support and how we can measure how much support is appropriate. David Willetts made a comparison with work undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to assess the value of a meadow: everyone would agree that meadows are valuable and to be encouraged but Government had to find a way of measuring how much support it should allocate to developing and protecting meadows. Something similar needs to be done for culture. David Willetts emphasised this should not be about reducing cultural activity merely to its economic value – “not economic measures but measures that would be understood by economists”. The Cultural Value Project will fund awards to researchers in higher education institutions and approved independent research organisations. The deadline for applications to the first funding call is next week but further calls for proposals will follow.

Robin Simpson.