Cultural Playing Field


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.

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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.



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.

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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.

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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.”



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.



‘Cultural Hubs – The Arts in Libraries Conference’, St Helens by Robin Simpson
March 20, 2015, 4:25 pm
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On Thursday I was at the magnificent Victorian Town Hall in St Helens for ‘Cultural Hubs – The Arts in Libraries Conference’. Around 100 delegates from across the North West gathered to discuss examples of libraries being used for arts activities. Sue Wilkinson, Head of Library Services for St Helens Council spoke about Cultural Hubs, a 2-year project supported by Arts Council England to increase participation in the arts in libraries in St Helens. I then gave a presentation about Our Cultural Commons and the role that libraries can play in a more collaborative approach to sustaining and developing local cultural infrastructure. I spoke about our Up for Arts projects in Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria, the work Voluntary Arts is doing with Heart of Glass (the St Helens Creative People and Places consortium) and our Culture Guides project in St Helens, led by the indefatigable Gary Conley who was helping to facilitate the conference on Thursday. I quoted William Sieghart’s ‘Independent Library Report for England’ (published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in December 2014: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/388989/Independent_Library_Report-_18_December.pdf) which says “Libraries are, let us not forget, a golden thread throughout our lives. Despite the growth in digital technologies, there is still a clear need and demand within communities for modern, safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free, supported by the help and knowledge of the library workforce” and calls for us to “make the library a vibrant and attractive community hub”.

Later in the day, Jane McElvey from Manchester City Council spoke about the refurbishment of Manchester Central Library and the programme of Library Live events there, supported by Arts Council England. We also heard from Paul Kelly of Lancashire County Council about the strategic approach to the arts within the wider cultural offer of libraries across Lancashire. HOST is a coordinated arts programme across Lancashire County Council cultural venues and its focus is on creating new arts organisations and supporting the arts infrastructure.

It was a really interesting conference and there was both an enthusiastic interest in Our Cultural Commons and a sense that many libraries are already beginning to realise the kind of innovative local cultural collaboration that Our Cultural Commons seeks to promote.

Robin Simpson.