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.


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.


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: and you can get a flavour of the ceremony by watching this video filmed by the England Epic Award winners South Devon Players:

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.



People Place Power – the Creative People and Places conference, Doncaster by Robin Simpson
September 29, 2016, 3:00 pm
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On Tuesday and Wednesday I was at Cast in Doncaster for ‘People Place Power’ – the third Creative People and Places conference. Creative People and Places is the Arts Council England programme to increase engagement in the arts and culture in some of the areas of England that currently fall within the 10% least engaged (as measured by the Active People Survey). ACE has funded 21 consortia including local arts organisations, voluntary and public sector agencies and other partners to develop innovative approaches to increasing engagement. Voluntary Arts is a member of the Peterborough CPP consortium (‘Peterborough Presents’) and is working in partnership with several other CPPs. We have also been contracted by the national network of CPPs to provide and advice and support to help all CPPs work with local voluntary and amateur arts groups.

Opening the conference, CPP National Steering Group Chair, Holly Donagh, reflected on changes in the engagement debate over recent years. She said “we’ve got initiatives like 64 Million Artists and Everyday Creativity, the BBC’s Get Creative campaign, Fun Palaces, the work of Voluntary Arts, Paul Hamlyn’s Artworks programme, just to name a few national initiatives. And in some ways those questions of reach, audience engagement and democracy have become the most interesting questions about the arts and really central to the debate now, where perhaps once they were more marginal.” Holly also suggested that “business as usual is not sufficient for the challenges of the future and ignoring fault lines and inequalities that existed for generations will serve all communities poorly in the long run”.

Giving the opening keynote presentation, ACE Chief Executive Darren Henley talked about the need for a creativity revolution: “a change in how we think about and use our natural everyday creativity and how we need to recognise the importance of making and participating art and culture in all aspects of our lives”. He said: “This means listening to people and working with them to help develop their ideas about what a local culture might mean. While the concept of strong national culture should offer confidence, opportunity and inclusivity to all, a local culture provides the primary sense of belonging and participation the sharing and self belief that all successful communities need and which is crucial in all our lives young and old. And it’s what makes us special as a community and that’s very precious.” Darren Henley spoke about the importance of the democratisation of culture and building sustainable local infrastructure.


The second keynote speaker, on Wednesday morning, was the Guardian journalist Lynsey Hanley who gave a brilliantly entertaining and provocative presentation, drawing on her new book about class and culture, ‘Respectable’. She talked about doing culture the ‘right way’ vs doing it the way you want to, saying “feeling extremely uncomfortable to the point of thinking ‘I just can’t do this’ is not unusual for a socially mobile person”. She asked whether the Internet really widens access to knowledge when acronyms rule and discussed the ‘canalisation of television’, asking “why is there a BBC4?” And she completely won her audience over when, in response to a question from the floor, she suggested we should “find out what people are doing already and invest in that”.

Also on Wednesday morning I chaired a conference breakout session titled ‘What is quality and how do we measure it?’ Kathryn Goodfellow and Juliet Hardy from bait (the South East Northumberland CPP) spoke about the development of the bait quality evaluation framework. Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester discussed the Culture Counts quality measurement tools and learning from the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. And Mark Robinson from Thinking Practice reported on the CPP national evaluation. After these presentations we had a very interesting and engaged conversation about measuring quality and excellence which grappled with how to capture the ‘magic’ element of cultural activities.

Over the past couple of months, the Voluntary Arts Up for Arts team (Helen Randle, Helen Jones and Jennie Dennett) have been interviewing voluntary and amateur arts groups across the country about their experiences of working with CPPs, in order to produce a series of five-minute audio case studies. On Wednesday afternoon Helen Randle and I presented a conference breakout session in which we played some of the recorded interviews to provoke a discussion about the challenges of working with voluntary arts groups. It was great to have some CPP representatives in the room who personally knew some of the interviewees and the recordings proved to be a very effective way to generate a rich conversation – as well as ensuring that some genuine participant voices were heard at the conference. Many thanks to Helen, Helen and Jennie for their work on the case studies.


The final conference session on Wednesday afternoon was a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian Theatre Critic, Lyn Gardner, looking at the relationship between excellence of art and excellence of engagement. The speakers included Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists. My final memory of a really interesting and provocative conference was Lyn Gardner’s comment: “What is Great Art anyway? Maybe it’s just an Arts Council construct.”

2016 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
April 8, 2016, 9:55 am
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Cardiff Castle

On Saturday I was at Cardiff Castle for the 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony. It was a wonderful event – fantastic venue, great weather and amazing winners and runners-up from across the UK and Ireland. In the afternoon I hosted a seminar at St David’s Hall called ‘Creating Epic Places’ which looked at the effects creative cultural activities have on local communities. This provided an opportunity for the representatives of the groups arriving in Cardiff for the evening ceremony to meet each other and find out more about the various Epic projects. Voluntary Arts Board member, Hamish Fyfe – Professor of Arts and Society at the University of South Wales – led a fascinating discussion about the links between creativity and place.


The Banqueting Hall, Cardiff Castle

On Saturday evening we assembled in the splendid banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle. John Furnham from Cardiff Castle gave us a brief history of the building and reminded us that the banqueting hall had been used for the 2014 NATO Summit, pointing out which of us was sitting in the seats that had been occupied by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel et al. The Epic Awards Ceremony was slickly compered by Nicola Heywood Thomas from BBC Radio Wales. We began with a performance by the newly appointed Young People’s Laureate Wales, poet Sophie McKeand. Afterwards Sophie wrote a great piece on her blog about the experience of being involved with the Epic Awards Ceremony, calling it “a brilliant light in this liquid blackness” and noting that “some of the UK’s most dedicated, humble and generous people converged in Cardiff Castle’s banquet hall to receive awards and, importantly, recognition for their work” – see:


Young People’s Laureate Wales, Sophie McKeand

The Epic Awards certificates and specially commissioned Welsh lovespoons were presented to the winning groups by the Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales, Nick Capaldi, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts Wales, Hamish Fyfe. As always, the winners and runners-up were each amazing stories and their representatives were funny, passionate and incredibly inspiring. You can see full details of all the winners and runners-up at:

People’s Choice Award Winners, Strike a Chord – a South Wales choir for stroke survivors – provided the emotional climax of the evening with one elderly member of the choir in floods of tears as I announced their award at the end of the ceremony. Immediately afterwards we drove two of the choir’s representatives through the night to Salford to appear on the BBC Breakfast sofa, live on BBC1, on Sunday morning. The choir’s conductor, Ali Shone, told the nation “Voluntary Arts, who set up the Awards, they’re fantastic: what they do is brilliant”.


Cardiff Castle

Epic Awards 2016 has been a huge success and we are indebted to all the applicants and to Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members across the UK and Ireland. I would particularly like to thank Gareth Coles and Damien McGlynn who were both involved in running Epic Awards for the first time and helped to make this one of the best years yet. The 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony at Cardiff Castle is one of the stand-out moments of my ten years at Voluntary Arts.

Robin Simpson.

Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences by Robin Simpson
July 24, 2014, 10:50 am
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On Monday I was at Sadler’s Wells in London for the Arts Council England event on “Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences”. This event marked the launch of a literature review commissioned by ACE from WolfBrown. Alan Brown and John Carnwath of WolfBrown explained that they had been asked to gather literature from around the world on the intrinsic value of arts and cultural experiences. They looked at what people mean when they talk about value, impact and meaning in relation to the arts and culture. They identified three meanings of ‘value’: the value of cultural experiences to individuals; the value represented in cultural organisations; and the value to society of a thriving cultural sector. The literature review concentrates on the first two meanings. John Carnwath spoke about the intrinsic and instrumental benefits as they are experienced by the individual. He described peaks of impact decreasing (or sometimes increasing) over time – with some cultural experiences resulting in impressions that linger in audiences’ minds weeks later. Alan Brown outlined the ‘creative capacity’ of organisations as six core elements: 1. Clarity of intent and commitment to risk taking; 2. Community relevance; 3. Excellence in curating and a capacity to innovate (new works are not necessarily innovative); 4. Technical proficiency, skill and artistry; 5. Capacity to engage audiences; and 6. Critical feedback and commitment to continuous improvement. These elements are backed up by two conditional elements: supportive networks and sufficient risk capital.

Alan Brown, Principal, WolfBrown, speaking at 'Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

Alan Brown, Principal, WolfBrown, speaking at ‘Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

I was interested to hear Alan Brown say “Many agree that quality is best judged by outside experts. We know from our own research that programmes of what some would consider low artistic quality – for example amateur productions of stage plays – can generate high audience impacts. And, contrariwise, programmes of high artistic quality can leave audiences uninspired or worse.”

Jane Bryant from ArtsWork asked about the relationship between audiences and participation. John Carnwath said there is “a lack of agreement among different studies in terms of the constructs that they are using and the methods they are using to assess impact, [which] makes it very difficult to compare the studies with one another. There are some studies that are more focussed on active participation and others that are more focussed on reception but there is very little that we can say about comparing those at this point.”

Alan Brown added: “when an individual contributes something to the creative work itself, making something or in co-creating or being involved in some way, there is literature to suggest that another level of meaning can be accessed in terms of creating something of your own that is an expression of yourself and the identity development outcomes that are associated with that, up to and including legacy outcomes and creating something that is a legacy, which are unique to participatory involvement. But teasing out the additional impacts of participatory involvement is really tricky and very much a need for additional research.”

You can read the full literature review at:

Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum, speaking at 'Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum, speaking at ‘Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

After the WolfBrown presentation we heard from Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, and Catherine Bunting about the Manchester Quality Metrics pilot. Inspired by an Australian example and developed for Manchester by John Knell, the pilot has been working with a number of arts and cultural organisations to trial before and after surveys – for audience members, arts organisations and peers – using tablet computers. The next phase of development has been funded through the Digital R&D for the arts fund (supported by ACE, NESTA and AHRC) and will comprise a 12-month project to refine the metrics, wider testing, automating the system, exploring how to incentivise public feedback, and carrying out academic research. ACE has published a report on the quality metrics pilot which is available at:

Finally we heard from James Mackenzie-Blackman (from New Adventures and Re:Bourne), Caroline Sharp (from the National Foundation for Educational Research) and Ben Lee (from Shared Intelligence) about quality principles for work by, with and for children and young people. Caroline said they had identified seven principles characterising high quality work. I was intrigued to hear her make a distinction between young audience members, participants and artists. What is the difference between a ‘participant’ and an ‘artist’?

The ACE event was interesting and thought-provoking but I found the lack of attention to active participation, in relation to the value and impact of cultural experiences, frustrating.

Robin Simpson.

2014 Epic Awards Winners’ Reception at Platform Arts in Glasgow by Robin Simpson
February 28, 2014, 11:33 am
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On Wednesday evening I hosted the 2014 Epic Awards Winners’ Reception at Platform Arts in Glasgow. Delegates from the Voluntary Arts Scotland conference were joined by Epic Award winners and runners-up from across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The evening started with a performance of a song from the Commonwealth Games Songbook from local voluntary arts choir, East End Voices. The awards and certificates were then presented by the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop MSP, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts, Peter Stark. The four Epic Award winners each received special Epic Award 2014 trophies made for us by Maklab and GalGael. GalGael is a community-engaged organisation in Glasgow that offers vulnerable people the opportunity to learn practical skills in wood working and GalGael also made the baton for the Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton Relay. I read out personal messages of congratulation to the Epic Award winners from the UK, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Culture Ministers. Details of all the winners and runners-up can be found at The evening finished with the presentation of the Peers’ Award for Excellence 2014, voted for by the shortlisted groups, which went to Foyle Haven Arts Collective in Derry for a creative writing project that gave the homeless and those struggling with addiction a voice in print and on stage as part of Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013. We were then piped out of Platform Arts by Scotland Epic Award runners-up, Lewis Pipe Band. Thanks to all Voluntary Arts staff, Board members, Advisory Group members and Voluntary Arts Ambassadors across the UK and Ireland for their help with the administration, shortlisting and judging of Epic Awards 2014. A particular thank you to Jemma Neville, Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland, who managed the Epic Awards scheme this year. Thanks also to everyone who sponsored Epic Awards and donated prizes – we really value your support. And thanks to Fiona Campbell for her calligraphy on the beautiful Epic Award certificates. The Epic Awards Winners’ Reception was part-funded by the Big Lottery Fund and Spirit of 2012 Trust ‘Keeping the Spirit of 2012 Alive’ programme. It was a moving and inspirational evening celebrating the extraordinary achievements of local volunteer-led arts groups. 

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group LIVE – Nick Livingston at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland by Robin Simpson
March 8, 2013, 4:22 pm
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On Friday I was in Belfast to interview Nick Livingston, Director of Strategic Development, at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for Running Your Group LIVE. ‘Ambitions for the Arts’ – the new five-year strategy for the arts in Northern Ireland – is currently out to public consultation and we took this opportunity to ask Nick about the Arts Council’s position in relation to the voluntary arts sector. The draft strategy refers to the Arts Council’s mission to place the Arts at the heart of social, economic and creative life. It goes on to talk about engaging people and deepening their involvement in the arts. I asked Nick about the role practical participation in the arts has to play in helping the Arts Council deliver its mission. The strategy also talks about promoting access and diversity through a wide range of target groups. Volunteering and voluntary activities are a key component of the strategy. I asked Nick what the Arts Council sees as the benefits of volunteering in the arts and what risks volunteering creates. You can watch the full interview at:

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group Weekly, 18 February 2013 by Robin Simpson
February 21, 2013, 3:18 pm
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On Monday I hosted Running Your Group Weekly which featured two Epic Award winners – Liz Stone from the Welsh Basket Makers South Wales Group who joined Daniel in our Cardiff office and Sarah MacLean from Barra Bunting who spoke to us live from Barra. It was great to hear more about the stories of these amazing projects and to learn how Liz and Sarah first got involved in their craft activities. Both were also able to show us some examples of the willow weaving and bunting created by their award-winning projects. You can watch our discussions at and please join us there next Monday at 5 pm for another Running Your Group Weekly video webcast.

Robin Simpson.

Luminate Festival Strategy Group meeting by Robin Simpson
February 15, 2013, 11:32 am
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On Tuesday I was in Edinburgh for a meeting of the Luminate Festival Strategy Group at Creative Scotland. The second Luminate Festival (Scotland’s creative ageing festival) will take place in October 2013. On Tuesday we looked at the evaluation of the inaugural festival undertaken by BOP Consulting, considered recommendations on the future governance structure for the festival from Arts & Business Scotland, and discussed the latest plans for the 2013 festival. See:

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group Weekly, 11 February 2013 by Robin Simpson
February 15, 2013, 11:01 am
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On Monday I hosted Running Your Group Weekly. Kevin and I were joined by Irene Heathcote from Quilts 4 London – the winners of the 2013 England Epic Award. Irene told us how a simple idea to make gifts for the athletes at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games developed into a massive project that involved thousands of people across the UK (and Australia!) with Irene’s postman making four deliveries a day as the pennants rolled in. You can watch our conversation with Irene at and please join us there next Monday at 5 pm for another Running Your Group Weekly video webcast.

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group Weekly, 4 February 2013 by Robin Simpson
February 7, 2013, 1:42 pm
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On Monday I hosted Running Your Group Weekly. Daniel, Kevin and I were joined by Niall Bogue from Project St Patrick in Fermanagh – the winners of the 2013 Ireland Epic Award and the Peer Award for Excellence. Niall told us about the casual conversation over a few drinks which led to the development of a new kind of St Patrick’s Day Parade involving 500 participants and an audience of 14,000 people. He explained how this massive undertaking is still managed by a committee of nine volunteers and described their eclectic approach to making the St Patrick’s Day celebrations a truly cross-community event. You can watch our conversation with Niall at and please join us there next Monday at 5 pm for another Running Your Group Weekly video webcast.

Robin Simpson.