Cultural Playing Field

NCVO Annual Conference 2016 by Robin Simpson
April 20, 2016, 4:19 pm
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Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO Chief Executive

On Monday Louise, Katy and I were among more than 600 delegates at The Brewery in London for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Annual Conference. NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington opened the conference with a ‘State of the Sector Address’ which acknowledged that these have not been easy times for voluntary organisations. Stuart said “too many people seem to have concluded that there is something wrong with charities” and “when we’ve been asked serious questions we haven’t always responded satisfactorily”. He suggested that public trust is the first, and major, challenge: our relationship with the public is by far the most important we have. While it would be too crude to talk about hostility to charities, the veil has slipped and there is an increasing willingness to ask questions. The genie is not going back in the bottle, nor should it: we cannot afford to be seen as less transparent than the public sector. Stuart emphasised the need for openness in relation to fundraising and executive pay. He said the “growing that notion that charities should be seen but not heard would be a huge waste of talent”. He is increasingly concerned about the anti advocacy clause in Government grant agreements, which he said is clearly a breach of the Voluntary Sector Compact. The best voluntary organisations combine the values of legitimacy and authenticity: charities are experts, anchored in their communities. Stuart finished by saying “we will emerge stronger”. He warned that Trustees need to think clearly about everything they are doing: “it makes money” is no longer a sufficient defence. If there are areas you are uncomfortable about, now is the time to do something about them.


Lord O’Donnell

The second keynote presentation was by Lord O’Donnell who spoke about the positive effects of volunteering on wellbeing. The former Cabinet Secretary said local authorities are likely to see further reductions of around a quarter in this Parliament but austerity is causing more demand for charities. He outlined three steps to rebuild trust in charities:
1. we need to prove we are making the world a better place
2. we need to demonstrate how our funds are spent
3. we should try to put ourselves out of business – remove the problems rather than just solving them.
Gus O’Donnell spoke about the What Works Centre for Wellbeing – of which he was the first Chair – and the importance of articulating the wellbeing impact of charities. He said it is absolutely vital we measure wellbeing at a national level through the Office for National Statistics. He thought we should be measuring the wellbeing of children in schools. He said “these are tough times for many in our society and for many charities. We could reign in our ambitions and wait for better times but it would be disastrous. Focus on impact, be transparent, be proud and passionate about what you do, and put yourselves out of business.”

I attended two conference workshops: the first was a debate titled ‘In a fast changing world strategic plans are useless. Discuss.’ Girish Menon, Chief Executive of Actionaid UK and Srabani Sen, a senior consultant at NCVO, argued for and against the statement. This led to an interesting discussion which highlighted the value of having a clear strategy, the important role the process of developing a strategic plan can play and the danger that, without effective strategy organisations focus more on sustaining themselves rather than what they want to achieve.

The second workshop I attended was ‘Digital will transform your organisation – practical tips for leaders’. Julie Dodd, digital consultant and author of ‘The New Reality’ said digital technology affects everything. Organisations need to develop a culture of experimentation: test, make, learn. She spoke about the Open University which had found itself at a roadblock and created Future Learn, as a separate startup, which is now one of the most successful MOOC (massive open online course) platforms in the world. Helena Raven, Head of Digital at NSPCC, talked about three simple principles for digital leaders:
1. Design using data
2. Put the user first
3. Embrace agility
She said don’t confuse a lack of strategy for agility – being agile means being organised!

Robin Simpson.



2016 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
April 8, 2016, 9:55 am
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Cardiff Castle

On Saturday I was at Cardiff Castle for the 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony. It was a wonderful event – fantastic venue, great weather and amazing winners and runners-up from across the UK and Ireland. In the afternoon I hosted a seminar at St David’s Hall called ‘Creating Epic Places’ which looked at the effects creative cultural activities have on local communities. This provided an opportunity for the representatives of the groups arriving in Cardiff for the evening ceremony to meet each other and find out more about the various Epic projects. Voluntary Arts Board member, Hamish Fyfe – Professor of Arts and Society at the University of South Wales – led a fascinating discussion about the links between creativity and place.


The Banqueting Hall, Cardiff Castle

On Saturday evening we assembled in the splendid banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle. John Furnham from Cardiff Castle gave us a brief history of the building and reminded us that the banqueting hall had been used for the 2014 NATO Summit, pointing out which of us was sitting in the seats that had been occupied by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel et al. The Epic Awards Ceremony was slickly compered by Nicola Heywood Thomas from BBC Radio Wales. We began with a performance by the newly appointed Young People’s Laureate Wales, poet Sophie McKeand. Afterwards Sophie wrote a great piece on her blog about the experience of being involved with the Epic Awards Ceremony, calling it “a brilliant light in this liquid blackness” and noting that “some of the UK’s most dedicated, humble and generous people converged in Cardiff Castle’s banquet hall to receive awards and, importantly, recognition for their work” – see:


Young People’s Laureate Wales, Sophie McKeand

The Epic Awards certificates and specially commissioned Welsh lovespoons were presented to the winning groups by the Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales, Nick Capaldi, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts Wales, Hamish Fyfe. As always, the winners and runners-up were each amazing stories and their representatives were funny, passionate and incredibly inspiring. You can see full details of all the winners and runners-up at:

People’s Choice Award Winners, Strike a Chord – a South Wales choir for stroke survivors – provided the emotional climax of the evening with one elderly member of the choir in floods of tears as I announced their award at the end of the ceremony. Immediately afterwards we drove two of the choir’s representatives through the night to Salford to appear on the BBC Breakfast sofa, live on BBC1, on Sunday morning. The choir’s conductor, Ali Shone, told the nation “Voluntary Arts, who set up the Awards, they’re fantastic: what they do is brilliant”.


Cardiff Castle

Epic Awards 2016 has been a huge success and we are indebted to all the applicants and to Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members across the UK and Ireland. I would particularly like to thank Gareth Coles and Damien McGlynn who were both involved in running Epic Awards for the first time and helped to make this one of the best years yet. The 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony at Cardiff Castle is one of the stand-out moments of my ten years at Voluntary Arts.

Robin Simpson.

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


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.

Exploring Everyday Creativity in Hull by Robin Simpson
January 29, 2016, 1:32 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was in Hull for the first in a series of meetings organised by 64 Million Artists to discuss the role professional arts organisations and artists should play in supporting everyday creativity. I joined representatives of arts organisations, the local authority and other agencies – including some of the team running Hull City of Culture 2017 – for a fascinating afternoon of discussions and breakout groups. David Micklem and Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists explained that Arts Council England was beginning to think about ‘everyday creativity’ and had approached 64 Million Artists to run this series of exploratory seminars. The report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, published in February 2015, had suggested that only 8% of the population regularly take advantage of publicly funded art and culture. David said Arts Council England had become more interested in the work being done by 64 Million Artists, Voluntary Arts, Fun Palaces and others. Previously, ACE had not been thinking about baking, gardening etc as culture. Jo started the seminar by asking us all to talk about the cultural activities we do outside work. This discussion of hobbies and other leisure-time activities was very effective in framing our thinking on ‘everyday creativity’. Interestingly the BBC Get Creative campaign and Our Cultural Commons arose naturally from the group discussions about everyday creativity. We talked a lot about the pros and cons of sharing, the importance of play, the need for more spaces for creativity, networks (online and offline), and the role of catalysts and champions (Creative Citizens). There was very clear agreement about the need to broaden our scope beyond ‘the arts’ to include cookery, gardening etc. It was a really interesting discussion and I’m looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this series of seminars.

Robin Simpson.

Welsh Language Commissioner/WCVA Parliamentary Reception by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:46 am
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WCVA reception

The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws

On Thursday afternoon Gareth and I were at the House of Lords for a reception organised by the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) and hosted by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. This was an event for UK-wide third sector organisations operating in Wales to discuss the need to work through the medium of Welsh. Each organisation had been asked to bring two representatives – their UK Chief Executive and their Wales Director or equivalent. The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, spoke about the implications for third sector organisations of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, emphasising the principle that people in Wales can live their lives through the medium of Welsh if that is what they wish to do. She said the third sector needs to think in different ways to move forward with dignity for people in an increasingly bilingual nation. WCVA Chief Executive, Ruth Marks, said that Welsh language, culture and identity is fundamental across all our work. She spoke about the current legislative and policy environment (including the effects of the new Social Services and Wellbeing Act and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act). Ruth also discussed the Welsh Language and volunteering as well as good governance and quality systems (including Investing in Volunteers and PQASSO). She explained that there is now a Memorandum of Understanding between WCVA and the Welsh Language Commissioner and a WCVA Trustee has been appointed as the organisation’s Welsh Language Champion.

Robin Simpson.

Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:42 am
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On Wednesday I was at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London for a meeting about the proposed Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Chief Executive, Andrew Barnett, spoke about the influence of the British Council trip to Brazil in 2010 that he and I took part in. He said our experiences in Brazil had inspired him to develop the participatory arts work the Gulbenkian Foundation is now doing – of which this inquiry is an extension. The proposed inquiry (which has still to be formally approved by the Gulbenkian Trustees) will look at “the way in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of the community”. It will be a two year programme with the intention of developing a strong and growing movement of arts organisations that embrace their civic role. Wednesday’s meeting – organised in partnership with What Next? – brought together around 40 people to discuss the premise for the inquiry. We had a fascinating afternoon of discussions about civic society, civil society, roles and responsibilities, inequality, community and cultural participation. The Gulbenkian Inquiry faces some difficult challenges to pull all this together but could be incredibly valuable.

Robin Simpson.

Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 11, 2015, 11:03 am
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On Wednesday I was at NCVO in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. We had a fascinating presentation from Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health at Oldham Council about the opportunities for health commissioning arising the Government’s programme of devolution to Greater Manchester. A Public Health memorandum of understanding has now been agreed. One of the five major transformational programmes of work, specified in the MoU is “nurturing a social movement for change – enabling people to make their own informed lifestyle choices”. Alan considered how a social movement for health could be encouraged, drawing on previous examples of social movements including the campaign to make Amsterdam the bicycle capital of the world, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the creation of the FC United of Manchester football club. We discussed the role arts and culture organisations might be able to play in this development but also the role that arts and culture might play in the everyday lives of people in Greater Manchester as part of healthier lifestyles. It was a really interesting discussion which highlighted the extent to which the Cultural Commissioning Programme has moved from being simply about helping arts organisations to access funding from public sector commissioning and is increasingly looking at the role of arts and culture in the outcomes of commissioning.

Robin Simpson.