Cultural Playing Field


What Works Centre for Wellbeing panel meeting by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:38 pm
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On Wednesday I was in London to take part in the What Works Centre for Wellbeing panel meeting. We assessed applications made by research teams from across the country to run the four evidence programmes that will form the bulk of the work of the new What Works Centre. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing will be one of a number of What Works Centres which have been established to synthesise evidence to improve public and policy decisions. The Wellbeing Centre will build on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) national measurement programme. The Centre has initial funding of £4.3 million over three years. The Centre will comprise a central hub and four evidence synthesis programmes. The primary customers for the outputs of the Centre will be service commissioners, decision makers, practitioners and policymakers working both locally and nationally using evidence to ensure the best results for their localities. The four evidence programmes will look at wellbeing in relation to: work & learning; culture & sport; community; and cross-cutting themes. I was asked to assess applications for both the culture & sport and the community programmes. On Wednesday we agreed which applicants will now be called to interview. It was a really interesting day and it was great to have the chance to make the point that the Centre should be looking at wellbeing in relation to grassroots participation in creative, cultural activities.

Robin Simpson.



Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
January 9, 2015, 1:59 pm
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On Thursday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme Advisory Group. We heard from Bryony Enright and Keri Facer who have been developing, over the past twelve months, a narrative and evidence base about the Connected Communities programme’s impact. Connected Communities has, to date, funded 300 projects, involving 900 partnerships and encouraging substantial number of academics and universities to undertake collaborative research with communities. Bryony said that the community organisations involved in the Connected Communities research projects had reported a range of benefits, including new relationships, increased credibility, greater recognition for existing work, ownership and control of research projects, access to networks, opportunities for personal development, opportunities for reflection and creating new communities.

We then had presentations from two Connected Communities projects. Professor Ian Hargreaves (Professor of Digital Economy at the University of Cardiff – and a former editor of The Independent and the New Statesman) described the Creative Citizens project which addressed the question: “How does creative citizenship generate value for communities within a changing media landscape and how can pursuit of value be intensified, propagated and sustained?”. The project looked at three particular areas of practice: community journalism (‘hyperlocal’ news media); community-led design; and creative networks. Ian said “the activities of creative citizens have considerable and growing value – statisticians and politicians please note” and he stressed the importance of developing “a civic life that is more magical and wonderful to be a part of”. See: http://creativecitizens.co.uk/

We also heard from Dr Gill Windle of Bangor University about the Dementia and Imagination project. This project explored how the vision for dementia supportive communities might benefit from creative activities (particularly socially engaged visual arts practice). The project created a handbook (“interaction: engagement”) on the use of visual art with people with dementia and a legacy of professional development and increasing expertise in dementia for a range of artists and community arts organisations. See: http://dementiaandimagination.org.uk/

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Evolve 2014 by Robin Simpson
June 19, 2014, 5:44 pm
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NCVO Evolve 2014 conference at The Brewery, London

NCVO Evolve 2014 conference at The Brewery, London

On Monday I was at The Brewery in London to attend Evolve 2014 – the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). The NCVO conference is always a great event, attracting more than 400 delegates and providing a chance to hear some high-profile speakers, explore some key issues and take part in valuable networking.

Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The first keynote speaker this year was Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He spoke about “a crisis of confidence in our politics” and said people felt a sense of powerlessness, with decisions being taken too far away from them. He criticised Russell Brand for suggesting that voting is a waste of time and said we should be encouraging the next generation to get involved. Hilary Benn confirmed that a Labour Government would repeal the Lobbying Act, saying “in a democracy you should be free to speak out”. He also stressed that we should be devolving power down in England, as has already happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Shadow Secretary of State said “You [the voluntary sector] are the embodiment of a contributory society”. He described plans for a task force to look at the devolution of power and funding and spoke about creating new city regions and county regions, from the bottom up – “we need to build up places as well as London”. Hilary Benn said that passing power down is essential in order to be able to address the greatest challenge of our age – dealing with an ageing population.

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

The second keynote speech was by Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund (BLF). She explained that BLF was consulting on the new strategy it plans to launch next year and asked “what is the point of charity in the 21st century?”. She talked about her work with Mission Models Money, which had shown that arts organisations had become so preoccupied with money that their models had changed to align with the conditions of Arts Council funding, drifting away from their original mission. Dawn asked whether the BLF was here to set the agenda or to support the status quo. “Do we alleviate disadvantage or address the causes of disadvantage?” She said funding is an ecology and “we want to celebrate and nurture biodiversity”. It is important to look at what each funder adds to the equation. The BLF mission is to support communities and those most in need. Its scale, scope and reach – covering the whole of the UK, with a wide range of grants from tiny to huge amounts – enables it to reach the places other funders can’t reach. Dawn Austwick outlined four key areas for BLF: its management of knowledge, data and information; its access to decision makers, policymakers, as a conduit for other people’s expertise; its partnerships, using its funding to unlock other people’s funding; and how its responsive, demand-led, grant-making, gives BLF legitimacy and pays back into communities the money those communities have spent on Lottery tickets. She finished by saying “we need to be learning, enquiring and curious – marrying what we uniquely do with what you uniquely do”.

Dawn Austwick, Hilary Benn and Martyn Lewis

Dawn Austwick, Hilary Benn and Martyn Lewis

The first workshop session at the NCVO conference was interrupted by a fire alarm with the whole conference centre being evacuated while three fire engines dealt with a fire in the kitchens. Fortunately no-one was hurt and we were able to resume the conference after a long wait on the pavement outside The Brewery.

In the afternoon I attended a workshop on ‘campaigning, media and social action’ which included presentations from Emily Roberts, Project Manager for The Big Lunch, Diane Reid, Head of BBC Outreach and Corporate Responsibility and David Cohen, Campaigns Editor at the London Evening Standard. It was a very interesting exploration of the role the media can play in charity campaigning. At the end of the session I managed to speak to Diane Reid about our Up for Arts partnerships with BBC local radio stations and the potential for developing the model further.

Alex Whinnom, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Alex Whinnom, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

In the final plenary session of the conference Alex Whinnom, the Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) gave a very impressive presentation which focussed on the imbalance between London and the regions and called for devolution within England and the ability to take decisions locally. He said “devolution isn’t a zero sum game, it’s a win-win”.

There was then a very interesting debate about how charities can manage their reputation in an era of scrutiny. Bobby Duffy, the Managing Director of Ipsos MORI reported that, contrary to perceptions within the voluntary sector, the public’s trust of charities is increasing. Only three professions have declined in terms of public trust in recent years – the clergy, newsreaders and pollsters. Donald Steel, a Reputation and Crisis Consultant said that charities can prevent reputational crises in the way they run themselves and that reputation lies with leaders. Dr Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent agreed there was no real evidence of a crisis of reputation in the voluntary sector. She said most charities have powerful underlying themes that make them resilient. Founding stories give charities a strong original reputation that can see off subsequent attacks. Finally the Chief Executive of NCVO, Sir Stuart Etherington, said that it was important for charities not to react to reputational attackes in a way that amplifies the issues.

Robin Simpson.



Connected Communities Strategic Advisory Group by Robin Simpson
June 11, 2013, 2:10 pm
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I was at the British Academy in London on Monday to take part in the first meeting of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s new Connected Communities Strategic Advisory Group. The Connected Communities programme started in 2009 and has now funded more than 250 projects. It is a cross-council programme, channelling funds from all the UK Research Councils. Over 400 different project partners have been named in applications to date. The Strategic Advisory Group comprises a mixture of academics, voluntary and community sector organisations, civil servants (from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Government Communities First programme) and commercial partners including BT. On Monday we discussed plans for an international Connected Communities conference in 2014 and a research development workshop towards the end of 2013. See: www.connected-communities.org

Robin Simpson.



Bandstand Marathon 2013 by Robin Simpson
July 6, 2012, 9:55 am
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On Tuesday I was in London to meet Nick Smith and Katherine Lane from Superact – the organisers of Bandstand Marathon. Bandstand Marathon – hundreds of simultaneous performances on bandstands across the country on a designated day each year – has become a very successful annual event over the past four years. This year, on 9 September, Bandstand Marathon will be the final event of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. On Tuesday I met Nick and Katherine, with Robin Osterley and Evan Dawson from Making Music, to discuss plans for Bandstand Marathon 2013. We talked about expanding the range of groups involved to encompass the other performing arts, visual arts and crafts as well as music. We also discussed a potential project to establish new community choirs around the country with the target of performing as part of Bandstand Marathon. And we looked at the possibility of moving the date of Bandstand Marathon to coincide with Voluntary Arts Week in May 2013. After much discussion we agreed that trying to bundle Bandstand Marathon and a number of possible connected projects together with Voluntary Arts Week might prove too complicated a concept to market effectively. We also felt that Bandstand Marathon would be better suited to a date in July at the end of the school year. We did, however, agree that we would work together to develop several initiatives to increase arts participation which could be launched during Voluntary Arts Week in May and then work towards final performances as part of Bandstand Marathon in July. We also agreed to cross-promote Voluntary Arts Week and Bandstand Marathon.

Robin Simpson.



Community sector lunch by Robin Simpson
November 25, 2011, 9:58 am
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I was back in London on Thursday for a working lunch organised by Community Matters and hosted by the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services. This informal gathering brought together more than a dozen national organisations representing community groups, many of whom used to be members of the Community Sector Coalition. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion on topics including a broader vision for community finance, opportunities for autonomous and self-directed social action and connection with young people. We agreed to continue to meet occasionally as an informal group rather than trying to create a new alliance or coalition.

Robin Simpson.



Growing the Grassroots by Robin Simpson
October 21, 2011, 8:01 am
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On Tuesday I was at Cecil Sharp House in London for our ‘Growing the Grassroots’ event. This was a seminar to launch the initial findings of our Connected Communities research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, which has been looking at ‘The Role of Grassroots Arts Activities in Communities’. This project is a collaboration between Voluntary Arts, the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, the University of Exeter and the University of Glamorgan. On Tuesday our initial findings were announced by Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The Minister started by saying:

“In 2008 my Department, along with the Arts Council, decided to commission research to gain a clearer understand of just what the scale of national voluntary and amateur arts activity truly was. The publication of that research – Our Creative Talent – gave an excellent insight into what was happening and where. In fact, it provided some pretty impressive stats in terms of just how many individuals were getting involved in voluntary arts. It revealed that there were more than 49,000 amateur arts groups in England with an estimated 5.9 million members.  Then, add to that the further 3.5 million people volunteering as extras or helpers. Which isn’t bad going for a sector that had sometimes struggled to be noticed in terms of its influence. So we know this is not about a few people dabbling here and there, but about a serious commitment by a considerable number of individuals. People who are involved in the voluntary arts come to it with a great deal of passion, with no financial reward … The result of all the enthusiasm and commitment people put into these groups is often really terrific work. So given that their efforts and achievements are not surrounded by the award brouhaha often associated with the professional arts, I was delighted to attend the first Voluntary Arts Epic Awards earlier in the year. Those Awards I felt, really provided an opportunity for hard working and dedicated people in the voluntary arts world to receive some well-deserved plaudits, and also to raise the profile of what they are doing.”

Ed Vaizey then read a summary of the initial findings of our research:

“1.    The voluntary arts impact on the individual, through such benefits as improved health and well-being, increased self-esteem and friendships.

2.    They impact on the wider community – helping to provide a collective identity, improving areas in which people live and aiding social cohesion.

3.    They impact on educational attainment, with some participants experiencing an increase in literacy, verbal, technical and communication skills.  Participation can also broaden people’s cultural horizons and encourage experimentation and innovation.

4.    They impact on the local and wider economy, for example through people coming to local areas to attend voluntary arts events and the purchase from local businesses of materials and equipment.

5.    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the amateur arts are about having fun. The study so far shows that many participants viewed their arts activity as much more than a hobby. Engagement gave them – or gives them – personal fulfilment. Amateur arts enables people to discover new sides to their personality, to be creative, take risks and try new mediums.”

The Minister’s speech was followed by a presentation about the resarch by Jenny Phillimore from the Third Sector Research Centre and Jane Milling from the University of Exeter. This set the scene for a series of detailed discussions as we used the day to explore the validity of our initial conclusions and to develop our thinking about how to collect evidence of the impact of grassroots arts activity. The event was attended by representatives of voluntary arts groups and umbrella bodies as well as the Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Carnegie UK Trust, Department for Communities and Local Government, Royal Shakespeare Company and a range of other policymakers, academics and funders.

We also enjoyed wonderful performances by the Cecil Sharp House Community Choir and Dance Around the World and heard about the amazing Quilts 4 London project. It was a great day and the research team went away with masses of notes to assimilate before we write our final report. Congratulations and many thanks to Lindsey and Daniel for a very well organised event. You can see photos from Growing the Grassroots at: http://www.flickr.com/search/groups/?q=growingthegrassroots&m=pool&w=1603395%40N23&z=t

Robin Simpson.