Cultural Playing Field


NCVO Annual Conference 2016 by Robin Simpson
April 20, 2016, 4:19 pm
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Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO Chief Executive

On Monday Louise, Katy and I were among more than 600 delegates at The Brewery in London for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Annual Conference. NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington opened the conference with a ‘State of the Sector Address’ which acknowledged that these have not been easy times for voluntary organisations. Stuart said “too many people seem to have concluded that there is something wrong with charities” and “when we’ve been asked serious questions we haven’t always responded satisfactorily”. He suggested that public trust is the first, and major, challenge: our relationship with the public is by far the most important we have. While it would be too crude to talk about hostility to charities, the veil has slipped and there is an increasing willingness to ask questions. The genie is not going back in the bottle, nor should it: we cannot afford to be seen as less transparent than the public sector. Stuart emphasised the need for openness in relation to fundraising and executive pay. He said the “growing that notion that charities should be seen but not heard would be a huge waste of talent”. He is increasingly concerned about the anti advocacy clause in Government grant agreements, which he said is clearly a breach of the Voluntary Sector Compact. The best voluntary organisations combine the values of legitimacy and authenticity: charities are experts, anchored in their communities. Stuart finished by saying “we will emerge stronger”. He warned that Trustees need to think clearly about everything they are doing: “it makes money” is no longer a sufficient defence. If there are areas you are uncomfortable about, now is the time to do something about them.

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Lord O’Donnell

The second keynote presentation was by Lord O’Donnell who spoke about the positive effects of volunteering on wellbeing. The former Cabinet Secretary said local authorities are likely to see further reductions of around a quarter in this Parliament but austerity is causing more demand for charities. He outlined three steps to rebuild trust in charities:
1. we need to prove we are making the world a better place
2. we need to demonstrate how our funds are spent
3. we should try to put ourselves out of business – remove the problems rather than just solving them.
Gus O’Donnell spoke about the What Works Centre for Wellbeing – of which he was the first Chair – and the importance of articulating the wellbeing impact of charities. He said it is absolutely vital we measure wellbeing at a national level through the Office for National Statistics. He thought we should be measuring the wellbeing of children in schools. He said “these are tough times for many in our society and for many charities. We could reign in our ambitions and wait for better times but it would be disastrous. Focus on impact, be transparent, be proud and passionate about what you do, and put yourselves out of business.”

I attended two conference workshops: the first was a debate titled ‘In a fast changing world strategic plans are useless. Discuss.’ Girish Menon, Chief Executive of Actionaid UK and Srabani Sen, a senior consultant at NCVO, argued for and against the statement. This led to an interesting discussion which highlighted the value of having a clear strategy, the important role the process of developing a strategic plan can play and the danger that, without effective strategy organisations focus more on sustaining themselves rather than what they want to achieve.

The second workshop I attended was ‘Digital will transform your organisation – practical tips for leaders’. Julie Dodd, digital consultant and author of ‘The New Reality’ said digital technology affects everything. Organisations need to develop a culture of experimentation: test, make, learn. She spoke about the Open University which had found itself at a roadblock and created Future Learn, as a separate startup, which is now one of the most successful MOOC (massive open online course) platforms in the world. Helena Raven, Head of Digital at NSPCC, talked about three simple principles for digital leaders:
1. Design using data
2. Put the user first
3. Embrace agility
She said don’t confuse a lack of strategy for agility – being agile means being organised!

Robin Simpson.

 

 

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Exploring Everyday Creativity in Hull by Robin Simpson
January 29, 2016, 1:32 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was in Hull for the first in a series of meetings organised by 64 Million Artists to discuss the role professional arts organisations and artists should play in supporting everyday creativity. I joined representatives of arts organisations, the local authority and other agencies – including some of the team running Hull City of Culture 2017 – for a fascinating afternoon of discussions and breakout groups. David Micklem and Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists explained that Arts Council England was beginning to think about ‘everyday creativity’ and had approached 64 Million Artists to run this series of exploratory seminars. The report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, published in February 2015, had suggested that only 8% of the population regularly take advantage of publicly funded art and culture. David said Arts Council England had become more interested in the work being done by 64 Million Artists, Voluntary Arts, Fun Palaces and others. Previously, ACE had not been thinking about baking, gardening etc as culture. Jo started the seminar by asking us all to talk about the cultural activities we do outside work. This discussion of hobbies and other leisure-time activities was very effective in framing our thinking on ‘everyday creativity’. Interestingly the BBC Get Creative campaign and Our Cultural Commons arose naturally from the group discussions about everyday creativity. We talked a lot about the pros and cons of sharing, the importance of play, the need for more spaces for creativity, networks (online and offline), and the role of catalysts and champions (Creative Citizens). There was very clear agreement about the need to broaden our scope beyond ‘the arts’ to include cookery, gardening etc. It was a really interesting discussion and I’m looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this series of seminars.

Robin Simpson.



Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:42 am
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On Wednesday I was at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London for a meeting about the proposed Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Chief Executive, Andrew Barnett, spoke about the influence of the British Council trip to Brazil in 2010 that he and I took part in. He said our experiences in Brazil had inspired him to develop the participatory arts work the Gulbenkian Foundation is now doing – of which this inquiry is an extension. The proposed inquiry (which has still to be formally approved by the Gulbenkian Trustees) will look at “the way in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of the community”. It will be a two year programme with the intention of developing a strong and growing movement of arts organisations that embrace their civic role. Wednesday’s meeting – organised in partnership with What Next? – brought together around 40 people to discuss the premise for the inquiry. We had a fascinating afternoon of discussions about civic society, civil society, roles and responsibilities, inequality, community and cultural participation. The Gulbenkian Inquiry faces some difficult challenges to pull all this together but could be incredibly valuable.

Robin Simpson.



Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 11, 2015, 11:03 am
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On Wednesday I was at NCVO in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. We had a fascinating presentation from Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health at Oldham Council about the opportunities for health commissioning arising the Government’s programme of devolution to Greater Manchester. A Public Health memorandum of understanding has now been agreed. One of the five major transformational programmes of work, specified in the MoU is “nurturing a social movement for change – enabling people to make their own informed lifestyle choices”. Alan considered how a social movement for health could be encouraged, drawing on previous examples of social movements including the campaign to make Amsterdam the bicycle capital of the world, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the creation of the FC United of Manchester football club. We discussed the role arts and culture organisations might be able to play in this development but also the role that arts and culture might play in the everyday lives of people in Greater Manchester as part of healthier lifestyles. It was a really interesting discussion which highlighted the extent to which the Cultural Commissioning Programme has moved from being simply about helping arts organisations to access funding from public sector commissioning and is increasingly looking at the role of arts and culture in the outcomes of commissioning.

Robin Simpson.



Community Arts Qualifications Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 4, 2015, 3:11 pm
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On Thursday I was at the offices of UK Music in London for the first meeting of the new Community Arts Qualifications Advisory Group. This group has been set up by Creative & Cultural Skills for two reasons. Firstly, the Government’s current apprenticeship reform programme requires a fresh look at all existing apprenticeship frameworks, converting them to new ‘Apprenticeship Standards’ by September 2017. CCSkills believes the current Community Arts framework is popular and important to maintain and has established the Advisory Group to shape a new apprenticeship for the future. The Advisory Group will also formally advise on the curriculum development for the new National College for the Creative and Cultural Industries. This is an initiative CCSkills is setting up to deliver high quality, industry-led intensive vocational training at Purfleet in Essex, and through partners nationwide. CCSkills plans to include a community arts strand to the curriculum (working title ‘Audiences and Participation’). The Advisory Group will shape this strand, working with the University of the Arts London Awarding Body. At our first meeting we discussed the need for more apprentices in the arts and the challenges and opportunities for larger arts organisations as a result of the Government’s new apprenticeships levy which comes into force from April 2017.

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015 by Robin Simpson
November 11, 2015, 12:08 pm
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Sir John Major delivering the NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015

Sir John Major delivering the NCVO Hinton Lecture 2015

On Tuesday evening I was at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London to see Sir John Major deliver the annual NCVO Hinton Lecture. The former Prime Minister’s speech, titled ‘A Nation at Ease with Itself?’, focussed on inequality, poverty, fairness and social mobility. Addressing a voluntary sector audience, John Major reminded us that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced Gift Aid and as Prime Minister he launched the National Lottery, 21 years ago. He had observed that it had become increasingly difficult for charities to compete for Treasury funds with pensions, social security, health spending etc. He saw the National Lottery as “money from the public for the public”, “to protect the independence of charities”. To date the Lottery has distributed over £34 billion to good causes and “as intended, most of this money has gone to small local schemes”. But John Major said he worries for the future of the Lottery. It was designed as a national lottery, in effect a monopoly, to maximise returns for the designated good causes but its success has attracted rivals, such as the increasing number of ‘society lotteries’ who pay a far smaller proportion of their income back to worthy causes. John Major also spoke about the importance of small charities, at a time when there is much emphasis on charity mergers. He said small charities “offer small, anonymous acts of kindness, vital to the recipient, that may be overlooked by their larger brethren”. He thought it would be wise to expand the remit and funding of the charity commission. He talked about the poverty of loneliness, saying it is not the responsibility of government to create communities. Rather this is something that has to involve government and charities and faith groups. He said the rise in single person households is a major risk to loneliness and “the community will deal with this issue best”. You can read the full transcript of Sir John Major’s speech at: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/1114-a-nation-at-ease-with-itself.

Robin Simpson.



Culture Guides Conference, Budapest by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2015, 1:48 pm
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On Monday and Tuesday I was in Budapest, Hungary, with Laraine and Daniel for the final conference of our EU Culture Guides project. Culture Guides was a two-year project that started in October 2013 under the Grundtvig strand of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme. Six partners from five countries aimed to investigate the possibility of a European framework to recruit, train and manage volunteers to act as mentors or guides to introduce and help marginalised social groups to participate in local art and culture activities, either as audience members or as active participants. Voluntary Arts ran pilot Culture Guides schemes in four locations – St Helens and Swale & Medway in England, and Torfaen and Wrexham in Wales.

Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture

Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture

The conference was opened by Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture. I chaired the first panel session in which the six partner organisations summarised how the project had worked in each of the participating countries. The conference included a range of group sessions in which we looked at the learning from the Culture Guide pilots and shared our experiences of working with different socially marginalised end-users. There were also practical participatory sessions in which we learned some circus skills and Hungarian folk songs. The Keynote speech was given by Professor Sandor Striker from ELTE, the University of National Excellence in Hungary, who spoke about ‘Art and culture policies for the socially marginalised’. We also had a presentation from Dr Cees van den Bos, from the Netherlands, comparing volunteering in different countries. The conference brought together partner organisations, volunteers, other cultural organisations, civil society and volunteering organisations from across Europe. It was a really enjoyable couple of days and a nice way to bring this excellent project to an end.

For more details please see Daniel’s excellent Culture Guides Handbook at: http://www.cultureguides.eu/outcome-and-results/guidelines-for-the-european-handbook/

Robin Simpson.