Cultural Playing Field

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement ‘Engage’ Conference 2017 by Robin Simpson
December 7, 2017, 5:15 pm
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On Thursday I was in Bristol for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s ‘Engage’ Conference. The theme of the conference was ‘Exploring Collaboration’ and delegates included representatives of community organisations, universities, charities, policy makers and funders from all around the world. Professor Eleonora Belfiore from Loughborough University and I led a workshop on ‘Collaboration and policy-sensitive research’, drawing on our experience of the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. We discussed the challenges of trying to effect policy change through collaborative research. I highlighted three risks: that the community partners just want the research to justify what they already think they know; that the academic research partners end up merely presenting back to the community partners the information they provided; and that, even if the research goes well, the final glossy report and its recommendations lie forgotten in a drawer a few months later without having achieved any policy change. We had a lively and thoughtful debate with our workshop participants which surfaced many examples of both good and bad practice in relation to policy-sensitive research.

Robin Simpson.


Our Cultural Commons roundtable, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
March 6, 2015, 3:34 pm
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On Friday I was at the beautiful setting of the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for the second of the Our Cultural Commons high-level national policy roundtables. This event was co-hosted for us by Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales and included representatives of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Literature Wales, Creu Cymru, Cadw (Welsh Government’s historic environment service), National Theatre Wales, Wrexham Borough Council, Rhondda Cynon Taff Council, Disability Arts Cymru, the Adult Learning and the Culture Sector Consultancy and others.

Nick Capaldi opened the discussion by saying he thought Our Cultural Commons “a very interesting proposition in these very challenging times – what it is to sustain and promote local arts and creativity, continuing to make things happen despite difficult circumstances”. He asked what needs to happen to create the environment for this activity to take place. Nick pointed out that if “our cutural life, first and last, is local” this presents an interesting challenge to the Arts Council of Wales as a national organisation. He said “I can think of no better organisation than Voluntary Arts to be working with on this”.

Voluntary Arts Wales Chair, Hamish Fyfe, outlined the concept of Our Cultural Commons, saying “partnership is necessary for us to carry on doing what we do”.

Lee Corner, Convener of Our Cultural Commons, then chaired the debate. It was a fascinating discussion which looked at community asset transfer, volunteering, partnerships, networking, capacity building, sharing of control and power and much more.

John McGrath from National Theatre Wales spoke about three models – the participatory arts model, the amateur arts model and the voluntary sector training volunteers to fulfil roles. I emphasised the need to develop better connections between these three models – and the difficulty of doing so. I spoke about how Voluntary Arts supports the creative citizens who run voluntary arts groups and the work we are doing (through the Putting Down Roots project funded by the Arts Council of Wales and our Spirit of 2012 project) to connect professionally-led participatory arts initiatives to local amateur arts groups, and our work (also through the Spirit of 2012 project) to connect amateur arts groups to Volunteer Centres.

In summing up the discussion I asked: 1. if everyone agrees that we need the kind of collaborative approach suggested by Our Cultural Commons, why are not doing more of this already?; 2. how do we gather together a broader range of cultural partners, beyond the people we already know?; 3. is the need to sustain and develop the local cultural infrastructure a sufficient incentive to bring people together or do we also need to look at collaborating on cultural activity?

I urged everyone to continue the conversation, by signing up to the Our Cultural Commons newsletter, joining the growing set of partner organisations listed on the Our Cultural Commons website and writing provocations or think-pieces about Our Cultural Commons for the website. Further roundtables are planned in Belfast, Dublin and London over the coming weeks. More details at:

Ed Miliband by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:36 pm
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Ed Miliband speaking about the arts and culture at Battersea Arts Centre
Ed Miliband speaking about the arts and culture at Battersea Arts Centre

On Monday evening I was at Battersea Arts Centre in South London to hear a speech about arts, culture and creativity by the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband MP. This event was organised by the new Creative Industries Federation and the Federation’s Director, John Kampfner, introduced Ed Miliband, saying “[The arts] is our superpower. We need to nurture it through innovation, entrepreneurialism and joined up working. We need to do far better, as the Warwick Commission reported, in making the arts accessible to all and yes, we need a body politic that is proud to invest in what makes this country great.”

Ed Miliband started by saying: “I care about you and your success because I think the arts, culture and creativity define who we are as a nation, because you make an incredible contribution to our economic success and because I think government policy has to make a difference and help you succeed as an industry and a sector. And I’m conscious that by making a speech [about the arts] I’m venturing into relatively uncharted, not to say risky, territory.”

He said all of us will have our first memories of what moved us as children. Publicly funded art and culture is vital to our dynamism. Access to the arts and culture is not an optional extra, it is essential. He thought the findings of the Warwick Commission should worry us all.

Ed Miliband outlined three parts to Labour’s plan in relation to the arts and culture: increasing creativity in schools; improving access to culture; and encouraging people to work in the arts and creative industries. While it was wonderful to hear a party leader speaking so enthusiastically about the arts so close to a general election, I was disappointed that he did not say anything about the importance of participation in creative cultural activities – particularly as this was such a significant theme of the Warwick Commission report.

Ed Miliband said “I come with an offer, a different offer to put policy for the arts, culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour Government mission. Of course we should keep the Department of Culture: it says something about our country that that should even be a question. But I want to go further. I don’t believe culture belongs just to one Department, because what you do matters across our whole society and we can only achieve the vision of a society that I believe in, based on equality and social justice, if we recognise the value of the arts and culture across every part of Government.”

He said he would make a permanent change to how the arts and culture are represented in Westminster, creating a Prime Minister’s Committee. There would be a focus on equality of access across the country and further devolution of resources. He spoke about the significance of the 50th anniversary of Jennie Lee’s 1965 White Paper on Wednesday and said “tonight I rededicate myself to making that mission our own” and we should “hold my feet to the fire over this”.

Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband

Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband

In the questions that followed the speech, Stella Duffy, Co-Director of Fun Palaces, asked Ed Miliband: “If we only look at funnelling people into education, into buildings and into institutions, we are forgetting those people in community who need our support around the arts and culture too.”

Ed Miliband replied: “Stella, where does that take you to in particular?” and Stella responded: “It takes us to Voluntary Arts, it takes us to 64 Million Artists, it takes us to Fun Palaces, it takes us to the Cultural Learning Alliance. There are hundreds of organisations, many of us quite small, quite new, who are looking at the arts in a completely different way. We are saying there are millions of people in the country who are scared to go into the buildings, even in the very beginning. They haven’t had it in schools for the past 5 years, they haven’t had what Jennie Lee promised, and what we are saying is we need to be asking those people in their communities. Stop flying in experts and as the community what they want.”

Ed Miliband said “I think it’s important what you’re saying but isn’t the key to this (and there are a lot of people in the room who would know more about this than me) what we said about education. The reason I talked a lot about education is it is so crucial, because if you don’t necessarily have it in your family background where else are you going to discover culture creativity and the arts?”

Stella replied: “Totally – I am that girl. I didn’t have it in my family either. But it’s also in community. Unfortunately we have an attitude of behaving as if the arts only belong in big buildings at the moment, and there are hundreds of thousands of arts centres that also need our support just now.”

Ed didn’t seem to fully understand the point Stella was making and spoke again about the importance of cultural education in schools.

David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, summing up at the end of the evening, said: “Last Thursday the BBC and What Next launched the Get Creative campaign across the country, and to Stella’s point about how more people become involved in art and culture, if everyone in this room can go out and get involved in that Get Creative campaign, with your organization, your resources, that would be terrific.”

Robin Simpson.

Launch of the report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value by Robin Simpson
February 20, 2015, 2:08 pm
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On Tuesday evening Peter and I were at The Shard in London for the launch of ‘Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth – The 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value’. The Warwick Commission report covers a wide range of issues. Its five chapters focus on the cultural ‘ecosystem’, diversity & participation, education & skills development, digital culture, and ‘making the local matter’. Active participation in creative cultural activity features prominently. In her Foreword, the Chairman of the Commission, Vikki Heywood, says “The key message from this report is that the government and the Cultural and Creative Industries need to take a united and coherent approach that guarantees equal access for everyone to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life.”

The report goes on to say:

Traditionally, concerns over broadening participation have concentrated on tackling the social stratification of cultural and creative consumption with varying degrees of success. However, the Commission is keen to emphasise that equal attention needs to be placed on the making of culture and creative expression, whether in the context of the Cultural and Creative Industries or as amateur activity.” [3.1, p.32]

The value of everyday cultural activities needs to be more fully acknowledged and supported. The amateur and voluntary sector may be of pivotal importance in spearheading a creative participation revolution.” [3.2.4, p.37]

Voluntary Arts, 64 Million Artists and Fun Palaces published a joint response to the Warwick Commission report on Tuesday which says we “believe that the time has come to urgently reframe the discussion about the arts, artists and the role of culture in society. We have come together from our core commitment to participation and radical excellence in arts and culture – and a passion for everyone to have ‘the opportunity to live a creative life’.” You can read our joint response in full at:

To accompany this joint response we ran a social media campaign using the hashtag #EveryoneCreative, as part of which Tony produced this excellent video:

The Warwick Commission report also included a formal endorsement of the Our Cultural Commons initiative:

In this context of flourishing voluntary arts, the Commission welcomes the launch of ‘Our Cultural Commons’ – an important joint initiative by Voluntary Arts and Arts Development, which will explore new ways to sustain and develop the diverse creative lives of our communities. By gathering evidence of existing local collaborative practice and offering a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure, the two organisations hope to support and develop the ‘cultural commons’ in local communities.” [3.2.3, p.36]

The Warwick Commission Chairman, Vikki Heywood, also gave me her personal endorsement of Our Cultural Commons:

I wholeheartedly welcome this important initiative that seeks to strengthen and support amateur participation in the arts at local level. Arts and cultural experiences play a vital role in shaping our communities and it is essential at a time of cuts in local government funding that the cultural sector comes together to find creative ways of sustaining and developing local cultural infrastructures. Our Cultural Commons offers a real opportunity to build upon the wealth of cultural activity across the country and develop a national policy approach to local arts participation.”

The Warwick Commission report also endorsed our Culture Guides programme, saying:

The most effective way to encourage participation among people who do not currently take part in any cultural activity is through their peers: seeing people who live next to them, or work with them doing something creative is a powerful stimulation to trying something new. Opportunities to make amateur participation more visible should be encouraged by cultural organisations, working in partnership with local government and civic organisations, and the Commission welcomes the EU-funded ‘Culture Guide’ scheme currently being piloted in four regions across the UK.” [3.3.4, p.39]

You can read the full Warwick Commission report at:

Robin Simpson.

Arts Council England State of the Arts debate by Robin Simpson
November 21, 2014, 4:05 pm
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On Tuesday evening I was at the Southbank Centre in London for the Arts Council England ‘State of the Arts’ debate. This event was used to launch ACE’s new publication: ‘Create: A journal of perspectives on the value of art and culture’ – see:

The State of the Arts debate consisted of two panel discussions, very effectively chaired by Victoria Derbyshire from BBC Radio Five Live. The first discussion looked at ‘Culture and the city: what is the role of arts and culture in the growth of our major metropolitan centres?’ The panel consisted of Doreen Stephenson (the Leader of East Lindsey District Council), Lord Adonis, the journalist Simon Jenkins (who is Chair of the National Trust) and Lord Heseltine. Michael Heseltine suggested that the process of human ingenuity and creativity is unstoppable and called it “a spontaneous eruption of natural human instinct”. The discussion soon became focussed on the ‘rebalancing’ issue (raised through the reports of GPS Culture) with Simon Jenkins saying that, when it comes to how we subsidise the arts “London just eats it”. He went on to suggest that “the real trouble is at local government level where it really has been quite savage. And if you want to know my view about London funding there ought to be a massive cross-subsidy from London to the provinces. London can look after itself, more or less.”

The second panel discussion was on ‘Education: how can every child benefit from arts and culture?’. The panel comprised the Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan, Dave Moutrey (Director and Chief Executive of Home, the new arts centre in Manchester), Professor John Coyne (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby) and the scientist and novelist, Professor Sunetra Gupta. On the education system, Sunetra Gupta said “the main return we want from our investment is creativity” and Dave Moutrey spoke about the importance of “learning the joy of reading, not just learning reading”. Kevin Brennan felt that “education should be about producing a well rounded individual” and John Coyne worried that he was from the generation that was “educated” whereas his daughters were “assessed”. I liked Suneptra Gupta’s plea for a “system in which you can study things you’re not good at” and Dave Moutrey agreed that “education shouldn’t just be about passing exams.” This discussion became dominated by the recent warning from the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, that studying arts subjects could hold young people back in the job market. John Coyne very politely suggested that the Minister “was well-meaning misunderstood and badly briefed”. Kevin Brennan simply pointed out that, in educational terms, “politicians are a mixed ability group”.

Robin Simpson.

Art-Age Conference, Utrecht by Robin Simpson
April 11, 2014, 1:07 pm
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From Sunday to Wednesday I was in Utrecht in the Netherlands for the Art-Age Conference. Art-Age is our European Union Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Programme partnership project looking at arts-based learning and active ageing. The partnership includes six organisations from five countries (Denmark, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden and Slovenia), including national amateur arts representative organisations, alongside others providing expertise in the field of learning and culture in a civil society context.

Delegates at the Art-Age Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands

Delegates at the Art-Age Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands

This week’s conference was the culmination of the two-year project and brought together around 45 delegates, including groups of older arts participants from each of the five countries. The UK representatives were members of the 3rd Thought Arts Collective from London (who have been working with Maxine Webster and Peter Avery at 1st Framework). They performed an interactive theatre piece during the conference and have now been invited to perform it at the Löftdalens Folk High School in Sweden.

Professor Evert Bisschop Boele speaking at the Art-Age Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands

Professor Evert Bisschop Boele speaking at the Art-Age Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands

The conference included fascinating keynote speeches from two Dutch academics. Professor Jeroen Lutters, spoke about ‘The essence of civilisation: on the value of aesthetic learning by arts participation’ and Professor Evert Bisschop Boele gave a presentation titled ‘Learning by elderly people: a contextual and biographical view on how elderly people learn in music and its consequences for arts participation’. But the most interesting parts of the conference were the group discussions which brought together elderly people from across Europe to look at why they take part in creative cultural activity, what learning results from their participation and how we might make a better case for support of arts-based learning for older people. These discussions were dynamic, thought-provoking and extremely enjoyable.

Breakout group discussion at the Art-Age Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands

Breakout group discussion at the Art-Age Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands

The conference was very well organised by our Dutch colleagues at Landelijk Kennisinstituut Cultuureducatie en Amateurkunst (LKCA) and I think it was a very succesful conclusion to the Art-Age project.

Landelijk Kennisinstituut Cultuureducatie en Amateurkunst (LKCA), Utrecht, Netherlands

Landelijk Kennisinstituut Cultuureducatie en Amateurkunst (LKCA), Utrecht, Netherlands

Robin Simpson.

Early Arts by Robin Simpson
January 17, 2014, 12:05 pm
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On Thursday afternoon I met Ruth Churchill Dower and Michelle Render from Early Arts, in Huddersfield. Early Arts is the national network for early childhood educators who believe in nurturing their children’s creative potential. Early Arts produces creative teaching materials which are directly relevant to the ways in which young children learn. We had a wide-ranging conversation, comparing notes on our attempts to generate income from information resources, considering the potential for local voluntary arts groups to support arts activity in nurseries and discussing the new Voluntary Arts Strategic Plan. We agreed to explore a number of ways in which our two organisations might be able to support each other’s work.

Robin Simpson.

Discussing Arts Award by Robin Simpson
January 17, 2014, 11:54 am
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On Monday I had a telephone meeting with Anna Jones, Arts and Cultural Officer, Arts Programmes, at Trinity College London, to talk about Arts Award. Arts Award supports children and young people to develop their creative and leadership skills through a series of unique qualifications (see: We discussed the potential for voluntary arts groups to become Arts Award Supporters and agreed to look at creating a Voluntary Arts Briefing about Arts Award.

Robin Simpson.

Art-Age meeting in Cardiff by Robin Simpson
December 3, 2013, 4:22 pm
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I was in Cardiff on Monday and Tuesday for the latest meeting of partners in our Art-Age European project. Art-Age aims to provide and put into practice new methods and approaches to document, validate and profile the qualities and outcome of amateur and voluntary culture for active ageing. It is funded by the EU Lifelong Learning Programme’s Grundtvig Learning Partnership – a framework for practical co-operation activities between organisations working in the field of adult learning in the broadest sense – formal, non-formal or informal. The Grundtvig Learning Partnership aims to broaden the participation of smaller organisations wishing to include European cooperation in their education activities. Art-Age involves six partner organisations from five European countries (Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the UK). Since the last partners’ meeting each organisation has been consulting groups of older people about their experiences of learning through arts participation. In the UK Voluntary Arts enlisted the help of Maxine Webster of First Framework in order to work with the Third Thought drama and arts collective. Daniel did a wonderful job of organising the Cardiff meeting which took place at Craft in the Bay, opposite the Wales Millennium Centre. On Monday we had a presentation from Emma Robinson from Age Cmyru about the Gwanwyn Festival – a month long national festival held across Wales in May celebrating creativity in older age. Gwanwyn involves about 9,000 participants a year, see: On Monday evening we gave our European colleagues the experience of a traditional Welsh Christmas dinner. For most people the highlight of our two day meeting was us happening upon a carol service in Llandaff Cathedral – a spectacular setting in which the Cathedral Choir sounded splendid. The Art-Age project will conclude with a conference in Utrecht in April 2014. For more details of the Art-Age project, see:

Robin Simpson.

What Next? Conference 2013 by Robin Simpson
May 3, 2013, 1:25 pm
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I was in London on Monday to take part in the What Next? conference. What Next? is “a national conversation on new ways to champion the arts and culture”. It started in 2001 as a weekly one-hour meeting of the leaders of arts organisations who felt there was a need to make a stronger case for the arts and culture. David Lan from the Young Vic, who chairs the weekly meetings, explained at the conference on Monday that “What Next? has no structure, nor do we want it to. It’s an experiment. Someone called it a movement. It seems to respond to what people bring to it. Together we’ve found a style of meeting that creates a kind of ethos that takes us forward. What Next? barely exists and it has no point of view – we all speak for ourselves.”

The audience at What Next? 2013

The audience at What Next? 2013

Monday’s conference attracted 650 delegates from a wide range of cultural organisations. The first half of the day saw 20 roundtable meetings following the What Next? format taking place in venues across central London. Each of these meetings featured a guest speaker and the range of guests emphasised the pulling power that What Next? has developed as they included: James Purnell, Shami Chakrabarti, Peter Bazalgette, Ed Vaizey, Baroness McIntosh, Baroness Bakewell and Dan Jarvis. I attended the meeting at King’s College, chaired by Deborah Bull from the King’s Cultural Institute. Our guest speaker was Sue Hoyle, Director of the Clore Leadership Programme, which led to an interesting discussion about links between the arts and culture and higher education.

In the afternoon, all 650 delegates assembled at the Palace Theatre for a series of short presentations followed by an extended question and answer session. My presentation about the need to consider the full cultural ecology – including the amateur and commercial as well as the subsidised – seemed to go down well and there was an encouraging response on Twitter (#WN2013). You can watch the afternoon sessions at: (I’m in the ‘First half’).

The conference finished with a series of suggested ‘actions’ around three themes – MPs, unlikely alliances and engaging with our audiences. You can find the full list of actions, and much more about What Next? and the conference at

The panel at the What Next? 2013 conference

The panel at the What Next? 2013 conference

The What Next? conference was a fascinating occasion. The scale of the event and the range of people in the room was incredibly impressive. There was much enthusiasm, determination and the sense of the beginnings of a real movement. I was particularly pleased with the openness I found to the need to involve the voluntary and amateur arts. At the same time, much of the debate felt quite basic and for many people there was a sense that we have been here before, or that the suggested actions were all things that we are already doing. It was also a very England-centric conversation. Nevertheless I was pleased to be part of the What Next? conference and I am looking forward to seeing what happens next …


There were some interesting responses to the conference on the Arts Professional website, see:

And there is a very good piece by Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian (‘We know spending on the arts makes big money for Britain. So why cut it?’) – see: – good to see her referring to “10 million people are involved in voluntary arts groups”.

Robin Simpson.