Cultural Playing Field

Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium by Robin Simpson
April 24, 2015, 2:06 pm
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On Thursday I was at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester to take part in the ‘Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium’. This event was part of the Understanding Everyday Participation research project, being led by Dr Andrew Miles from the University of Manchester. The symposium reported on the project’s progress in relation to ‘Work Package 1: Histories of Participation, policy and practice’ and will lead to a book about Histories of Participation. A series of engrossing presentations explored a wide range of aspects of everyday participation.

We heard from Dr Mark O’Neill, Director of Policy & Research at Glasgow Life about the traditions of cultural participation in Glasgow. Mark noted that “we are now reinventing the link between culture and health, which the Victorians thought was obvious.”

Dr Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick spoke about ‘Policy Discourse, Cultural Value and the Buzzwords of Participation’, asking how and why a certain understanding of cultural participation has become so dominant and central to policy making in England. Eleonora looked back at the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain after the Second World War and how support for the amateur arts was progressively squeezed out of its work.

Andrew Miles spoke about ‘Locating the Contemporary History of Everyday Participation’ and the assumption that those who didn’t participate in standard forms of culture were somehow in deficit.

Dr Jane Milling from the University of Exeter delivered a paper titled ‘The Usefulness of the Stage: Eighteenth-century cultural participation and civic engagement’ which suggested that, in the 1760s, every theatre goer was an omnivore: audiences could not distinguish between high and low art.

Andrew Miles presented a paper by Catherine Bunting – ‘Calling participation to account: a recent history of cultural indicators’ – which looked the effect the PSA3 target about increasing participation had had on policy during the New Labour governments. Dr Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester then spoke about regional and local cultural strategies in the early 2000s, including the creation of Regional Development Agencies and Regional Cultural Consortia in England. Abigail looked at the development of the Taking Part and Active People surveys.

Dr Lisanne Gibson from the University of Leicester gave a presentation on ‘Governing Place Through Culture’ which focussed on the research she has been doing in Gateshead as part of the Understanding Everyday Participation project.

Other presentations looked at the relationship between wellbeing and culture, the role public parks have played in everyday participation, the British tradition of clubs and societies (dating back to the 16th century), and the politics of community in community theatre practice. It was great to hear so many perspectives on everyday cultural participation and we had some great discussions of the issues throughout the day – both within the conference sessions and during the breaks. You can read more about the Understanding Everyday Participation research project at:

‘Cultural Hubs – The Arts in Libraries Conference’, St Helens by Robin Simpson
March 20, 2015, 4:25 pm
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On Thursday I was at the magnificent Victorian Town Hall in St Helens for ‘Cultural Hubs – The Arts in Libraries Conference’. Around 100 delegates from across the North West gathered to discuss examples of libraries being used for arts activities. Sue Wilkinson, Head of Library Services for St Helens Council spoke about Cultural Hubs, a 2-year project supported by Arts Council England to increase participation in the arts in libraries in St Helens. I then gave a presentation about Our Cultural Commons and the role that libraries can play in a more collaborative approach to sustaining and developing local cultural infrastructure. I spoke about our Up for Arts projects in Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria, the work Voluntary Arts is doing with Heart of Glass (the St Helens Creative People and Places consortium) and our Culture Guides project in St Helens, led by the indefatigable Gary Conley who was helping to facilitate the conference on Thursday. I quoted William Sieghart’s ‘Independent Library Report for England’ (published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in December 2014: which says “Libraries are, let us not forget, a golden thread throughout our lives. Despite the growth in digital technologies, there is still a clear need and demand within communities for modern, safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free, supported by the help and knowledge of the library workforce” and calls for us to “make the library a vibrant and attractive community hub”.

Later in the day, Jane McElvey from Manchester City Council spoke about the refurbishment of Manchester Central Library and the programme of Library Live events there, supported by Arts Council England. We also heard from Paul Kelly of Lancashire County Council about the strategic approach to the arts within the wider cultural offer of libraries across Lancashire. HOST is a coordinated arts programme across Lancashire County Council cultural venues and its focus is on creating new arts organisations and supporting the arts infrastructure.

It was a really interesting conference and there was both an enthusiastic interest in Our Cultural Commons and a sense that many libraries are already beginning to realise the kind of innovative local cultural collaboration that Our Cultural Commons seeks to promote.

Robin Simpson.

Peterborough Presents consortium meeting by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:04 pm
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On Monday morning I was in Peterborough for a meeting of ‘Peterborough Presents’ – the Creative People and Places consortium. We reflected on year one of our three year programme to increase engagement in the arts in Peterborough, looking at our achievements and challenges to date. This informed our planning for year two as we identified particular areas for improvement. We also discussed the implications of substantial planned cuts in Peterborough City Council’s funding for Vivacity, which would significantly reduce the public provision of arts and culture facilities in the city.

Robin Simpson.

Meeting the Shadow Culture Minister, Chris Bryant by Robin Simpson
February 20, 2015, 2:06 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was at Portcullis House in Westminster to meet the Labour Shadow Culture Minister, Chris Bryant MP. In a wide-ranging conversation we talked about Our Cultural Commons, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, the BBC Get Creative campaign, the Arts Council England Creative People and Places scheme, the final GPS Culture report ‘A New Destination for the Arts’ and the DCMS Select Committee report on the work of Arts Council England. We discussed the policies of Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales in relation to participation and the voluntary arts. We also talked about the speech given by the Welsh Deputy Minister for Culture and Sport, Ken Skates AM, to the Arts Council of Wales conference last week. Chris spoke about the development of the Labour Party’s election manifesto and speeches on the arts to be given next week by Ed Miliband (on Monday 23rd February in London) and Chris himself (on Wednesday 25th February in Birmingham). Chris is also going to be addressing the All Party Parliamentary Group on crafts in the next few weeks. It was an interesting first meeting with the new Shadow Culture Minister. He understands the importance of the voluntary arts sector – and spoke about several examples of voluntary arts groups in his own constituency – but his focus is, naturally, on the forthcoming general election.

Robin Simpson.

The future vision for the Creative Case for Diversity by Robin Simpson
December 9, 2014, 2:48 pm
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On Monday I was in London to attend the Arts Council England event ‘The future vision for the Creative Case for Diversity’ at Sadler’s Wells. Giving the keynote speech, ACE Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette called it “one of the most important speeches I’ll make as Chair of the Arts Council”. In terms of delivering on diversity, he suggested that “so far, we’ve failed”. He admitted that ACE had expected improvements in diverse leadership within the arts, without sufficiently resourcing leadership programmes. He also felt that it had been a mistake for ACE to concentrate its work in this area on black and minority ethnic-led arts organisations. Baz quoted Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of Graeae, who called the arts “male, pale and stale”. He said the doorway into the arts can be hard to find and spoke about the “white cliff face of the arts establishment”. Baz said “From now on responsibility for promoting diversity within the leadership, workforce, programming and audiences, must belong to all our funded arts organisations”. From 2015 measured action on diversity “goes mainstream” as all ACE’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) have signed up to ‘The Creative Case for Diversity’. Sir Peter said “we will be monitoring ourselves and publishing the results”. ACE will publish workforce diversity data for NPOs and National Partner Museums from 2015. Baz said “when we invest public money in arts and culture, it must be for thhe benefit of all the public” and finished by saying in 10 years’ time “diversity will no longer be an aspiration, it will be a reality … the arts will simply be the case [for diversity]”. See:

Sir Peter Bazalgette’s speech was followed by a panel discussion, chaired by the journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Lang. Dawn Walton, Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre Company, talked about the “missing black story not being told on British stages”. Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, said diversity should be about “everyday decisions not just special projects”. Skinder Hundal, Chief Executive of New Art Exchange, said “my entry point [into the arts] was as a volunteer” and talked about the importance of “refreshing and rethinking how the arts ecology works”. Maria Oshodi, Artistic Director and CEO of Extant, pointed out that “disability is non discriminating, affecting all classes and ages”. Finally Rufus Norris, Director Designate of the National Theatre, said “theatre is an opportunity to stand in other people’s shoes”.

The outgoing ACE Chief Executive, Alan Davey, closed the event by referring back to the McMaster report of 2008 which said that if you want good art you have to reflect the diversity of this nation. Alan’s message to his successor was that “diversity is one of your challenges in the next period”.

My impression of the ACE Creative Case for Diversity event was that it demonstrated how important diversity is to ACE’s agenda but I was disappointed ACE had not gone further. I was also frustrated, unsurprisingly, that amid the focus on diversity in relation to leadership, workforce, programming and audiences, there was no mention of participation. Surely developing the diversity of grassroots participation in creative cultural activity should form the base on which many other aspects of diversity could be built.

Robin Simpson.

What Next? – Local Government and Culture Working Together by Robin Simpson
December 5, 2014, 3:53 pm
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Later on Wednesday afternoon I was back at Somerset House in London for a meeting organised by What Next? about local government and culture working together. The discussion was very effectively chaired by John Newbiggin from Creative England. Jane Wilson (Chair of Arts Development UK), Sue Isherwood and I spoke at length about Our Cultural Commons. The meeting included representatives of the Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association (CLOA), the Core Cities Group, the New Local Government Network, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the Cultural Commissioning Project, the National Campaign for the Arts, the Creative Industries Federation and Arts Council England. We had a really good discussion, agreed absolutely not to formalise this into a new group or network but to keep in touch, cross-promote our work in relation to local authorities and work jointly towards some kind of event at the main Local Government Association (LGA) conference next June.

Robin Simpson.

Peterborough Presents consortium meeting by Robin Simpson
December 5, 2014, 2:29 pm
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On Wednesday I was in Peterborough for a meeting of the Peterborough Presents Creative People and Places consortium. We were joined for the first time by Ferzana Kusair, our new Community Engagement Officer, who has now recruited the first Community Bridgebuilders from a range of diverse communities across Peterborough. Alice Johnson from Ignite reported on the recruitment of the first four trainee Young Producers who will be starting their placements with arts organisations shortly. We were also joined by Mark Prescott from Spark Culture who is producing a marketing and promotion plan for Peterborough Presents. Mark gave us a presentation on his progress to date and reported back from the national Creative People and Places marketing and audience development meeting. Finally we discussed the first round of our Development Fund. The deadline for applications is the end of this week and the panel will be meeting next week. It was great to see each of the strands of the Peterborough Presents programme beginning to get going at last.

Robin Simpson.