Cultural Playing Field


NCVO Annual Conference 2019 by Robin Simpson
April 5, 2019, 3:19 pm
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On Monday I was at The Brewery in London for the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

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Sir Stuart Etherington, who has been Chief Executive of NCVO for 25 years and retires later this year, gave his final State of the Sector address. Referring to the current political turmoil, Stuart said: “In the vacuum to come there will be plenty of people trying to mould things in their own interests. We must be the ones sticking up for the interests of others – those who cannot speak for themselves. Investing in social growth should go hand in hand with investing in economic growth: productivity is no good without community”.

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Giving the keynote presentation Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB’s new Chief Executive, urged us to make this “the century of the citizen: a more empowered, connected and equal world”. On Oxfam’s safeguarding failures in Haiti he said “just because we are working to do good doesn’t mean we are exempt from doing harm”. He talked about the role bigger charities such as Oxfam could play within the voluntary sector, to become “less of a super tanker, more of a dockyard”.

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The afternoon keynote was an inspirational presentation by Ruth Ibegbuna, Founder, RECLAIM and the Roots Programme. She spoke about establishing RECLAIM – a charity for “the grey kids in the middle”: working class young people being seen, being heard, leading change. Ruth also explained how she had developed the Roots Programme as her response to the divisions exposed by the EU referendum. Roots focusses on understanding our differences, enabling families from very different communities to spend time in each other’s homes. It’s a brilliant initiative – one of very few to be actually trying to address the underlying problems highlighted by Brexit. Ruth said “I’m a tired woman with MS in the North of England who’s trying to fix Brexit” – all power to her. See: https://rootsprogramme.org/

Robin Simpson.

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Continuity and change in an era of instability by Robin Simpson
February 15, 2019, 9:42 am
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BVSC Chief Executive, Brian Carr, opening the event

On Thursday I was at BVSC, The Centre for Voluntary Action, in Birmingham for an event organised by the Third Sector Research Centre and BVSC to mark the tenth anniversary of TSRC. ‘Continuity and change in an era of instability: developing a shared agenda for voluntary action research and practice’ brought together academics and voluntary sector leaders to look at the state of the third sector and the role research can play.

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Dan Corry

Dan Corry, Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, gave the keynote presentation, emphasising that a strong civil society is crucial to a successful society and a successful economy, not least in relation to generating social capital. He described civil society as what people in local communities choose to do and looked at where civil society is weak and what we can do about it. Looking at the research data he noted that more prosperous areas have a higher density of charities (though this only counts registered charities) and volunteering rates are higher in more prosperous areas. He talked about a growing spilt between professional charities and volunteer-led ones. Dan Corry finished by saying we need more academics looking at the voluntary sector – and this requires a dedicated funding stream. He said charities want easy access to longitudinal data and noted there is often an anti-academic bias in charities. A lot of what academics study is of no use to the average charity or funder, and they can’t get access to it. The What Works Centres play an important role in pulling together research and making it more accessible.

We then had a series of short ‘lightning talks’ by researchers Rob McMillan, John Mohan and Angela Ellis Paine from TSRC and James Rees, the Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the Open University. They looked at trends in the voluntary sector over recent years and the current challenges facing civil society.

In the afternoon I took part in a workshop looking at whether communities can make place-based change happen, led by Mandy Wilson and our old friend Angus McCabe from TSRC. We discussed hyper-local community action and I spoke about the work Voluntary Arts has been doing on Making Common Cause.

Robin Simpson.



Cultural Democracy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Robin Simpson
April 6, 2018, 3:08 pm
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On Thursday I was at the Martin Harris Centre at the University of Manchester to take part in ‘Cultural Democracy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ – a symposium organised by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty to mark the launch of their new book ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: the British Community Arts Movement’. Opening the symposium Alison Jeffers suggested that the term ‘cultural democracy’ “seems to be having a bit of a moment”. It is a term that seems to have come back into fashion.

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In the first panel session we looked at what we can learn from the histories of cultural democracy. Cathy Mackerras, Sophie Hope, Stephen Hadley and Owen Kelly reflected on UK culture policy’s close encounters with cultural democracy from the 1930s to the 1980s. There was much discussion of moving beyond deficit models of participation and the democratisation of culture toward a more direct engagement with cultural democracy. Owen Kelly talked about the development of the 1986 Community Arts Culture and Democracy Manifesto, noting that “we thought cultural democracy meant equal access to the means of cultural production” but that “the means of production turns out to mean the means of distribution”.

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The second panel session asked ‘What is the current state of cultural democracy and what are the possibilities for the future?’. Andrew Miles discussed some of the early findings of the Understanding Everyday Participation research project and asked “why are some activities valued a culture whilst others are not?” He suggested “there is no such thing as a cultural non user” and that “there is nothing special about the arts”, saying most participation is about the social aspect rather than the particular cultural activity. Andrew also noted that the Brexit vote demonstrates the clear ways that social and cultural divisions have re emerged. Nick Wilson and Jonathan Gross spoke about the Get Creative Research Project and their report ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’, explaining their evolving Human development and capabilities approach in which they use ‘cultural opportunities’ to mean “the freedom to give form and value to our experiences”. Finally Steve Vickers, Project Manager for The Agency – a leadership programme developed by Contact in Moston and Harpurhey in Manchester, gave some practical examples of working with cultural democracy.

It was a fascinating day which provided much food for thought and it was encouraging to see so many people engaging with the issue of participation and cultural democracy.

Robin Simpson.



Greater London Volunteering Charity Leadership Conference 2017 by Robin Simpson
November 10, 2017, 4:11 pm
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On Friday I was at City Hall in London for Greater London Volunteering’s annual Charity Leadership Conference. The conference was presented in partnership with Team London and supported by Reach. The main plenary session, in the GLA Council Chamber, included presentations by Ruth Lesirge, Chair of the Association of Chairs who spoke about Board functions and the duties of Trustees, and Rosie Chapman, Chair of the Charity Governance Code Steering Group, who outlined the new version of the Charity Governance Code that was published in July 2017. I then gave a presentation about Voluntary Arts’ experience of diversifying governance, including the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel and the Open Conversations report (https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/open-conversations) which led to us winning the Board Diversity and Inclusivity Award in the 2017 Charity Governance Awards.

Robin Simpson.



‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ launch at King’s College, London by Robin Simpson
October 13, 2017, 2:16 pm
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On Thursday I was at King’s College, London, for the launch of ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ – the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry Report. The report was published in July but a formal launch event wasn’t possible then, so soon after the snap General Election. So on Thursday, King’s College London who worked with the APPG on its two-year Inquiry hosted this event in which Deborah Bull compèred a panel discussion on the report and its recommendations.

Lord Howarth, Co-Chair of the APPG, spoke about the potential of the arts in health and social care. He explained that the inquiry had organised 16 roundtables involving more than 300 people, importantly including service users, and had produced 10 specific recommendations.

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, from King’s College, said it was clear that engagement with the arts, particularly through participation, helps people get well and stay well. She said the inquiry had extended its definition of arts to include everyday activity – the stuff that happens behind closed doors in people’s homes and in communities.

The report says:

“Millions of people in the UK engage with the arts as part of their everyday lives. As we demonstrate in this report, arts engagement has a beneficial effect upon health and wellbeing and therefore has a vital part to play in the public health arena.” …

“When we talk about the arts, we include the visual and performing arts, crafts, dance, film, literature, music and singing. To this list, we add gardening … and the equally absorbing culinary arts.” …

“In this report, then, ‘the arts’ is used as shorthand for everyday human creativity, rather than referring to a lofty activity which requires some sort of superior cultural intelligence to access.”

Lord Howarth pointed out that the report’s 10 recommendations are not all directed at government. What is actually needed is a culture change in the health establishment. Recommendation 1 calls for a new national strategic centre to be established “to support the advance of good practice, promote collaboration, coordinate and disseminate research and inform policy and delivery” – but this should not be created by government.

Former Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, Co-Chair of the APPG, said he had wanted to use the Government’s 2016 Culture White Paper to show the wide range of impacts the arts have but had faced a stunning lack of interest from Ministers in other Government departments. It was hard to get Ministers to engage beyond their silos.

Arts Council England Chief Executive, Darren Henley, said he was interested in seeing arts and health as more central to ACE’s new 10-year strategy but, for ACE, it has to be all about the arts: the Arts Council is about promoting excellence.

Interestingly, the APPG report says:

“On the one hand, it would be a disservice to participants to offer substandard arts activities under the banner of health and wellbeing, and the examples given in this report show high-quality work being undertaken in an avowedly inclusive way. On the other hand, in participatory arts activities with people who have not previously been encouraged to express their creativity, it is the quality of the activity, rather than the quality of output, that matters.”

Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said arts and health shouldn’t be a nice-to-have add-on: it should be mainstream.

You can download the APPG report from: http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/



‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ by Robin Simpson
June 22, 2017, 7:47 am
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At the end of 2014, at the weekly meetings I took part in to develop the Get Creative campaign with the BBC, Deborah Bull from King College, London, was adamant that we must build in a robust evaluation of the campaign from the start. Jointly funded by the BBC and the Cultural Institute at King’s College London, the Get Creative Research Project ran alongside the Get Creative campaign from its launch in February 2015. The research was led by Dr Nick Wilson from King’s College and had two overarching aims. Firstly, to provide a rigorous evaluation of the Get Creative campaign; and secondly, to investigate key questions raised by the campaign regarding the ‘landscape’ of arts practice and participation.

In May 2016 the Get Creative Research Project’s interim report, ‘Get Creative: Opening Our Eyes to Everyday Creativity’ celebrated the successes of the first year of the Get Creative campaign but also surfaced a number of underlying problems and issues and made a series of recommendations. This led directly to a clarification of the aims and objectives of Get Creative and the establishment of a Get Creative Steering Group with formal Terms of Reference.

This week the Get Creative Research Project published its final report, ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’, written by Nick Wilson, Jonathan Gross and Anna Bull. ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ uses the learning from the Get Creative campaign to call for a radical but pragmatic new approach to understanding and enabling cultural opportunity. It argues that cultural opportunities are comprised of a far broader range of freedoms than access to already existing publicly funded arts – the primary focus of current cultural policy. Everyone has cultural capability – by ensuring there are more cultural opportunities for people to realise their own creative potential it would be possible to move towards cultural democracy: “an achievable future in which the substantive freedom to co-create versions of culture is enjoyed by all”.

Towards Cultural Democracy’ makes 14 recommendations, starting with the suggestion that “Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone (cultural democracy) needs to be made an interlinked policy objective, across a range of national government departments and agencies” and including a recommendation to “Develop mutually beneficial relationships with local radio as a key channel for the promotion of everyday creativity” which specifically references Voluntary Arts’ Up for Arts projects.

On Wednesday afternoon I was at Somerset House in London for a workshop to explore the recommendations from ‘Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’. Discussing the background to the research, Jonathan Gross talked about the conclusions of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, which recommended celebrating everyday arts, and the critiques of the traditional ‘Deficit Model’ which had emerged from the Get Creative Research Project. He spoke about the rising interest in everyday creativity in recent years, indicated by the rise of Fun Palaces, 64 Million Artists, and Get Creative itself. Jonathan also referred to the increase in academic research in this area, citing studies including the Understanding Everyday Participation Research Project being led by the University of Manchester and Helen Nicholson’s research into amateur theatre.

Nick Wilson stressed that everyday creativity is not new but suggested that the ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ shows how we are now understanding the interconnections with the subsidised arts much better. He described the idea of thinking about cultural opportunities and cultural capabilities, rather than just mapping existing cultural assets and restricting debates to access to publicly funded arts. Nick called for reframing of decision-making across cultural policy to recognise the role played by creative citizens and pillar organisations.

Our workshop also included seven short presentations about how we enable cultural opportunities, featuring speakers including Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists, Kunle Olulode from Voice for Change and me.

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On Wednesday evening Damien and I attended the formal launch of ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ at King’s College, London. Inspirational speeches from Deborah Bull, Nick Wilson, Stella Duffy and Lizzie Crump emphasised the importance of the report and the momentum that appears to be gathering towards a significant shift in policy to recognise the importance of everyday creativity. The evening concluded with a cultural opportunity to allow us all to demonstrate our cultural capabilities as Alex and Flo – featured in the report as one of the portraits of people co-creating their own distinctive versions of culture – taught us all some the basics of ‘breaking’ (better known to the uninitiated as break-dancing). The sight of many of the most influential cultural leaders, activists and policy-makers spinning around on the floor of King’s College will live long in my memory!

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You can download the report ‘‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ from: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/Cultural/-/Projects/Towards-cultural-democracy.aspx

Robin Simpson.



Culture UK launch by Robin Simpson
April 4, 2017, 2:39 pm
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On Tuesday Damien and I were in the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House in London for the launch of Culture UK – a new partnership between the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland.

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BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, said the aim of Culture UK is “to excite the nation about the arts, opening up funding to a range of arts organisations to make content which can be shown on the BBC, developing UK-wide cultural festivals that can reach new audiences, creating opportunities to showcase emerging and diverse talent, and making the most of technology to inspire new experiences in the arts.”

Tony Hall said “culture makes us believe in the future”. He spoke about the importance of inspiring people about the arts, saying “there are communities we simply don’t engage with: that has to change”. Culture UK will have a development team from across the UK (modelled on that created for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) which will work towards three big landmark moments a year. Culture UK was launched with the announcement of 26 new commissions. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/culture-uk?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_press_office&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=corporate
Robin Simpson.