Cultural Playing Field


2017 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
March 24, 2017, 1:05 pm
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On Sunday I was at Sage Gateshead for the 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony, hosted by BBC Radio 3 as part of the Free Thinking Festival. The Voluntary Arts England team were supporting the Free Thinking Festival throughout the weekend, with local voluntary arts groups running a range of participatory activities in the foyer of the Sage, including calligraphy and lace-making. Centre of attention was our giant Paint by Numbers – a picture by the artist Geoff Tristram reflecting the Speed of Life (the theme of this year’s Free Thinking Festival) which drew a constant stream of participants painting the numbered sections to produce a stunning final image. Many thanks to Geoff, Laraine, Jennie and everyone who helped with our contribution to the Free Thinking Festival.

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On Sunday evening we held the Epic Awards Ceremony in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Representatives of the Epic Award winners and runners-up had travelled from across the UK and Ireland to receive their awards. The ceremony was compèred by the poet and BBC Radio 3 presenter, Ian McMillan. He was a brilliant host – funny, passionate and genuinely awestruck by the stories of the winning groups. The ceremony also featured performances by 2016 England Epic Award runners-up Harps North West and local Northumbrian pipers Robson Choice.

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All of this year’s Epic Award winners and runners-up were inspiring examples of the extraordinary achievements of local volunteer-led arts organisations. It was great to have the Patron of Voluntary Arts, our former Chair Peter Stark, present the new Epic Award for Celebrating Diversity to Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance for the Love is Louder project which worked with people from across Rotherham and engaged with over 75 different organisations to challenge intolerance and division through creativity. It was also wonderful to see the Peer Award for Excellence, which is voted for by all the groups shortlisted for Epic Awards, go to the RE-Tune Project from Glasgow – the brainchild of David McHarg, a social worker for almost 20 years who became disillusioned with the impact his profession was having and set up the project to help those suffering from mental health difficulties, experiencing isolation and loneliness – and in particular, ex-service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Run by volunteers, The RE-Tune Project offers people with mental health difficulties the chance to make, and then play, their own stringed instrument. For a third year running the winners of the Epic People’s Choice Award, which is voted for by the public via the Epic Awards website, appeared on the Breakfast programme on BBC1 the morning after our ceremony. This year’s winner, Roscommon Solstice Choir, is a 120-strong community choir which has raised hundreds of thousands of Euros for charities.

You can see full details of all the 2017 Epic Award winners at: https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/epic-awards-2017-winners-announced and you can get a flavour of the ceremony by watching this video filmed by the England Epic Award winners South Devon Players: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXNd8l49WTE

The 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony was a very special occasion and I think everyone present had an incredibly enjoyable and inspirational evening. Many thanks to all the Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members who helped with this year’s Epic Awards – but particular thanks to Laraine, Damien and Kelly for making the ceremony such a successful event.

Robin Simpson.

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Power Through Diversity by Robin Simpson
December 15, 2016, 11:52 am
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On Monday I was at Contact Theatre in Manchester for the Arts Council England event, ‘Power Through Diversity’. ACE Chief Executive, Darren Henley, delivered the opening keynote speech saying “we have to break down the barriers to participation” and “I want us to do more to address socio-economic disadvantage”. He emphasised the need to have a two way relationship with those who think the arts is not for them – an approach that doesn’t impose ideas of culture. Darren launched ACE’s annual report on the state of diversity across the arts and culture sector in England: ‘Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: 2012-15’. The report includes analysis of workforce, programming, participation and audiences and access to funding and examines the diversity of ACE’s own workforce. You can download the report from: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/equality-diversity-and-creative-case-2015-16. Darren finished by saying “diversity is an opportunity that all of us must embrace … diversity matters now more than ever”. You can read his full speech at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Darren_henley_speech_diversity_event_2016.pdf

David Bryan (Chair of the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel) then chaired a panel session which looked at a range of diversity issues. I loved the introduction provided by Contact Trustee, Reece Williams, who said the best way he could describe David Bryan was “I want to be him when I grow up”. David urged arts organisations to tackle diversity, saying “don’t get in a state of seizure and defer that moment of change”.

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In the afternoon, rather than the usual breakout discussions, Power Through Diversity featured a series of ‘TED-style talks’. These short, very personal, inventive and incredibly entertaining presentations were the highlight of the day. The presenters included: the artist, director and trans creative, Kate O’Donnell; the historian, broadcaster and film maker, David Olusoga; artist and theatre maker, Jackie Hagan; and writer/comedian Mawaan Rizwan. All the presentations are available to watch online at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/diversity/power-through-diversity



AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
November 18, 2016, 1:38 pm
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On Monday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group. The Arts & Humanities Research Council has now confirmed that the Connected Communities programme, which funds innovative collaborative research undertaken by partnerships involving academic institutions and community organisations, will continue until 2020. In Monday’s meeting we discussed the ‘Utopias’ programme of activities supported by Connected Communities to link to ‘Utopia 500’ – which commemorates five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (see: http://www.utopia500.net/). The Utopia Fair at Somerset House in June showcased the creative outcomes from 25 AHRC-funded projects. These projects brought together local community groups, researchers, activists and artists across the UK to explore how utopian ideals can be used to benefit the environmental and social future of our communities. Representatives from contemporary Utopian movements from all over the UK took up stands in Somerset House’ courtyard, celebrating the pockets of utopia that are flourishing around the country from Newcastle to Merthyr Tydfil, Sheffield to Scotland, Brighton to Doncaster plus a range of London sites. There is a video summary of the Utopia Fair at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2k8U_fYJGw. I was interested to learn about links developed by the Utopias programme to ‘Like Culture’ – a cultural network of European cities and regions: http://www.likeculture.eu/. In Monday’s meeting we also heard about ‘Common Cause’ – the new Connected Communities BAME project which aims to strengthen and extend the existing network of university and BAME community collaborators working in the arts and humanities. Common Cause is an 18 month project, supported by Arts Council England and the Runnymead Trust, and I was delighted to learn that Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel Chair, David Bryan, is now part of the team delivering the project for Connected Communities.

Robin Simpson.



Meeting the Crafts Council by Robin Simpson
February 6, 2015, 3:42 pm
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The Crafts Council, Islington, London

The Crafts Council, Islington, London

On Thursday I was at the Crafts Council in London to meet Rosy Greenlees and Annie Warburton. We had an extensive conversation about the current work of the Crafts Council and Voluntary Arts and identified several areas for potential collaboration. We talked in detail about Our Cultural Commons. We also discussed ‘Our Future is in the Making: An Education Manifesto for Craft and Making’, which was launched at the House of Commons in in November 2014, see: http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/education-manifesto/. I was particularly interested to hear about the work the Crafts Council has been doing with the Polish community in Liverpool as part of a research programme looking at diverse practices of making across England. We also spoke about the Craft Clubs, established by the Crafts Council in 2009 in partnership with United Kingdom Hand Knitting Association and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, see: http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/craft-club/. There are around 800 Crafts Clubs still going and we discussed how to ensure they are are all aware of the Voluntary Arts online information services.

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: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/08/arts-council-england-make-progress-diversity-funding-axed-bazalgette

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.



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.



Peterborough Connection Culture meeting by Robin Simpson
July 18, 2014, 3:23 pm
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On Monday I chaired a meeting of Connection Culture, the Peterborough Creative People and Places consortium, at the Key Theatre in Peterborough. Connection Culture is a three-year programme, funded by Arts Council England, to achieve a step-change in arts engagement in Peterborough. We plan to do this through three main strands of activity – focussing on young people, diverse communities and voluntary arts groups – linked by a ‘Chamber of Culture’ which will provide training, mentoring and networking to each of the three strands. On Monday we were joined by Jan Kofi-Tsekpo from Arts Council England. We updated Jan on our progress and discussed issues relating to the programme budget and risk assessment. We also talked about learning points from the recent national peer learning meeting of Creative People and Places consortia in Doncaster.

Robin Simpson.