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:


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.

Talking about Our Cultural Commons at What Next? by Robin Simpson
January 16, 2015, 11:10 am
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On Wednesday I was in London for the What Next? meeting at the Young Vic where I gave a presentation about Our Cultural Commons. I explained the thinking behind the Our Cultural Commons initiative and described our plans to:

  • collect evidence of existing innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure and then promote best practice

  • provide a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure and organisation and the debate on the nature of the cultural commons that we aspire to in the future

  • empower and support the voice of those ‘local’ ambitions in debates on future national cultural policies, structures and funding.

I talked about the initial scoping research carried out for Our Cultural Commons by Sue Isherwood and outlined a couple of the examples of existing local collaborative practice that Sue had discovered. I spoke about our appointment of Lee Corner as the Convener for a series of Our Cultural Commons national policy roundtables and our experience of the first of these roundtables which took place in Edinburgh in December. I discussed the potential links between Our Cultural Commons and the forthcoming report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, the DCMS Select Committee report on the work of Arts Council England, the AHRC Cultural Value Project, the AHRC Connected Communities Understanding Everyday Participation research project and the BBC Get Creative campaign. I suggested that the next few months will provide a unique opportunity to make an argument about the real foundations of our cultural life, to move away from impossible arguments about maintaining public funding for the arts at a time when local authorities are struggling to maintain statutory services, and to push the importance of the whole cultural ecosystem.

I finished my presentation by quoting the think-piece Jane Wilson, Chair of Arts Development UK, wrote for the Our Cultural Commons website (at Jane said:

The relationship between (what we separate out as) ‘art’ and the process of collective cultural existence appears to have been with us for as long as we have been human, but this doesn’t mean that we can simply take it for granted. Effective societies allow the room for a diversity of cultural expression, and it hardly needs saying what the alternative can look like. Except, that here, we have tended to assume that allowing room for that diversity was simply about maintaining an effective distance between professional artists and the state, so that we avoid the cultural dictatorships that so marked the twentieth century. In that laudable goal we have underplayed the importance, (as the environment in which we operate becomes both more managed and more complex) of the state in making sure that the space for cultural expression is held open, not just for those activities which have an established and recognized identity as art-forms, nor for the most commercially effective, the former the remit of Arts Council England, the latter supported by market forces, but the space needed in every community for the ground in between, where the local is created and re-created year on year. Local authorities have historically managed this territory, on a discretionary basis, nurturing and supporting ‘grass roots’ cultural activity, but their role in this area is under serious threat. Often, local authorities are not the organisations directly delivering activity, and in the short term their departure from the field might not seem to matter too much, but over time it will mean that the space for local cultural expression becomes more fragile, unless we take seriously the responsibility for developing our cultural commons.”

I asked What Next? members to:

  1. sign up for the newsletter at

  2. circulate the Our Cultural Commons proposition:

  3. add their organisations to the list of Our Cutural Commons supporters

  4. ensure the issues raised by Our Cultural Commons are addressed in any debates they are organising, particularly as part of the BBC Get Creative campaign.

Robin Simpson.

Creative Industries Federation launch by Robin Simpson
November 28, 2014, 2:08 pm
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On Monday evening I was at the University of the Arts/Central St Martins in London to attend the launch of the Creative Industries Federation. The Federation was the idea of Sir John Sorrell who felt there was an urgent need for the UK’s creative community to speak with a strong, independent voice, bringing together the public arts, creative industries and cultural education. The Creative Industries Federation will be independent of government, representing all sectors, bridging public and private and spanning the whole UK.

Monday’s launch event impressively demonstrated the level of connections the Federation, and its Director John Kampfner, have achieved already. Among the 200 people at the reception I spotted Tony Hall, Sir Peter Bazalgette, Sir John Tusa. Sandy Nairne, Sir Nicholas Serota, Alan Yentob, Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Alan Davey and Will Gompertz. I understand the assembled audience also included Elisabeth Murdoch, Ray Davies, Tamara Rojo and Jane Bonham-Carter.

The initial presentation involved brief speeches from Josh Berger (UK Head of Warner Brothers), Sir Anish Kapoor, the film director Paul Greengrass, Martha Lane Fox, a young games developer from Portsmouth, Mitu Khandaker, and the head of a growing Manchester TV business, Cat Lewis.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne MP, giving the keynote speech at the launch of the Creative Industries Federation at the University of the Arts London

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne MP, giving the keynote speech at the launch of the Creative Industries Federation at the University of the Arts London

The keynote speech was then delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne was keen to emphasise that his interest in the creative industries was not simply because of its economic impact. He said “ultimately what you do is express who we are as a society and give voice to the people of this country … it’s a human endeavour worthy of support in its own right, regardless of its contribution to GDP”. The Chancellor finished by saying “the arts and creative industries needs a single voice and now it has one”.

Deborah Bull then chaired a panel discussion with representatives of the three main political parties. For Labour, the Shadow Culture Secretary, Harriet Harman, talked about the importance of “universality”, saying “arts and culture is not just for some”. She also questioned how Ofsted can say a school is outstanding if it doesn’t have an outstanding cultural offer. For the Liberal Democrats, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said “we should listen to this fantastic new organisation” and felt there is a need for much more focus on skills. Finally the Conservative Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, said the Creative Industries Federation “is a win win for everyone here”.

Ed Vaizey, Harriet, Harman, Danny Alexander and Deborah Bull at the launch of te Creative Industries Federation at the University of the Arts London

Ed Vaizey, Harriet, Harman, Danny Alexander and Deborah Bull at the launch of te Creative Industries Federation at the University of the Arts London

The Creative Industries Federation could become a significant new voice in lobbying Government. By involving the big commercial companies of the creative industries, its messages about the importance of arts and culture might gain much more prominence – Monday’s impressive event being a demonstration of this. But there must also be a danger of those powerful commercial voices drowning out smaller, less-resourced arts organisations. And while the Federation’s promise to “insist that anyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, has an equal opportunity to fulfil their creative potential” is very welcome, another of its promises “we will bring together the public and private halves of the creative sector” suggests that the third, voluntary, part of the cultural spectrum is not yet fully part of its thinking. In my initial discussions with John Kampfner in October, he was keen to include the voluntary arts in the Federation’s work but I there is clearly still some thinking to be done in this area.

Robin Simpson.

Arts Council England Rural Stakeholders Meeting by Robin Simpson
June 6, 2014, 3:18 pm
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On Thursday afternoon I was at Arts Council England in London for the ACE Rural Stakeholders meeting. This was the second gathering of cultural organisations with a particular interest in rural affairs. The main focus of this meeting was a presentation by Jonathon Blackburn from Arts Council England and Stephen Hall from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the ACE/DEFRA review of data and evidence relating to arts and culture and rural communities. A baseline exercise looking at available data and evidence has already begun, as has generic activity looking at issues relating to data and evidence relating to the economic impacts of arts and culture at a local level. The rural stakeholders group will receive another update on this work at our next meeting later this year. We also had a presentation from Rob Wells from DEFRA about European Union rural development funding.

Robin Simpson.

Understanding Everyday Participation by Robin Simpson
March 20, 2014, 6:16 pm
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On Tuesday I was in London for a meeting of the partners in the AHRC Connected Communities Everyday Participation research project. It was very interesting to hear from the researchers who have been conducting the project’s first door-to-door interviews, in Cheetham Hill, Manchester and Broughton in Salford. They have been asking people what they do in their leisure time and the excerpts from the interview transcripts we saw were fascinating. It’s chastening to remind ourselves how far away most people are from ‘the arts’ but it was very encouraging to see how the Voluntary Arts definition of ‘creative cultural activity’ is proving extremely relevant in this study of ‘everyday participation’. The project team have also been re-analysing data from the Taking Part survey to start to create a new segmentation based on statistical methods (hierarchical cluster analysis). This revealed some interesting and surprising patterns of cultural participation.

Robin Simpson.

Maria Miller on Cultural Value by Robin Simpson
January 24, 2014, 3:22 pm
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On Wednesday I was at the British Library in London to hear the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, deliver a speech about cultural value. Maria Miller asserted the value of culture, citing a range of examples in which culture moves and inspires us, provoking an emotional response. She quoted Steve Jobs who said “technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” The Secretary of State said culture weaves “a spell that lifts you way beyond the hum-drum of normal life” and suggested that we are increasingly defining ourselves by our cultural experiences and interests. She defended her 2013 speech at the British Museum in which she said she was wrongly thought to have said the only justification for supporting the arts is its value to the economy but stressed that this approach had achieved a good spending review settlement for DCMS. I managed to ask the Secretary of State to consider the importance, in articulating the value of culture, of better understanding the links and interdependencies between those aspects of culture that are publicly funded and the 10 million people who take regularly part in local voluntary creative cultural activity across the country. She replied with praise of for the involvement of such a wide variety of groups. She said the role of volunteering is important because it gives us ownership and “ultimately culture isn’t something that is presented by Government … it’s something that we all own. And I think that involvement of individuals is absolutely critical.” You can read maria miller’s full speech at:

Robin Simpson.

Arts Council England Rural Stakeholders meeting by Robin Simpson
November 28, 2013, 5:32 pm
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I was in London on Monday to take part in the Arts Council England Rural Stakeholders meeting. This was the first of what will be a regular series of gatherings of cultural organisations with a particular interest in rural matters. Those around the table on Monday included representatives of the National Rural Touring Forum, the Rural Cultural Forum, Action with Communities in Rural England and the Rural Services Network, as well as civil servants from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The general feeling was that, while arts activity in rural areas is strong, rural local authorities are particularly challenged at the moment and support from local authorities is incredibly variable. Public transport is a key issue in rural communities and hidden deprivation is a massive problem. We talked about the opportunities provided by local action groups (LAGs) and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and the growing importance of European funding. We discussed the rollout of rural broadband and the importance of volunteers in the rural cultural sector. We also talked about how Arts Council England should be working with the wider sector, not just its National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs).

Robin Simpson.

Testing Times – Fighting culture’s corner in an age of austerity by Robin Simpson
April 26, 2013, 1:16 pm
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On Wednesday morning I was at the British Museum in London to hear the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, speaking on ‘Testing Times – Fighting culture’s corner in an age of austerity’. The Secretary of State said “arts and culture underpin what it means to be British … culture is able to deliver things that few other sectors can … it cultivates the creativity that underpins the wider economy”. I was pleased to hear Maria Miller say that culture “develops a sense of community” and that “culture is an intricate web of activity”. She said “it is essential that the Government invests in culture and continues to do so despite these testing times”. She also stressed that the Government is committed to a mixed economy in the arts and that no-one considers philanthropy is a panacea. Her overall message was that “we should value the arts for their own sake and make the broader case”. She finished by saying “I’ll position the arts central to economic growth”. You can read the full text of Maria Miller’s speech at and a sceptical response from our old friend Catherine Rose at:

Robin Simpson.

What Next? by Robin Simpson
April 18, 2013, 3:30 pm
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On Wednesday morning I was at the Young Vic in London for the What Next? meeting. Following my presentation to a What Next? meeting in March I had been invited back (“by popular demand!”) for a longer conversation about the amateur arts. This week we discussed the need to look at the whole cultural ‘ecosystem’ – including the amateur arts and the commercial arts – in order to make a stronger and more coherent argument for the value of culture. We considered the idea of developing local What Next? groups around the country to bring together a wide range of arts and cultural organisations – including amateur groups – to develop the conversation further. It was interesting and encouraging to see some of the most prominent arts institutions, including the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, the Roundhouse and the Young Vic, talking about the importance of the amateur arts and their need to connect better with the amateur sector. I have now been invited to speak about this at the What Next? conference in London on 29 April.

Robin Simpson.